The Potential of a Box of Castoffs

Y children try on other lives as easily as some people try on clothes. In fact, my children try on other lives by trying on clothes. A dress-up box is an item that no home should be without - especially a home that harbors preschoolers. What other toy can offer so much for the imagination? What other toy can fling wide the door to faraway worlds and endless possibilities?

The best part is that it requires so little in the way of materials. Take my husband's old swim trunks, for instance. He donated a couple of pairs to the cause recently, and our boys quickly transformed them into deep-sea diving masks. The boys appeared in the kitchen one afternoon wearing them on their heads: Their little faces peered out at me through the legholes as they gleefully explained their anticipated adventure - searching for sunken treasure under the dining-room table.

Coming as I do from a long line of pack rats (my mother elevated this proclivity to virtue by calling it thrift), our dress-up box is both generous and eclectic in its contents. A number of the items are holdovers from my childhood, carefully hoarded for the day when I'd have children of my own.

There's the leather satchel in which I carried my schoolbooks the year we lived in England. And the piece of pale-blue silk my great-aunt brought back for me from a trip to India - a drift of gossamer fabric whose intricate peacock design is elaborately worked in gold thread.

Some of the things in the box that date from my own childhood are themselves relics of bygone days, flotsam and jetsam of my family's past. There's the black velvet evening bag with the elaborate clasp. It belonged to another great-aunt, and it's an item I still pilfer now and then when I play dress-up myself, trading in my no-nonsense everyday clothes for fancier party wear.

For a child, objects such as these are as tantalizing as a blank page. With boundless creativity and nothing to limit us but the supper bell, my sisters and I were capable of spinning entire worlds from the contents of our dress-up box. Rainy Saturday afternoons were swallowed whole as we donned family castoffs and were vicariously transported into other places, other lives.

My oldest son's current favorite "transporter" is the peacock-printed silk from India. The cloth has proved impressively versatile over the past few years. At age 3, he hankered to be a princess, and simply pinning it to the shoulders of his pajamas did the trick. Now at age 5, the same piece of fabric is tied rakishly around his waist to create the pirate look. In addition, it has also served as a tent, a tail, and a magic carpet.

For me, it was a particular pair of elbow-length ivory kid gloves that did the trick. They belonged to my great-grandmother, a gentle and gracious woman of 19th-century sensibilities whose passions in life were Chopin and poetry.

She wore the gloves just 20 years after the end of the Civil War, when she attended a boarding school in Indianapolis for young ladies of genteel upbringing. Only slightly yellowed with age, the gloves (which, amazingly, survived both my childhood and my family's many moves) are still butter-soft, supple, and unequaled in their ability to bestow a sense of refinement on the wearer.

When I was a child, slipping them on was like slipping into my great-grandmother's life. When I wore them, it was easy to imagine a time of soirees and musical evenings, of lingering Sunday afternoon calls, of lemonade and wide front porches and gentlemen callers.

The gloves are too small for me now, but perhaps I no longer need them. The transition from playing in the dress-up box to being a writer is a logical one, after all. I'm still trying on other lives, other voices. The only difference between me and my children is that I no longer require the props.

At their age, however, props are the name of the game. And just as I did years ago, my sons tend to gravitate toward the older items. The allure? Who knows for certain. Perhaps, like a faded diary whose words breathe a sense of immediacy into long-forgotten days, these hand-me-downs are beacons of a life that's almost unimaginable in our hurry-up-catch-up world - tangible reminders of a time before television, before microwaves and Nintendo and instant everything.

Will my sons look at these things and dream, as I did, and sometimes still do, of people long ago? Will they try to imagine those distant lives, once as full as our own with hopes for the future? Will they hold the slender kid gloves with the rows of tiny pearl buttons and wonder about the elegant woman who wore them?

It's ironic, but ultimately fitting, that these objects are both the threads that tie my children and me gently but firmly to the past, that give us roots as a family, and the means by which the imagination takes wing. Through this odd assortment of articles, be it hatpin, glove, scarf, or buttonhook, previous generations continue to cast long shadows down across the years.

Our flights of make-believe are a result of their reality; our reality is a product of their dreams. Meanwhile, the kid gloves should be good for another childhood or two. Right now they're perfect for a pint-sized Captain Hook to wear while engaged in fierce combat with Peter Pan.

Somehow, I think my great-grandmother would approve.

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