My Dad was never terribly interested in fashion. Clothing was meant to cover up your naughty bits and keep you from succumbing to the weather. Attempts to spruce him up generally met with failure.
So it must have been with some trepidation that my mother brought home the loot from the sale rack at Penny’s that day. But her love of thrift won out and she snagged them – four shirts for a dollar. “That’s just a quarter a shirt!” she crowed as she displayed them on the kitchen table.
We all took a step back. It was 1968 and those shirts? Were LOUD. Two were in a stylized print of layered squares and two were a more abstract pattern. One of each were in shades of Harvest Gold and Avocado and the others in shades of Ocean Blue and Teal of an eye-searing vibrancy the dyes for which were likely banned in the mid-seventies.
It took Dad a minute or two to realize the significance of this purchase. But then he took a breath. “I’ll never have to buy another shirt again!” he said happily.
They went into heavy rotation. Summer and winter, he wore them. Changes in temperature didn’t seem to affect Dad. He wore short sleeve shirts in the house in the middle of winter while we kids huddled in blankets and extra pairs of socks. He wore long pants right the way through the summer unless it got really hot. If the temperature topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit, he might be enticed into his one pair of shorts. Of course, by that point, we were all so slayed by the heat, we might have been hallucinating.
Three years after Mum brought home the shirts, we made the move from Detroit to Windsor. This involved purging a lot of possessions. “Shall we let these go?” she asked him, holding up one of the now-regretted shirts.
“No!” he cried. “They’re still good! Years of life left in them!” And so they crossed the border.
After about a decade or so, they started getting thin.
“Might be time to retire them,” my mother suggested hopefully. But Dad loved those shirts. He started wearing them with a white t-shirt underneath, to avoid any inadvertent exposure of his chest hairs.
Modesty was one of Dad’s favourite virtues and he worked hard to instill it in all of us. Shirtlessness was only allowed when swimming. If we appeared outside our bedrooms while still in pajamas, we were to wear bathrobes. Heavy ones. I once had a plush robe that zipped up into a turtle neck. The three-quarter sleeves were a bit risque, but if I pulled the sleeves of my nightgown down to my wrists, it was OK. We were also required to wear slippers. Preferably with socks. And brush our hair before appearing at the breakfast table. And our teeth. By which point it was just easier to get dressed, which is likely what he was hoping for anyway.
My mother’s thriftiness led her to believe that an old-fashioned wringer washer was the best thing for handling the laundry needs of a big family. It required a lot of hands-on time and was scary dangerous. You fed the clothes through the wringer to squeeze the water out and if you weren’t careful, you could get your hands wrung out, too. There was an emergency release on the side, but you had to have one hand free to use it or someone there to help you. Any cries for help from the laundry room were always met with a stampede as everyone in the house dropped whatever they were doing to run and rescue Mum. It was a sad defeat for her when her beloved wringer washer was replace with a stripped down version of an automatic sometime in the mid-nineties, but all of her children slept a lot better knowing that the Washing Machine of Imminent Death was out of the house.
Sometime in the late eighties, after repeated attempts to convince Dad to give up those shirts and his repeated refusals, the laundry accidents began. “It’s just a few buttons!” Dad said after the first one. “Can’t you sew them back on?”
And then, “It’s just a little tear. Can’t you mend it? It’s still a perfectly good shirt!” And Mum would roll her eyes and sigh and fix them up for another few years of wear.
Those shirts with their wild prints went so far out of fashion that they actually came back a couple of times before their sad demise, one by one in the jaws of the Washing Machine of Imminent Death.
Dad may have had his suspicions about Mum’s part in their downfall, but he knew better than to accuse her of tunicicide over the shredded remains. He’d spent so much time begging her to be more careful with the wringer.
“I never did it on purpose,” Mum once confessed to me. “But if it started to get tangled, I just let it go. It was the only way I could get him to stop wearing the bloody things.”
And she was right. He loved those shirts and bragged about their price every time he put one on. He threatened to wear one to my wedding. And given that he wore them for nearly thirty years, they were pretty much the bargain of the century.