We make statements about who we are and where we’ve been through the t-shirts we wear. I have a drawer full, declaring me a proud PTA and choir mom who loves National Parks, 5Ks for good causes, democratic candidates, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Costello, Hogwarts and the North Carolina Tar Heels. I’ve stayed away from poor attempts at comedy with shirts that say: “It Was Me. I Let the Dogs Out” or “Straight Outta Burbank.” My parents taught me to avoid the stupid T, though it was a lesson they never realized they’d given me.
In the spring of 9th grade, just before I turned 15, I realized that my wardrobe was lacking. Well, I’d known for years that it lacked the plaids skirts and argyles sweaters that I coveted from the dog-eared pages of my Seventeen Magazines or the Members Only jacket that would attract the likes of Tiger Beat cover dream boat Scott Baio. But that April, I realized that EVERYONE EVERYWHERE who was ANYONE my age had t-shirts with logos, cartoon characters or sayings on them and I didn’t have a single one, save for my mustard yellow Junior High P.E. shirt with the block green lettering and my last name written in sharpie on the green rectangle across the chest.
I told my mom about that empty space in my drawer and, perhaps because she knew this was an inexpensive way to appease my incessant but unanswered requests for the latest fashion trend, she agreed that we would go shopping for a t-shirt soon. While I longed for a few Bert’s Surf Shop shirts in bold colors like so many of the cool feathered-haired kids wore over their honeycombed long-sleeved thermal underwear shirts, I knew there was no way I could get my mother to drive the three hours to Atlantic Beach. I also knew she would never agree to spend money to help someone else promote their business. “They should be paying us for wearing their names on our bodies, not the other way around!” she grumbled.
I hadn’t been to any concerts yet, though my first rock show featuring Rick Springfield was only a year away, where I would celebrate my sixteenth birthday at the Greensboro Coliseum singing Jesse’s Girl at the top of my lungs. And I wouldn’t have enough money on hand to buy a t-shirt.
So a few days after my t-shirt request, my mom, little sisters and I walked into KMART. Mom hoisted my five year-old sister into a shopping cart and told me to take the baby in her stroller over to check out the t-shirts while she collected the other items on her list. I often enjoyed pretending like I was a young mother when I frequently found myself in charge of my youngest sister’s stroller in public places. I saw the questioning glances from passers by, perhaps directed with sympathy or disdain at my youthful maternity. So naturally I played it up, saying the kind of things a mother might say to her baby in a stroller like, “Aren’t you my sweet little girl,” and “Do you need mommy to change your diaper?” (That one I meant for my mother. I had no interest in changing my sister’s diapers.) I particularly relished when, at the mall on several occasions, my mother would walk up to me while a stranger was complimenting my sister’s beautiful blue eyes and would look at my mom and say, “You must be such a proud grandmother.” I loved hearing mom attempt various explanations, appalled at the concept that any one would event THINK that I might have had sex. And for someone to even consider that SHE might be old enough to be a grandmother!
Mom was 36.
But it served her right for having me when she was just 21. I knew that she planned it this way so that she’d have built-in babysitting when she had her second set of more-loved children later in life. When she’d had more practice and could do her job better. I was just the guinea pig.
Back at Kmart, I had selected a few of my favorite shirts and had them spread out across the table next to the stack of navy blue, grey and rust-colored corduroys, when my mother walked up with a cart full of diapers and various cleaning products. My middle sister was whimpering about wanting a My Pretty Pony and my mother was clearly annoyed.
“Come on, Suzanne,” she directed, “We’ll come back and figure out this t-shirt thing another time,” and she wheeled away without even looking at my selection of options with sayings like FRANKIE SAYS RELAX and HAVE A COKE AND A SMILE. Only I wasn’t smiling. I had one mission in going to KMART that day and I left empty handed.
A week later I was greeted by the HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner my mother had strung at the foot of the stairs adjacent to the kitchen where she always hailed our birthdays with balloons scotch-taped to the chandelier and pink and white streamers (blue and white for my brother) crisscrossing the room from the range hood to the salad bowl atop the fridge, from the hutch to the pantry molding. The same pink streamers were used for both generations of children in my family, re-rolled and put in the party box in the closet under the stairs where I found them years after my mother died, faded to more of a peach than pink and marked with the masking tape with which they were lovingly strung from trees for backyard parties, from paint cans to bike baskets on rainy days when we celebrated in the garage, and like octopus arms stretching out from the chandelier in the kitchen on those birthday mornings when mom would be standing there, smiling and saying, “Does it feel any different to wake up and be FIFTEEN Suzie Sunshine?”
Family gifts would be piled up on the table in front of our seat along with a box of “birthday cereal.” Mom wouldn’t let us have sugarcoated cereal any other time of year, but on our birthdays we could pick out anything we wanted from the cereal aisle. I could count on my brother to guarantee me one annual bowl of Lucky Charms and I always guaranteed him one bowl of Golden Grahams.
I tore through my gifts on this Memorial Day Monday: a stuffed animal from my sisters, a push-button phone for my room from my father, who worked for Southern Bell and knew how to connect the line upstairs. This was a big SCORE because our main house phone downstairs was still rotary. I’d not only gained privacy, I had quick dial convenience! My brother gave me a hand-made card promising to let me watch General Hospital for the next week even though it came on at the same time as the Flintstones, which often resulted in epic family room battles. When I came to the last package, I opened up the previously used and slightly crushed Burton’s box to find two brand new t-shirts! One was lemon yellow and said, SMILE, GOD LOVES YOU, with a rainbow graphic and the other was grey and imprinted with black lettering that stated I’VE GOT WHAT IT TAKES BUT NOBODY WANTS IT.
I can’t say that I fully appreciated the insanity of giving your daughter such a billboard to wear across her slowly developing chest. I didn’t quite get why I got so many catcalls and, often inappropriate, comments when I wore it. I welcomed the attention likely because I didn’t understand it. And I’m sure my mother, who didn’t want me mistaken for the mother of her youngest daughter, was naively oblivious to how what she thought was a silly t-shirt would be interpreted in the world. Eventually, I got grossed-out by the comments from strangers and the solicitous offers to take what I’ve got. The birthday gift became a nightshirt before making its way into the ragbag.
That fall, my father spent three months working on a job in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Get me a t-shirt while you’re there!” I declared while lying in my canopy bed, talking on my push-pad phone. I’d imagined a cool shirt from an exotic Floridian Surf Shop or something with a groovy tropical logo. Instead, my dad got me a bright red T from a barbeque joint he frequented down the street from his hotel. Apparently he also failed to understand the impact words on a t-shirt might have on the teenage daughter wearing it. Over the front left breast in white letters my present from daddy said, MUNCH ON MY RIBS.
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As told at Story Salon on August 2, 2017 and at Otter Story Hour on May 3, 2021.