A Ratty Gray Sweater Stirs Memories

Were my mother still living on this earth, day after tomorrow would be her 94th birthday. She’d be lamenting the short and cool autumn days and the end of Daylight Saving Time. She’d be making plans for the huge Thanksgiving meal she was going to fix. And she’d be digging her ratty “house” sweater out of the cedar chest that safeguarded her winter clothes.

I loved that sweater.

I’m pretty sure she knitted it herself rather than buying it in a store, though I wouldn’t swear to that in court. It was dark gray with a simple white pattern across the shoulders. Whatever kind of yarn it was knit from was super-soft. By design, it had only one button so it stayed closed but never felt restrictive. Best of all, the sleeves were just the right length for someone with short arms. My mother, for instance. And me. During the cold months, it hung in the hall closet. Not unlike Mr. Rogers, Mother would come in from wherever she’d been, hang her coat in that closet and then slip into the soft gray sweater.

Unless I beat her to it.

By the time I was 12 or 13 years old, Mother and I were pretty much the same size–just a smidge over five feet tall and tipping the scales at a little more than 100 pounds. Because bell-bottom blue jeans and peasant blouses and fringed vests weren’t her style, I wasn’t inclined to want to borrow any of Mother’s clothes. Except for the gray sweater. We called it a house sweater because it was too misshapen and threadbare to wear out in public. But it was the perfect layer to knock the chill off while doing homework or housework or watching TV or reading or playing with the dog. Our rule was that if the sweater was hanging in the closet, it was fair game. The one who got to it first was the one who got to wear it.

When my mother died in 2005 and my siblings and I emptied the house where we’d grown up, somehow the ratty gray sweater got lost in the shuffle. My heart was broken.

So I set out to try to replace it. The sweater I eventually ended up with bears just enough resemblance to Mother’s sweater to bring me comfort. I found it on sale at T.J. Maxx, in the sleepwear department, which probably means it’s technically loungewear and not really a sweater at all. It’s not something you’d wear to leave the house, except for a quick trip to the mailbox or compost barrel.

Like Mother’s sweater, mine is dark gray, but that’s where the similarity ends. This garment was made in China and would never be confused with something knit by hand. It has no white pattern, or any other color pattern, and no buttons. Made of polyester and spandex, it’s wrinkle-free and can be machine washed and dried. Though the sleeves are too long for my arms, they can be pushed above my elbows and will stay there comfortably. Best of all, the sweater is lightweight, warm and soft. The more I wash it, the softer it gets.

I’ve owned the sweater for ten or twelve years. Now, as autumn days grow shorter and cooler and Daylight Saving Time comes to an end, I dig it out of the cedar chest that once belonged to my mother and hang it in the coat closet. Not unlike Mr. Rogers, when I come home from wherever I’ve been, I swap my go-to-town coat for my home sweater.

And as I do these things, I wish like crazy that Mother could pull on her ratty gray sweater as I pull on mine and that we could celebrate her birthday together before we begin planning our huge Thanksgiving meal.

(November 4, 2023)