This I Believe

Gail - Wood Dale, Illinois
Entered on April 16, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
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When Clothing Makes the Woman (947 words)

Since I’m officially an old lady, according to my Illinois driver’s license, the subject of my appearance has ceased to be a topic that obsesses me. However, on a humid summer afternoon not long ago, I stopped before the hallway mirror en route to the garage and gasped aloud when I realized what I had chosen to wear that day: shorts and a t-shirt purchased in the recent past from a Jerusalem boutique. The bold graphic depicted a cartoon cat playing a Jewish folksong on a keyboard. The feline and the instrument now ran across my chest.

Surrounding the cat were Hebrew words so large you could make ‘em out in Peking: Hava Nagila, the shirt read; let’s all to join hands and dance joyfully in a circle. At that moment, however, the exotic, chunky letters read Target. Victim. Jew.

Why the shirt talk? A short while earlier, as I prepared to leave, the media broken a story about what I have come to call the “Hate Crime of the Week.” Like the other regularly occurring themes that earn my “of the week” rating, the broadcast detailed a fresh story of an ethnically-motivated murder plus snippets of unconfirmed details that left too much to the imagination. In my case, the story caused me to look into my mirror at a shirt that might just as well have read “Kill me.”

Not long ago, this cotton jersey top seemed cute and clever. With so little fear it now amazes me, I had strolled the shops of Jerusalem in search of souvenirs, observing the always-large compliment of men and women walking the streets with guns slung over their shoulders like so many bags of potatoes. The shop displaying the cat on the keys shirt stood not far from where a bus bombing had taken place, yet I never gave that a second thought. I felt completely safe as I soaked up the heady atmosphere of this remarkable city.

Maybe it was the gun-toting Israelis parading the streets as frequently as skateboarders on the Chicago waterfront. Maybe it was the fact that metal detectors were so pervasive, the only place we never ran into them was at the threshold of public bathrooms. Whatever the dynamic, I felt perfectly safe. Now, half a world away, I stared at my purchase and realized it had, on that day, ceased to be a shirt. It had morphed into a six-foot-long neon arrow pointing directly at me.

“Leave it on,” my practical side urged as five thousand years of history flooded my brain. “You’ve worn it before. Nothing’s going to happen.”

“What are you, crazy?” said the harpy on my shoulder. “You’ll be next. Some wacko is probably already thinking of picking off the first Jewish-looking person he or she sees on the street. One look at those Hebrew letters on your chest and you’re a dead woman.”

“Get real,” I sneered. “Christians visit Israel all the time. They bring shirts home as mementos. I could as easily have gotten it as a gift. Besides, I’m a grandmother.” That was probably the most ridiculous thing I had said to me in a long time. Nothing is sacred these days in the souls of people who need to hate as much as many of us need to eat.

I had become slightly weird by this point. Half an hour had passed since I grabbed my car keys and encountered that mirror on my way to the garage. I had this long list of errands in my hand, yet I stood rooted to the spot like a Redwood. Instead of feeling melons at the produce counter I was asking rhetorical questions that had no answers – and hadn’t for over 5,000 years.

Frustrated, my arbitrary child – she who had begun challenging everything and everybody since birth – took over. “No way you’re going to let other people decide how you can and can’t dress,” she said aloud. “You’re wearing the damn shirt.”

And so I did.

I went grocery shopping and picked up the dry cleaning. I visited the bank and the pharmacy. I wish I could tell you I was brave and proud and had no fear, but truth be told, I found myself hugging packages to my chest as I walked from place to place. Though I don’t distinctly recall anyone looking directly at me, that may have had something to do with the fact that I avoided eye contact like a kid who had come to class without having done her homework. If I look down, I must have decided, nobody will notice what I’m wearing or me.

When I could take feeling vulnerable no longer, I declared my errands done. I couldn’t wait to get home. My heart raced as I triggered the automatic garage door opener, willing the car into the safety of the dank sanctuary. I fumbled my way into the house, put my packages on the floor and petted my cats with hands that shook just enough to make me realize I couldn’t go back out in the shirt.

Before I put my purchases away, I pulled the garment over my head. Feeling both stupid and relieved, I tossed it into the laundry basket where it languished among the towels and sheets until I did the wash. I folded the shirt neatly and put it away.

That was a few years ago. I have worn it a few times since then. In the basement. On the treadmill. I still haven’t found the courage to wear it outside the walls of my home. I think I will. Eventually. I just don’t know when I’ll feel safe enough. #