I acquired this shirt when I was around 30. Both the shirt and the poem whose first line graces it were popular with women my age, give or take a decade. This may sound odd but it isn’t: the poet, Jenny Joseph (1932–2018), was 29 when she wrote it, in 1961.
The possibly odd thing is that Jenny Joseph hated purple. It didn’t suit her, she said. I can’t help wondering if that was always the case. She was an accomplished poet, the author of several children’s books, and an all-round interesting person, but the poem became far more famous than she. Once the internet came along, it circulated widely with no name attached, and it has been often “adapted” over the decades — Google “when I am an old cowgirl” if you don’t believe me.
That’s enough to turn anyone against purple even if they loved it to start with. We poem quoters and T-shirt wearers loved purple. Lavender was for lesbians, and what was purple but a deeper shade of lavender? (If a T-shirt came in multiple colors, you could count on the lavender ones selling out first.)
So fast-forward about four decades. My friend Dan Waters — poet, master printer, artist, photographer, and my town’s moderator, among other things — has been photographing Vineyard characters for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and he asked if he could photograph me. Hell yes, said I.
As the appointed date for the shoot approached, however, I was having second thoughts. It wasn’t that I was nervous about being photographed, it was that I couldn’t decide what T-shirt to wear. As you well know by now, I have a lot of options. Should I pick a Vineyard shirt? one from my horsegirl years? an overtly feminist or blatantly dykey shirt?
I spread the likeliest candidates, at least a dozen of them, out on my bed. When my eye fell on “When I Am an Old Woman,” I knew: That’s the one.
The shirt is purple, of course, though you can’t tell that from the photo. I don’t generally think of myself as an old woman, though, since I was going on 70 when Dan took the picture and am closing in on 71 now, I surely am.
This particular T-shirt seemed right because I was wearing purple then and I’m wearing purple now.
The last three lines of Jenny Joseph’s poem go like this:
But maybe I ought to practise a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
No one, but no one, who knows me at all could be shocked or surprised that I wear purple. It’s probably one of my lesser idiosyncrasies.
From a visual point of view, I rather wished I hadn’t decided to wear those two buttons, but they do represent important parts of my life. The one on the left is “Blue Wave 2018,” about the midterm elections during what blessedly turned out to be the Trump administration’s only term.
The one on the right — well, that goes back a while. It’s from the October 15, 1969, march to end the war in Vietnam. The D.C. march was my first big demonstration. I was a first-semester freshman at Georgetown University, majoring in Arabic and already minoring in antiwar organizing. The same logo was used on the two-day moratorium that preceded the huge November 15, 1969, national march on Washington. The two-day Moratorium, November 13 and 14, included a long, solemn, single-file march from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House. Each marcher carried a sign bearing the name of a service member or civilian who had died in Southeast Asia. At the White House they deposited their name signs into coffins that had been set up for the purpose.
Dan’s photo of me, blown up to four by five feet, will eventually appear in rotation in the lobby of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. He’s been at work on this project for a few years now: in 2019, before Covid-19 shut everything down, a selection of the huge photos was displayed at the museum. Who knows, maybe mine will eventually appear in a group show too!
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