T-shirts I Have Kept for Sentimental Reasons

by Catherine Temma Davidson

I arrived in the UK at the age of 28 with one suitcase, a box, and a postal sack full of books following me on a slow boat. In California, I had lived long enough to accumulate the weight of things. Even though I was an impoverished graduate student, I shared a rented house, had a car, furniture, a few paintings and shelves of books. Before I left, I gave away or sold most of what I owned, and it was liberating.

Since then, I have somehow managed to accumulate a whole houseful of objects and furniture again. Even though I loathe shopping, someone bought the truckloads of stuff, and it was probably me. Yet I would like to think that I could walk away from it all again, happily. My goal is to start shedding things — now, so that when I die (someday in the far future, knock on wood) I won’t leave a lot behind for other people to clear up. I have always been attracted to the idea of Sanyassi, the final stage of a life when you let go of status, objects, even identity and go out into the world with a begging bowl to seek enlightenment before it is too late.

Meanwhile, I feel guilty about the weight and waste of things. Sometimes I stand in my street and look at all of the houses filled up with stuff and imagine future generations — if there are any — shaking their heads at how we let our getting and spending grow to such monstrous proportions. I try to be ruthless about getting rid of things, and unsentimental. If it is not useful or beautiful it is only clutter, and without shovelling the house would fill up, like water seeping through sand. Don’t get the wrong idea; my house is cluttered. I am a failure at my task, but I keep trying.

Recently, though, I have been thinking about objects differently. I am reading M Train by Patti Smith. This was a book Diane McDaniel gave me; it arrived through my letterbox and I fell in love with it — as a physical object: its smooth cover and artful illustrations, and with the voice in the essays. Her meditations on love and loss fit this phase in life: children growing, a dear friend in peril, my father dying.

One thing I have noticed in the book is Smith’s active engagement with the objects in her life. They speak to her — poetically but sometimes literally — about ideas, people, aspects of self.

Her book has made me feel less bad about the way through all my moves, some things I have never managed to let go, even though they are no longer useful or beautiful. Five of them are t-shirts I know I will never wear again.

An Outermost Kites T-shirt from 1978

I wore this t-shirt in the 1970’s, when I was a teenager. My mother had a kite store in Provincetown, Massachusetts. We lived in LA. Every summer we would drive across the country to run the shop. From June to September we sold “Exotic Kites from Around the World” and when we weren’t doing that, we were feral and free. My siblings and I agree: while much of our life in LA has faded from view, each of those summers in Provincetown remains etched on our memories, like the best, lost novel you wish you could read again: full of drama, scenery, characters. I gave this t-shirt to my daughter, who at 12, is taller than me. She’s grown out of it, and it’s back in my closet.

Ptown’s own Beanie the Singing Dog Thermal

This thermal shirt comes from the same era. They were made by a man whose name I have forgotten, but his dog, Beanie, I’ll never forget. Beanie, who is immortalized on this shirt, could sing. He was known in town as Beanie the Singing Dog. I can still hear the blues recording I used to own with his howl on it. Beanie is long gone, as are his song, as is the town. There is still a place called Provincetown, wonderful it in its own way with its well-heeled, propertied gay members of the Town Council, but Ptown, home of Beanie, Outermost Kites, cheap rent and bohemian drifters of all persuasions, has been transformed, as all things are in time. I still have the t-shirt.

Hand-painted shirt from my sister’s time in Baja California

This is a shirt my sister made for me. We were both in our early 20’s. I had a post-college editorial drudge job I hated. She was working as a tutor for hippy silversmiths who travelled in their VW bus every year from Marin County to the bottom of Baja California. My sister lived in a tent in a beautiful desert by a bright blue sea, and taught their 11 year old daughter maths and English. There was a lot of time left over for adventures, and she had them. One weekend, she winkled me out of my office in LA. I flew in over the grey outlines of swimming whales; I drank in beauty with an almost hallucinatory thirst. I cried in her arms, laughed till I was sick and decided to change my life.

This t-shirt’s shoulders were cut in late-80’s style. I wore it almost to rags but never will again. Every time I lift it out of its place to throw it away, I can’t.

T-shirt bought in Berkeley, California in 1989

This is a shirt bought at a feminist book store in Berkeley, CA the summer before I went to graduate school to study creative writing. I had given up on professionalism and was working two minimum wage jobs, living in an old Victorian house full of artists and artisans. One of my jobs was cleaning houses. I would organize other people’s accumulations with wonder at how far away their settled lives seemed. Soon I would embark on the phase in life that gave me my grown-up self: husband, children, true friends, vocation.

I still wear this t-shirt sometimes to go running; the hair fits, and so does the name I hoped to grow into. I am still hoping.

Vintage t-shirt, gift from my uncle Jim Pappas

This t-shirt was given to me by my uncle, Jim Pappas, an actor in New York. When I lived in New York straight out of college I was bewildered about many things. It was the 80’s and I was working twenty floors up in an office, reading poetry under the desk and getting a lot wrong. On weekends, Jim would take me on long walks through the city streets. I don’t remember what we talked about but I remember the quality of the talk, calm, meditative, full of the humour and wisdom of experience.

Jim got as close as anyone I know to Sanyassi. He lived in a studio on the Upper West Side. At the end of his life, he became a bookseller. Gradually, he replaced all the furniture in his apartment with books. He slept on a platform above a sea of words; apart from the boxes that served as sofa and table, he had a small stove for cooking Indian-spiced beans, and the radio.

When he died, the hardest part was giving away the books.

In the middle of his life, Jim was a handsome, dashing actor with many lady friends. At the end, he was like a beautiful, witty Upper Westside Sanyassi — someone who walked through New York with no malice in his heart and the world in his head. He had a saying: never buy anything advertised, and he got most of his clothes at the Army Navy or second-hand, which is surely where he got this shirt. Jim gave me many gifts, visible and invisible. The t-shirt is too big for me, but it would have fit Jim.

My T-shirts are like the ghosts of former selves, their worn cotton still holding the shape of a body. I have let go of so many things — people, places, a whole country. But I am far from mastering the art of losing.

I remember hearing a radio program about different views on mortality. A man explained the Hindu belief in the four stages of life: Student, Householder, Teacher, Sanyassi. We accumulate selves, share and then release them as we seek our relationship with the divine. I worked so hard to get to through the first two phases; I kept the t-shirts. Now I am able to see how the next phase will play out, how letting go will be invitable. But that is okay. In the end, all we have left is our stories. Now that I have shared these, maybe I can finally release my t-shirts back into the wild.

I wonder if other readers/writers have things that speak to them. I would like to hear what they are. If you like this piece, please share, recommend or comment. You can see other essays I have written here.

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