White Shirt: An autobiography

I’d like to tell you that I was woven from the finest, softest strands of pure white cotton, grown in the richest loam found in the delta of the Hooghly River, but it wouldn’t be true. And today I wish to tell you the truth, even though, as the sartorial equivalent of the tabula rasa, the blank canvas, and the empty white page, the beginning point of all possibilities and truths, I am keenly aware that I could tell you anything I wished and it would contain a certain kind of truth, arguably more or less powerful than the particular memories of my life’s journey.

The truth of my beginning is that, in a huge and noisy textile mill along the Hooghly near Calcutta, my threads were spun from a very average grade of cotton. The cloth was then shipped to the Philippines to another textile factory, washed, bleached, cut, and sewn into my current incarnation. Then followed a few dim weeks. I have little memory of this period except darkness, a feeling of being compressed, no air. When at last I emerged into a strange open place, with oddly bright light, and many-colored garments all around, a pale-skinned woman patted and arranged me into a nicely symmetrical rectangle and laid me gently on a large table with some of my compatriots, and others who were like me, but also different.

I soon gathered, from overhearing bits of conversation, that I was in a place called Parker’s Ladies and Girls Fashions, in New Johnsonville, Tennessee, and that the Parkers had recently decided to stock some basic pieces of men’s clothing, to see if they would sell. Apparently, this was a successful experiment because, after a few days, a nice pale-skinned woman came in and bought me for her husband. And thus began my first real relationship.

It started slowly. I spent a lot of time in Bob’s closet and this is where some of my more arrogant ideas came to life. By comparison to the other garments there, shabby t-shirts, polo shirts that were stretched out of shape, jeans made from such coarse fibers they frightened me a bit, I was refined, pristinely white, in the prime of my life. 

Bob treated me with deference, maybe even a little fear and, of course, this further fed my growing ego. Every Sunday morning, Bob would bathe carefully, then wear me to church, along with his best suit and shoes, and a tolerably nice tie, and we would spend an hour listening to Brother Fox at the Trace Creek Baptist Church, a pleasant enough way to spend the morning. Brother Fox was a soft-spoken man and the first person I had ever seen with fire-colored hair and a pink face. I sometimes thought I heard a flicker of anger contained within his gentle drawl; but it would always die down almost instantly.

I was proud to be seen and admired by all of the nice people in church, but Bob never lingered. He seemed eager to rush home as quickly as possible and trade me in for a t-shirt so grubby it did not even live in the closet, but instead was wadded up in a drawer, alongside balled up pairs of socks. I never understood this about Bob and I must admit it hurt my feelings just a bit.

On the other hand,  being duffed meant that soon I would be soaked in a delightfully scented foaming liquid, then carefully laid out to dry (this by Bob’s wife, a woman who understood the importance of symmetry), and then, best of all, warmed and pressed by a skillfully applied hot iron. Truly it was sometimes difficult to maintain my fidelity to Bob when his wife was so attentive and the source of so much pleasure.

This was our weekly routine during the season of the snows and also when the snow turned to rain, and even into the time of bright blue cloudless skies. I was mostly content, but truthfully I longed for something more, for more appreciation, more of a chance to be admired and appreciated.

My chance came when Bob’s boss was out of town and asked Bob to attend a meeting in Memphis on his behalf. He let Bob know that this was an opportunity to move up in the company, into a desk job. For weeks I could feel the excitement building as Bob & Charlotte talked about what this could mean for them financially. And when they started talking about what Bob would wear for the executive dinner meeting, I experienced a little thrill of excitement myself. This could be my big chance too. We were all psyched, and a little nervous.

The restaurant was glorious. I saw my first chandelier and a special kind of glowing light that came from the walls and from each table. There were white tablecloths (a little coarse-fibered in my opinion), and suave and swarthy men in black suits. Even though I recognized that some of the other shirts at the table enjoyed a finer pedigree than me, I knew that they admired me, if not for my refinement, then for overcoming my humble origins and performing well in a challenging environment. And then Bob took a sip of red wine and some of this devil water rolled down his chin and dripped onto the area just to the right of my 5th button. 

