Earlier this year, I went on a major cleaning jag, inspired by the old William Morris quote about having nothing in your house you don’t believe to be useful or beautiful. A notice posted on a telephone pole said spring cleaning swap at the Greenpoint Public Library. So I packed up a shopping cart’s worth of old dishes and hauled them down Norman Avenue one Saturday afternoon in April. My plan was to get rid of things, not acquire them. But a small giraffe tee shirt with a big pink heart called to me (I feel sure its previous owner was a local Polish teenager.) Suddenly, it was mine for the meager price of half my dishware.
The tee shirt seemed just right for my standard ballet and aerobicize attire. (I’m inclined to wear leg warmers and tee shirts tucked into leggings, thanks to the influence of Olivia Newton-John during my formative years.) I’ve never really been a dancer but enjoy dressing like one in my downtime, and doing calisthenics at home, like a 1950s housewife. It may, in part, be the trauma of getting pulled from Miss Olia’s Dance School when I was a little girl, just before the big recital. I suspect we no longer had the money for classes, though my mother sometimes alluded to my clumsiness and difficulty following instructions.
No one’s ever complimented me on this tee shirt—is its magic lost on them? Sometimes, I look for old cartoons to watch with my four-year-old son and come across the Shirt Tales—a favorite of mine from the ‘80s about crime-fighting animals whose feelings blinked across their tee shirts. My mother was an emergency room nurse when we were growing up and wasn’t much of a housekeeper. In truth, our house was pretty much always a disaster. But once in a while, I’d come home to a spic-and-span room, with a brand new outfit laid out on my bed. I most remember a pair of lavender shorts I got one summer and a tee shirt with Pammy the Panda – a character from Shirt Tales – printed on it.
I have no belongings from those years because my mother cared little for possessions, and often threw things away without consulting anyone. By the time I was in college, she sometimes packed up and moved house without telling us. As it happens, I have an aversion to clutter and prefer to keep only the things most beautiful or meaningful to me (like a vintage faux fur-collared suede coat I got in Rome or my early 1900s wedding dress salvaged from a garbage heap.) My brother—who’s autistic and lived with my mother for forty years—is far neater, with even more monk-like tendencies. He hardly keeps anything but treats what he does own with utmost respect.
Only in recent years have I come to understand the depths of my mother’s mental illness. She is 66-years-old now, with advanced dementia. She barely knows who I am on most days, but speaks with great love and kindness to almost everyone, whether she knows them or not. I was surprised to see her on one occasion, wearing a 1940s pantsuit fit for Lauren Bacall. “Where did you get that?” I asked. “People just give me things,” she shrugged. It touches me to think of her—about my age—coming home from the late shift, laying out that Shirt Tales tee shirt for her daughter, not unlike my prize from the Brooklyn library swap.
Rachel Safko is a writer, tea specialist and vintage clothes hound based in Brooklyn