Yesterday, I decided that it was time to retire one of my “beach shirts,” a short-sleeved, vertical striped button-down casual one. I’ve had this shirt for at least 23 years; once it was a full-duty casual shirt, but eventually its main role became that of a reliable beach companion. In fact, I’ve taken it to the beach every time I go for over 20 years. I wore it at the beach just a month ago this past August.
It’s not really appropriate for social wear anymore. The collar frayed open a long, long time ago, and strings are continually popping out there and there all around the collar. Even so, the looks don’t bother me, and the frayed collar never rubs my neck or causes any discomfort, so it had remained quite suitable for “I don’t care what you think about how I look” wear on many occasions. What pushed the shirt into retirement territory was my discovering a couple of rips in the back of the shirt itself. Maybe it’s an arbitrary line, but for me when the body of a shirt develops sizable rips, that’s means it’s become a rag.
At least that was my first impulse. But I got a few interesting suggestions after I posted a picture of the shirt on Facebook. One suggestion was to duct tape it back together. I appreciate the sentiment behind that suggestion, but I don’t need to hold onto the shirt that much. It wouldn’t feel the same (either physically and emotionally) with duct tape on it, and it would need a lot of duct tape, especially after I ripped one of the tears all the way down to the bottom of the shirt. I have other old beach shirts, and I’ve had this one such a long time that I am ready to let its beach shirt days to be over.
Another suggestion was to turn it into napkins. An intriguing idea… sounds like a lot of work though… but I decided at least to look it up on Google. It turns out that everyone from the Happy Housewife to greenworlders to Martha Stewart has instructions for how to do this (the search on the words ‘how to turn an old shirt into a napkin’ produced over 1.13 million results). However, it takes a sewing machine, which I don’t have. Still, I’ll keep the shirt at the top of the rag pile and try to remember not to use it as a rag, in case I get the ambition to borrow a machine and undertake a sewing project after all.
A third suggestion was that there was a short story in that shirt. This suggestion is the easiest for me to do, so here goes.
I’ll start with a small confession of sorts: a particular story about this shirt did not come to mind. This is not the case with some of the other beach shirts I own. There’s the one with horizontal orange and white stripes which I’ve also had forever (i.e., ~25 years or so) that has a small rip in it which I made not long after I got the shirt; it also has a couple of grease stains on it from my bicycle chain; the stains have faded but are still visible decades later. There was a time when I considered it to be a relatively nice shirt, and I remember being mad at the time for being careless because the shirt was relatively new then but already had a rip and stains on it. Now, those are merely marks of character.
Then there are the two button-down shirts of similar vintage — one blue, one sea green — which I got at a thrift store in Pennsylvania for $4 each. I actually bought four of them at the time; one was peach-colored, the other one I don’t remember now, but those are gone. I remember being proud of having gotten such a bargain then; talk about being a bargain now (at about 15 cents per shirt per year)!
I couldn’t think of a similar story behind this striped shirt, so I cheated a little bit; I got out some old photo albums to see if I had any pictures of me wearing the shirt in the past. Sure enough, second album, first page I opened, I found a this picture of me holding my son Chris as a baby — not sure where, but it’s from September ’94. (Note how the collar was still in fine shape then.)
Finding this pic so quickly fooled me into thinking that I would easily find other pictures me with wearing this shirt, but that was not the case. Looking through albums and boxes of pictures, I encountered lots of other shirts along the way, some forgotten but now fondly remembered for a moment. There were also pictures of me wearing other shirts I still have, including the blue and sea green and peach $4 shirts at the beach and elsewhere. Surprisingly, I discovered pictures that showed I was wearing the orange and white striped shirt on the day Chris was born. (Well, it was mighty hot that day, but still: nice enough at the time for ‘expectant father at hospital’ wear, apparently…)
Eventually, I came to realize that it didn’t matter. I could make up my own stories about my shirt, even if they weren’t specific or even accurate. Walks along the ocean strolling past crowds of beachgoers or in solitude. Casual meals at outdoor cafes in the city on mild summer evenings. The mild but welcome surge of excitement as the act of packing this shirt in a suitcase signified the onset of another vacation. This shirt and I have been through a lot, good times and bad times, and it’s not too much to say that we’ve become friends of a sort after all these years. Clothes like these make it easy to tell stories about them and to understand how we form attachments to our things. Even so, it’s a friend of a different sort — one I can, if a bit reluctantly and sadly, throw away. Or perhaps repurpose — because maybe this is one of those things that deserves a better fate…