The baggy yellow shirt
How an old smock became a symbol of love between a mother and daughter
Published: November 26, 2010
|The baggy yellow shirt had long sleeves, four extra-large pockets trimmed in black thread, and snaps up the front. Not terribly attractive, but utilitarian without a doubt. I found it in December 1963 during my freshman year in college when I was back home in Illinois on Christmas break.|
Part of the fun of every vacation at home was the chance to go through Mom’s hoard of rummage, destined for the less fortunate. She regularly scoured the house for clothes, bedding and housewares to give away, storing them in brown paper bags on the floor of the front hall closet.
Looking through Mom’s collection one day, I came across an oversized yellow shirt, slightly faded from years of wear but still in decent shape. “Just the thing to wear over my clothes during art class,” I said to myself.
“You’re not taking that old thing, are you?” Mom asked when she saw me packing it. “I wore that when I was pregnant with your brother in 1954!”
“It’s perfect for art class, Mom. Thanks.” I slipped it into my suitcase before she could object.
The baggy yellow shirt became a part of my college wardrobe. I loved it. All during college, it stayed with me, always comfortable to throw on over my clothes during messy projects. The underarm seams had to be reinforced before I graduated, but there was plenty of wear left in that old shirt.
After graduation I moved to Denver and wore the shirt the day I moved into my new apartment. Then I wore it on Saturday mornings when I cleaned. Those four large pockets on the front—two breast pockets and two at hip level—made a super place to carry dust cloths, wax and spray cleaner.
The next year, I married. When I became pregnant, I found the yellow shirt tucked in a drawer and wore it during those big-belly days. Though I missed sharing my first pregnancy with Mom and Dad and the rest of my family, since we were in Colorado and they were in Illinois, that shirt helped remind me of their warmth and protection. I smiled and hugged the shirt when I remembered that Mother had worn it when she was pregnant.
By 1969 when my daughter was born, that shirt was at least 15 years old. That Christmas, I patched one elbow, washed and pressed the shirt, wrapped it in holiday paper and sent it to Mom. Smiling, I tucked a note in one of the pockets saying: “I hope this fits. I’m sure it will look great on you!” When Mom wrote to thank me for her “real” gifts, she said the yellow shirt was lovely. Neither Mother nor I ever mentioned it again.
The next year, my husband, daughter and I moved from Denver to St. Louis. We stopped at Mom and Dad’s house in Rock Falls, Ill., to pick up some furniture they were giving us. Days later, when we uncrated the old kitchen table that had belonged to my grandmother, I noticed something yellow taped to its bottom. The baggy yellow shirt! And so the pattern was set.
On our next visit home, I secretly placed the shirt between the mattress and box springs of Mom and Dad’s bed. I don’t know how long it took her to find it, but almost two years passed before I got it back.
By then our family had grown—another daughter, then a year later a son. This time Mom got even with me. She put the yellow shirt under the base of our living-room lamp, knowing that as a mother of three little ones, housecleaning and moving floor lamps would not be everyday events for me.
When I finally found the shirt, I wore it often while refinishing “early marriage” furniture that I found at rummage sales. The walnut stains on the shirt simply added more character to its history.
Unfortunately, our lives were full of stains, too. My marriage had been failing almost from the beginning. After a number of attempts at marriage counseling, my husband and I divorced in 1975. The three children and I prepared to move back to Illinois to be closer to the emotional support of family and friends.
As I packed, a deep depression overtook me. I wondered if I could make it on my own with three small children to raise. I wondered if I would find a job. One night I paged through my Bible looking for comfort. In Ephesians, I read, “So use every piece of God’s armor to resist the enemy whenever he attacks, and when it is all over, you will be standing up.”
I tried to picture myself wearing God’s armor, but all I saw was me wearing the stained yellow shirt. Of course! Wasn’t my mother’s love a piece of God’s armor? I smiled and remembered the fun and warm feeling the yellow shirt had brought into my life over the years. My courage was renewed, and somehow the future didn’t seem so alarming.
Unpacking in our new home and feeling much better, I knew I had to get the shirt back to Mother. The next time I visited her, I snuck into her bedroom and carefully tucked the shirt in her bottom dresser drawer where she kept her winter sweaters, knowing that sweater weather was months away.
Meanwhile my life moved splendidly. I found a good job at a radio station and the children thrived in their new environment.
A year later during a window-washing spurt, I found the crumpled yellow shirt hidden in a ragbag in my cleaning closet. Something new had been added, however. Emblazoned across the top of the breast pocket were the bright green, newly embroidered words, “I belong to Pat.” Not to be outdone, I got out my own embroidery materials and added an apostrophe and seven more letters. Now the shirt proudly proclaimed, “I belong to Pat’s mother.”
Once again, I zigzagged all the frayed seams. Then I enlisted the aid of a dear friend, Harold, to help me get it back to Mom. He arranged to have a friend mail the shirt to Mom from Arlington, Va. We enclosed a letter announcing that she was the recipient of an award for her good deeds. The award letter, on official-looking stationery printed at the high school where Harold was assistant principal, came from “The Institute for the Destitute.”
This was my finest hour. I would have given anything to see Mom’s face when she opened the “award” box and saw the shirt inside. But, of course, she never mentioned it.
On Easter Sunday the following year, Mother managed the coup de grâce. She walked into my home with regal poise, wearing that old shirt over her Easter outfit, as if it were an integral part of her wardrobe.
I’m sure my mouth hung open, but I said nothing. During the Easter meal, a giant laugh choked my throat. But I was determined not to break the unbroken spell the shirt had woven into our lives. I was sure that Mom would take off the shirt and try to hide in it in my home, but when she and Dad left, she walked out the door wearing “I belong to Pat’s mother” like a coat of arms.
A year later, in June 1978, Harold and I were married. The day of our wedding, Harold hid his car in a friend’s garage to avoid the usual practical jokers who might want to decorate it. After the wedding, late that night while my husband drove us to our honeymoon suite in Wisconsin, I reached for a pillow in the backseat so I could rest my head. The pillow felt lumpy. I unzipped the case and discovered a gift, wrapped in wedding paper.
I thought it might be a surprise gift from Harold, a sexy nightie, perhaps. But he looked as stunned as I. Inside the box was the freshly pressed baggy yellow shirt.
Mother knew I’d need the shirt as a reminder that a sense of humor, spiced with love, is one of the most important ingredients in a happy marriage. In a pocket was a note: “Read John 14: 27-29. I love you both, Mother.”
That night I paged through a Bible I found in the hotel room and found the verses: “I am leaving you with a gift: peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give isn’t fragile like the peace the world gives. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really love me, you will be very happy for me, for now I can go to the Father, who is greater than I am. I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do, you will believe in me.”
The yellow shirt was Mother’s final gift.
She had known for three months before my wedding that she had a terminal disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Mother died 13 months later, at age 57. I must admit that I was tempted to send the baggy yellow shirt with her to her grave. But I’m glad I didn’t, because it is a vivid reminder of the love-filled game she and I played for more than 16 years.
Besides, my oldest daughter, Jeanne, is in college now, majoring in art … and every student needs a baggy yellow shirt with big pockets to wear to art class.
Patricia Lorenz is the author of 13 books, including The 5 Things We Need to Be Happy. She is an inspirational, art-of-living writer and speaker with more than 50 stories in the Chicken Soup for the Soul books.||