At first I couldn’t believe it and then I was absolutely furious at Bob for botching everything we had hoped for with this one nervous gaffe. Focusing all my attention on the spot of wine, I tried to console myself with my faint memory of the bleaching process and its ability to conceal many minor defects (I may as well mention now, in the interest of full disclosure, something I have heretofore left unsaid. Mixed in with my cotton fibers are more than a few stray strands of jute, and these have been a constant reminder to me of my humble origins along the Hoogly where this coarse plant is cultivated preferentially to the cotton plant, something I have never completely understood). But while bleach had whitened, if not softened, the low-bred jute genes, I somehow knew that this red demon wine, which was insinuating itself into the very core of the very fibers of my being, was not so easily concealed.

Surprisingly enough, even with this blunder, Bob got the promotion he wanted; but things were never the same between us. Charlotte tried to remove the horrible wound by adding white wine to it, an idea so ingenious that I loved her more than ever, and it helped a lot but we both knew that I had received a mortal wound and that any hopes of greatness I had once entertained were no longer within my reach.

Charlotte washed and dried and ironed me as before and placed me back in the closet; but the next Sunday Bob did not reach for me. I glimpsed through the louvered doors three pristine rectangles wrapped in plastic and watched jealously as Bob removed one and donned it, with a new tie to boot.

Over the next few months, as newer garments were placed in the closet, I was pushed further and further toward the back. This was, to put it mildly, a very difficult period for me. Bob’s new shirts were the most beautiful I had ever seen. Hundreds of unbelievably slender fibers were tightly woven into every inch of them, and they had a glossy sheen to the surface which dazzled and blinded me, and made me, by turns, awestruck and furiously jealous. I went through so many changes…shame, anger, despair and loneliness. I resented being cast aside and yet felt unworthy of any other fate. My pride was wounded, along with my body. All of my former aspirations died. My arrogance turned to bitterness as the wine festered and fermented on my belly.

It was Charlotte, that sweet angel, who saved me.

One morning, soft springtime light gradually entered the dark recesses of the closet as Charlotte removed each garment, one by one. When she reached for my hanger, I was thrilled and terrified. Could she still care for something with such a tragic flaw? Or would she dismiss me, and toss me aside?

She looked at me for a long time, holding me at arms length and really looking, especially at the one spot I wished no one could see. And then she brought me to her face and inhaled my scent and rubbed her cheek against my breast. Much to my amazement and delight, Charlotte took me from the hanger and put me on over her t-shirt, then studied our reflection in the mirror. And then she just continued her work, removing the only other two garments from the closet that were further back than me, washing down the white walls of the closet with the loveliest lemon-grass scented water (which I must tell you sent me back to the Hoogly delta and gave me the only thrill of nostalgia I have ever felt), and then replacing Bob’s clothing after arranging each garment neatly on its hanger. 

I never went back to Bob’s closet. Charlotte kept me in her closet instead and wore me whenever she worked around the house or got a little chilly.

Any resentment I felt toward Charlotte as I collected more and more wounds (paint, blood, chocolate) as she worked, was overcome by the joy of participation, and the feeling of friendship that developed between Charlotte and me. We worked well together. She talked to me. Sometimes I could not believe the way she honored me with her confidences and easy-going banter. I developed a new kind of pride, a better kind, as I shared the story of the chocolate stain with Charlotte’s Sunday dress, and told her winter coat of our summer spent painting the kitchen a nice shade of powder blue. I was a veritable travelogue of adventure and camaraderie.

Years have passed and my once proud fibers have softened and even worn away in places. I look a mess. I am content but sometimes I entertain a strange fantasy.

I once witnessed something most unusual. Bob’s sister Megan, and her son Michael, had been visiting and Michael fell and scraped his knee badly. Megan and Charlotte washed away the dirt and gravel, applied some healing ointment and then took one of Bob’s oldest t-shirts and cut it into strips. They tied one strip around Michael’s knee, very tightly, to help stop the bleeding. And I fantasize that one day I can serve in the same way–that the wounded shirt can soothe and heal the wounds of another. I would gladly do it. I would gladly do it.

Katharine Hall

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