2004-02-13 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein
From The Artists Studio Rockaway Artists Alliance by Susan Hartenstein

The following short story originally appeared in this column on November 3, 2001. It deserves repeating.

The Sweater by Norma McCabe

When I was just a girl, a sweater caught my eye from a small neighborhood shop. I bought it and wore it. Not particularly flattering on me, I still wore it often and it became a favorite. I was flattered when complimented while wearing it.

It kept me warm on cool summer nights and dry on rainy spring days. It accompanied me to the hospital on the occasion of both my children’s births, and on many trips, far and near. It was a comfort, a familiar thing, something I often sought out. It was "me."

I cared for it well, especially when it was new, using gentleness and pa tience. But over time as my life got more complicated, I took less care, tossing it on the floor after wearing it. Later I’d retrieve it from under the bed or behind the radiator, covered with dust bunnies and lint. It began to fray and wear, became less fashionable and even less flattering. I wore it less often.

Sometimes, I’d pull it out, try it on and reflect in the mirror, turning and tugging at it. I’d tug at the sleeves and stretch it across my breast in an attempt to make it fit. Then I’d hastily yank it over my head in exasperation. I was older, larger and it just wasn’t the same. It had shrunk. I had changed. The sweater went to the back of the closet. A few times I’d been tempted to toss it, but I never did. I’d instead move it to the basement or the attic thinking I might wear it again someday.

I replaced the sweater with fine merino wool and cashmere ones. I had the money to spend on such luxuries now, and relished the ability to treat myself so well. There were different styles and colors over the years, many more flattering to me. But there was always something about them, too itchy, not the right color, or I’d snag it on the first wearing. I went through a sweatshirt phase, too. But they were too constricting. Not enough give, not for me, not now, not ever.

Fashion has taken a back seat to functionality these days. Rummaging through my closet recently, I came across the sweater. It presented itself by tumbling forward from a pile of clothes, landing at my feet. I slipped it on. It fit again! I ran my hands across my arms and hugged it. I lifted the front, pulled it to my face and inhaled deeply. Such a familiar scent, so comforting – it made me cry. I looked it over. The sweater was frayed at the sleeves and the neck and oddly it was almost back in fashion. The color had faded but it was now more suited for me than when it was new. (Or maybe I was more suited to it?) It had a stain on the front, leftover from a decadent meal I shared with friends in a happier time. Maybe I could get the stain out, maybe not. Surely, it was worth the effort to try. After all, that sweater and me went back a long way.

I wore it again, and not just around the house. I took a chance and wore it out into the world. "Hey, you look great today", "Cool", "Fahbulously retro dahling" were some of the things I heard that day. I smiled to myself. It was so amusing to me that this ill fitting, imperfect sweater could be perceived as so complimentary by many. But not by all. My closest friends looked askance, rolled their eyes and tsk’d. "Throw that old thing out", "Move on, get into today", "That sweater does nothing for you, treat yourself right – go shopping."

So, here I am at a sweater crossroad. Surely clothes do not define the person. You are who you are – inside, and that’s what really counts. Isn’t that so?? I can’t decide what to do with the sweater. I’ve tossed it more than once, only to go after it and save it from the Goodwill or trash bag. I don’t know why. How foolish and sentimental can I get? I know now it’s because I love that sweater. It matters not that it is old, or dated or fitting. I can’t help feeling as I do. It’s just the way it is.

Norma McCabe, the writer of this story, died this past Tuesday morning after a long battle with breast cancer. Norma lived her entire life, including the end, with courage, dignity, wit, wisdom and kindness. Whatever role she took on she did well. She was a source of strength for all who knew her. This story is just a glimpse into the beauty and intelligence of her soul. Norma McCabe will be missed by all whose lives she touched. But she left us with great memories and great lessons. Chief among those lessons is to live life fully, with love and laughter. Thank you, Norma. See you, again.

Chris Jorge was blessed to have always had Norma in her life. Norma McCabe was Chris’ older sister.


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