Yesterday on the Brian Lehrer show, Emily Spivack spoke about Worn Stories, her new book that examines how clothes are more than just a fashion statement. Clothes reveal something about who we are and how we wish to present ourselves to the world. The book features photos of public figures accompanied by brief personal essays that explain why a particular personal item of clothing holds deep significance. Lehrer invited listeners to call and share their own stories about an article of clothing they intend to keep forever.
I often refer to my clothes as “vintage from my own closet” because many items have been with me longer than my husband. I have a tendency toward keeping clothes past their prime, and wondered what I might insist be packed to accompany me to the nursing home in my later years. I decided it would be my 30-year-old jeans.
The jeans themselves are not 30 years old. I bought them as a 30th birthday present to myself thirteen years ago. Gap, low rise flare stretch jeans, size 4 ankle, dark rinse once-upon-a-time. I paid full price. For that reason alone I would hold onto the jeans. Gotta make sure I get every last penny of use out of them. It felt indulgent at the time, buying something that was not on sale for myself, but who knew how much longer I’d be a size 4 or be able to wear something current without looking ridiculous? I was turning 30 after all. There was a lot of unknown in the years ahead.
One of the things John and I had planned for our 30s was starting a family. It took six years to achieve a pregnancy that went beyond the first trimester. I remember keeping track of the days after a positive pregnancy test, each one a triumphant step closer to a day when I’d not be able to squeeze into my size 4s. I also remember slipping right back into my jeans after losing pregnancies or after unsuccessful rounds of fertility treatments. My relationship with my jeans was finally interrupted when I became pregnant with Liam in 2007. I began 2008 in the final stretch of pregnancy, sure my size 4s would stay folded in the closet for the rest of the year.
Stillbirth was not something John and I had planned for. Who does? It’s the subject that’s not on the prenatal class agenda. It doesn’t get a dedicated chapter in the pregnancy guides and it’s not common to find a dedicated guide on the shelves of the bookstore. But stillbirth happens. It happened to us. We had arrived at the hospital on a February evening, me in labor and giddy. We left less than 36 hours later with Liam’s death certificate.
We lost more than our baby boy. In the immediate hours, days, weeks after I left the hospital, I increasingly lost the ability to function. Kitchen cabinets, chairs, and my own body were the victims of my hair-trigger rage. I was scared and paranoid: Danger pursued me at all times. I panted constantly, like a dog sensing distant thunder. I was detached from reality, forgetful, often lost in my own building and neighborhood. My body was a trauma site. I wanted to be rid of it, and of my life.
Family and friends were at a loss for words. What was there to say? But they were a regular presence in our home. Uncles and aunts stopped by unexpectedly and regularly with still-warm cookies, homemade pasta sauce, or freshly made soup. My in-laws visited and stayed often, washed countless dishes, took me to lunch out of state, and helped me with crosswords that confounded me. Younger cousins and nieces shared stories of school project triumphs, and knocked each other on the head for telling lame jokes.
My best friend took days from work to be with me. I remember one visit in particular: I stood at the stove and she sat at the kitchen peninsula, watching me.
“It’s good to see you wearing your old clothes so soon.”
The morning of her visit, I had slipped on my Gap size 4 low rise flares without thought. At that point, it had been just over one month since I’d left the hospital. So much had happened and changed, yet the jeans fit like I’d never been pregnant. In my head, I was many things: broken, a monster, crazy, a failure, grief-stricken. But standing there in my kitchen in my old jeans, I was also still Nancy. Nothing, not even I, would be the same again, but the jeans were that first bridge that connected where I’d come from and where I was – and gave me hope that I could reconcile both and recover as a new woman.
My 30-year-old jeans are showing greater signs of wear: they’re whiskered white the length of the seams; the hems are rubbed raw from boots; and the denim in the crotch will soon need patching. I’ll prolong their life through judicious and gentle washing, and air drying. I will wear them, or as much of them that is still left in a few decades, as I’m wheeled into my room at the home. Those jeans remind me I’m bad-ass. I kick ass and when I get kicked and knocked down, I get back up. I’m well past 30 and getting more tattered. Life keeps tearing at me, but I’m a warrior. And those size 4s have been my battle gear.