12/22/2014 05:54 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

A Box of Joy

Spontaneous delight, a startling surprise every time. The sensation is warm, complex, and perhaps one that only a seasoned parent could experience. From this view, it's better than a loaded tree on Christmas morning.

It occurs in the most menial of circumstances. I'm digging around in the attic looking for hand-me-downs. I'm searching for simple items -- usually a pair of jeans or a jacket last worn about six years ago by my older son -- only to discover a box of pure nostalgia. First, it's excitement rooted in self-satisfaction at my organizational skills: I've found the very box I'm looking for, at the very time I need it! Who would have thought I could hold on to something useful for six years and be able to locate it at its precise time of potential use? Yet as I pull out item after item of clothing that will exactly fit my youngest son, the feeling becomes nearly transcendent. By the time I emerge from the attic, elated and eager to fill the drawers with recycled treasures, I'm a bundle of gratitude and hope. I know it's passé, but it's time to admit it: I'm a sucker for hand-me-downs.

The hand-me-down gets a bad rap, I think. Most of us picture sweaters with threadbare elbows, pants with holes in the knees, scuffed shoes. The bearer of the hand-me-down is a penny-pinching mother desperate for something to cover the arms, legs and feet of her many children; she goads them into wearing ill-fitting, out of date items that will embarrass them at school. The wearer of the hand-me-down is resentful of his lot as younger sibling and jealous of older brother who wears only new clothes; the recipient will likely need therapy down the road.

But I believe we should reconsider the holy hand-me-down, not only for its practical application but for the gratification it brings the provider. When I went searching for a turtleneck this season for my youngest to wear on a cold morning, I discovered the Christmas sweaters, hats, mittens and corduroys worn so many years ago by a little boy in first grade. I found a reindeer t-shirt he had worn to his Christmas party that year and the vest he wore when he sat on Santa's lap. That boy is nearly 13 now; he no longer believes in Santa, and he's more excited about apps and gift cards than elves and candy canes. Yet as I sit there in the attic, there's a piece of that boy in my hand. I pass down the shirt, knowing that next week's first-grade Christmas party will be just as important to me as it is to my youngest son.

On the side, there's the internal bravado: what a smart mom I am! I purchased clothing that not only lasted through two other boys, but it's still in style and looks almost new. I've achieved the divine trinity of momhood: I'm saving time, hassle, and money. We all rationalize such theories when we overspend on clothing for our first children, but when the best intentions actually come to pass, I nearly wrench my arm patting myself on the back.

In other boxes, for other seasons, I've discovered clothing featured in classic family photographs: a suit worn on Easter morning, a t-shirt purchased on a family vacation, bathing suits worn in surfing pictures at the beach. I come across gifts of clothing from my mother, who passed away last year. Stumbling upon a box of hand-me-downs is like discovering a photo album, yet its value exceeds the visual form because it's tangible. Sorting through the piles brings the realization that we get to do it all over again -- wear the clothes, have the fun, make the memories.

Of course, one woman's magical wardrobe is mere drudgery to others. My husband shares in my excitement only because it means a few less trips to the mall; the boys absentmindedly put on anything provided for them and roll their eyes at sentimental stories of their clothing's former life. In fact, bringing attention to the handed down items is a good way to assure they're relegated to the back of the drawer. I'm aware, too, of the brief shelf-life of the hand-me-down period -- once the boys hit 9 or 10, they'll develop their own styles and find more refined ways of avoiding my offerings.

So I have only a few years left to rendezvous with the attic. I put away the older boys' clothing more carefully now, visualizing the day when the 7-year-old will wear a high school jersey. He'll probably refuse his brother's threads when the time comes, but still. I'd like to hold on to them.