When I Am an Old Woman

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.

Photo by Daniel A. Waters

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.

Wave image by Hokusai, button design by Alison Scott

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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I’ve got 190 T-shirts. If I wore one a day every day during T-shirt weather, it would take more than two years to wear them all. It’s never come close to happening. No one needs 190 T-shirts, right?

What if I said that these T-shirts date back to 1976, which is to say more than half my life, and that they chronicle the twists and turns that my life has taken since, well, 1976?

And touched on many events and movements of interest to the wider world?

The other day I took them out and tried to sort them into chronological order. They weren’t into chronology. Some of them insisted on sorting themselves by theme, even if they’d come into my life decades apart: feminism, lesbian community, demonstrations, science fiction, writing, editing, bookselling, music, horses, dogs, Martha’s Vineyard . . .

They weren’t into chronology . . .

I couldn’t ignore the shimmering lines where one shirt reached out to another, and often several others, sometimes over two or three decades, sometimes making connections I hadn’t anticipated. My T-shirts were hyperlinked. They wouldn’t fall into a straight line. Whatever shape they agreed to would have to be multi-dimensional.

Over the years quite a few people have suggested making a quilt — or, since sewing patches on jeans and buttons on shirts is all I can do with needle and thread, commissioning someone else to make a quilt. They’ve got a point. I’ve seen beautiful quilts that commemorate histories, personal and otherwise. But I don’t need another quilt, nor do I have wall space to hang one that’s purely decorative.

Besides, quite a few of my T-shirts come attached to stories that couldn’t be contained in a quilt square, and not infrequently those stories overlap. How would any quilter know what my shirts have to say about each other, and about me, without me standing by and pestering her with commentary? I’m a writer, not a quilter. I should be writing the stories, not dictating them to someone else. (Yes, I do know quite a few women who both quilt and write.)

Not to mention — T-shirts are meant to be worn. Which brings me round to why I glommed on to T-shirts in the first place. Here’s the story I’ve been telling myself:

Through my late teens and well into my early thirties I was fat. I’ve never been thin, but in those years I was fat enough to have to buy most of my clothing in plus-size stores. I knew nothing about fashion and cared less, and in any case, in those days the notion that a woman could be both fat and fashionable was oxymoronic. Fat women were supposed to dress to make ourselves unobtrusive, for instance by wearing dark colors and/or vertical stripes. Dark colors and/or vertical stripes don’t make you unobtrusive; they make it look like you’re trying to look unobtrusive — to efface if not erase yourself. To apologize for the space you were taking up.

My sartorial tastes ran more to denim and flannel. Relatively late in life it dawned on me that since I was about 12, I’d been arranging my life so I could dress as if I worked in a barn — which I did through my teen years and again through my fifties (we’ll get to that eventually). College campuses fit the bill, as did the antiwar and women’s liberation movements. I like to think that I went through the early to mid 1970s wearing only jeans and blue work shirts, but this could not possibly be true: I only had two or three of each, I didn’t do laundry all that often, and though I’m casual to a fault, grunge has never been my style.

Whatever I wore, though, it was not meant to draw attention to my body. I was not the least bit shy, however, about drawing attention to my political proclivities, which were made obvious by what came out of my mouth and what I put down on paper, and by my political buttons. When I imagine myself in those years, what I see is a stocky (to put it politely) woman of average height, with unruly (again, I’m being generous here) brown hair, wearing jeans, a baggy shirt, and an assortment of political buttons. The buttons identified me; to some extent they even spoke for me, though I was always ready, willing, and able to back them up with words.

My theory is that in the late 1970s, T-shirts supplanted buttons as my preferred way of announcing myself. They were colorful, they were cheap, the sizing was predictable, and they relieved me of having to shop. The blouses available in the plus-size stores weren’t me at all, and men’s sizes have never agreed with either my breasts or my hips — apart from T-shirts, of course, which in those days didn’t try to be form-fitting. So one shirt led to another, and another, and another. Even now they keep coming, no matter how often I say “Not one more!”

My wardrobe has diversified somewhat over the years, but T-shirts remain my go-to warm weather wear and on Martha’s Vineyard, where I’ve lived for the last 35 years, it’s absolutely OK to dress as if you work in a barn, or on a farm, or in a garden — which quite a few of us do.

Though T-shirts were an inextricable part of my life, and at some point in some circles I became somewhat notorious for my T-shirts, I never thought of using them to chronicle my personal history. Then, for my 50th birthday party, in June 2001, I hung 25 or 30 of my T-shirts around the living room to represent my previous two and a half decades. I loved the way they communicated with each other displayed side by side, out in the open. My party guests, almost none of whom had known me for more than five or six years and some of whom were barely half my age, were fascinated. They asked questions. I answered with stories.

I’m pretty sure that’s where the idea of the T-Shirt Chronicles took root. For many years it gestated underground. Eventually I started saying out loud that it was something I meant to do “one of these days.” Once I discovered social media and started blogging, the blog seemed the ideal format for it. Now “one of these days” has arrived.

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