Monday, April 11, 2005

The Yellow Shirt

The baggy yellow shirt had long sleeves, four extra-large pockets
trimmed in black thread and snaps up the front. It was faded from
years of wear, but still in decent shape. I found it in 1963 when I
was home from college on Christmas break, rummaging through bags of
clothes Mom intended to give away. "You're not taking that old thing,
are you?" Mom said when she saw me packing the yellow shirt. "I wore
that when I was pregnant with your brother in 1954!"

"It's just the thing to wear over my clothes during art class,
Mom.Thanks!" I slipped it into my suitcase before she could object. The
yellow shirt became a part of my college wardrobe.I loved it.
After graduation, I wore the shirt the day I moved into my new apartment
and on Saturday mornings when I cleaned. The next year, I married.

When I became pregnant, I wore the yellow shirt during big-belly days.
I missed Mom and the rest of my family, since we were in Colorado and
they were in Illinois. But that shirt
helped. I smiled, remembering that Mother had worn it when she was
pregnant, 15 years earlier. That Christmas, mindful of the warm
feelings the shirt had given me, I patched one elbow, wrapped it in
holiday paper and sent it to Mom. When Mom wrote to thank me for her
"real" gifts, she said the yellow shirt was lovely. She never
mentioned it again.

The next year, my husband, daughter and I stopped at Mom and Dad's to
pick up some furniture. Days later, when we uncrated the kitchen
table, I noticed something yellow taped to its bottom. The shirt!
And so the pattern was set.

On our next visit home, I secretly placed the shirt under Mom and Dad's
mattress. I don't know how long it took for her to find it, but
almost two years passed before I discovered it under the base of our
living-room floor lamp. The yellow shirt was just what I needed now
while refinishing furniture. The walnut stains added character.

In 1975 my husband and I divorced. With my three children, prepared
to move back to Illinois. As I packed, a deep depression overtook me.
I wondered if I could make it on my own. I wondered if I would find a
job. I paged through the 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 the
stained yellow shirt. Slowly, it dawned on me. Wasn't my mother's
love a piece of God's armor? My courage was renewed.
Unpacking in our new home, I knew I had to get the shirt back to Mother.

The next time I visited her, I tucked it in her bottom dresser drawer.
Meanwhile, I found a good job at a radio station. A year later I
discovered the yellow shirt hidden in a rag bag in my cleaning closet.
Something new had been added. Embroidered in bright green across the
breast pocket were the 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." But I didn't stop there. I zig-zagged all
the frayed seams, then had a friend mail the shirt in a fancy box to Mom
from Arlington, VA. We enclosed an official looking letter from "The
Institute for the Destitute," announcing that she was the recipient of
an award for good deeds. I would have given anything to see Mom's
face when she opened the box. But, of course, she never mentioned it.
Two years later, in 1978, I remarried. The day of our wedding, Harold
and I put our car in a friend's garage to avoid practical jokers. After
the wedding, while my husband drove us to our honeymoon suite, I reached
for a pillow in the car to rest my head. It felt lumpy. I unzipped
the case and found, wrapped in wedding paper, the yellow shirt.

Inside a pocket was a note: "Read John 14:27-29. I love you both, Mother."
That night I paged through the Bible in a 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

The shirt was Mother's final gift. She had known for three months
that she had terminal Lou Gehrig's disease. Mother died the following
year at age 57.

I was tempted to send the 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 16 years. Besides, my older daughter is in college
majoring in art.
And every art student needs a baggy yellow shirt with big pockets.