I have a shirt.
No, wait, that’s rather vague. I have lots of shirts. When I say, “I have a shirt,” though, I am talking about one in particular. My traveling shirt.
This shirt is brown, a kind of dark mottled brown. It has a bit of a boatneck, but not overly wide, and almost no collar. It’s long-sleeved, and fits me just the way I like: slightly loose, unconfining but ever-so-flattering. Its hem hits just around my hips, the way I like, no riding up to show my belly button when I’m putting luggage overhead. The not-so-wide boatneck is also the way I like: covering my lower neck against in-flight chill but not pressing against my throat.
Recently I noticed little holes, made either by mouse or moth, down near the hem, ruining ever so slightly the nice modest feeling I get by having my tummy covered. I saw those holes and sat down with my shirt in hand, suddenly saddened by the passage of time and envisioning the loss of this, my favorite traveling shirt, the way I imagine beautiful women might view the sight of crow’s feet or gray hairs. Of those I have plenty, and couldn’t care less, but my shirt is a testament to something more.
I couldn’t say when this brown piece of fabric became my traveling shirt. There’s a lot about it I couldn’t tell you: what size it is, what brand it is, where it came from. I believe my mother picked it up 20 years ago in a consignment shop for about two dollars, but can’t be certain. During some random closet purge a couple years later, I adopted the shirt. I don’t even think it’s cotton – it dries too unwrinkled, for one thing – which makes it fairly unique among clothes that I choose freely.
It was always comfortable, one of those shirts I dug through the wash for because I didn’t feel like wearing anything else. It was several years before I noticed that I chose this shirt, almost without thinking, before every single flight. While on the road I fretted before overnight train trips or that extra domestic flight or 15-hour bus ride, wishing my shirt were clean and un-smelly enough to wear.
I think it started to turn into a comfort blanket. Inside this shirt, wherever I am, I am at home in myself. At ease with the world.
We’ve been to Turkey together, and Russia. To Australia and France, Singapore and Scotland, Canada and Kuala Lumpur. I would board a plane, all luggage and bags just where I wanted them to be, a notebook, pen, and reading material in my small carry-on backpack. Myself loaded, as always, with eager curiosity. In my shirt, I could revel in the coming travels, enjoy the airline food, write notebook pages full of wonder and observation. Tired and sticky as we landed, I still felt, with my shirt on my back, not only prepared but joyful.
Usually when essays are written as odes to clothes, or pens, or pets, they are eulogies. Usually one of these items is lost or even deceased and the writer reminisces on what it meant to them.
This isn’t one of those … yet. My shirt is still around. I just pulled it out of the laundry basket yesterday, hung it up, marveling at how it comes out unwrinkled and soft and strong every time. And then I noticed the little holes.
They could have been made by the washing machine. But a number of my other shirts, those mostly new, have holes in the same place. There is some creature in our house stealing little nibbles of my clothes, both those uncared for and those well loved. Tiny little bits of my favorite shirt never made it to that last plane ride.
Sitting on my bed, holding the sturdy softness of this loyal brown shirt, I realized it’s been almost 15 years now since I began donning the humble fabric for every single flight, laying it grudgingly aside only when I was very pregnant and it wouldn’t cover my belly anymore.
All things pass, as we all know. When we started life together, my shirt and I, I was a stubborn, feisty teenager eager to discover the world, willing to throw myself headlong into almost any experience. I was going off to college, and from there to who knows where, taking with me the sense of wanderlust engendered by my love for the Montana wilderness and my odd childhood as daughter of a Soviet ex-pat, and woken through my family’s few months living in the Soviet Union.
Now I’m married, with a toddler, tied to house and cats and garden, just as stubborn, just as eager, but saddled now with more responsibilities. The shirt has seen it all.
I’ve met and discarded studies and lovers, but the shirt I’ve never considered giving up, nor have I put it aside in favor of something else when preparing to board a flight. I view its damage as akin to that of an aging relative, some loved and relied-upon travel partner. I don’t want our relationship to die; I want to take my shirt more places, to Patagonia and North Africa, to Jordan and Syria and Kenya and Iceland, to Antarctica and the Gobi Desert.
Please, I whisper to it, hang around a little longer.
The mottled brown of anonymous fabric, whose sleeves end barely past the wrist, just the way I like, has become part of my memory, the fabric of my own life. Aging and broken, it is one of the few strands weaving together my adventurous youth, my even-keeled present, and, I hope, a future full of both.
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