I am sopping up a little gas I spilled on the garage floor while filling up my chainsaw. The rag came from the family rag bag that my wife Allison manages. That the rag bag has never run out of rags is miraculous and reminds me of the parable about the two loaves and the five fish. Except in my house, instead of fish and bread, we have pillowcases and bed sheets that multiply. Yes, it’s an ordinary miracle, but whenever I’ve needed a rag, the rag bag has given.
As I dab at the drops of gasoline, I notice that the blue rag in my hand feels neither like a pillowcase nor a bed sheet. Upon closer examination, I see it’s made of T-shirt material — sort of like the material of T-shirts I wear and sort of like the material of one of my favorite blue T-shirts. I stop dabbing and go inside to investigate this rag’s origin story.
I am back in the garage again, pawing around the rag bag and identifying parts of my old friend, a T-shirt I had worn for many years. Inside I learned from Allison that I had some shirts that needed to be retired because of “stains.” Inside I learned that I lack good judgment on a subject I never learned in school — when to turn my clothes into rags.
Outside I’m clutching — close to my heart — strips of clothing, some of which I had actually worn over my heart.
I rapidly make my way through the stages of grief and, by the time I reach acceptance, I am using my old friend to wipe away some crud that had built up around the gas cap. For the rest of the day, though, I run my fingers along the edge of a scissor-sharp self-realization: I do not know when it’s time to turn my clothes into rags. Raggedy Andy, meet Raggedy Gregory.
Later that week, during coffee hour after church, I confess my deficiency to an older parishioner. When I ask him how he knows it’s time to turn his shirts into rags, like any wise sage would do, he tells me a story.
“I once wore a shirt I loved for years. It was hot pink and it said on the front, ‘I sun my buns in Florida.’ I wore that shirt to family reunions, to concerts — just about everywhere. You get what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” I say, recognizing that the truth I’d been seeking was near.
“Well, one day that shirt disappeared. I found out my wife had taken it and was going to cut it into rags. It had holes, she said. It was becoming more like a bikini top than a shirt, she said. I’m a hairy guy, you know, and she said the shirt wasn’t doing as good a job covering it all up in public. So we compromised. The shirt wouldn’t get chopped up, but I could only wear it when I was gardening. And so I did and I got a couple of summers out of it. But one time I threw it into the hamper to get washed — and it never returned. The circle of laundry stopped.”
“She had cut it into rags?” I ask.
“Not even. Just threw it into the trash without telling me.”
“Wow,” I say.
“Yes, wow,” he says.
For a moment, we both stop talking out of respect for the dead and the vanquished.
“So to your question: How do you know it’s time?”
He sets his mug down on the table beside us and wipes his mouth with a napkin.
“You won’t,” he says, “because love is blind.”
Gregory Greenleaf lives in Harpswell and teaches high school English. He ascribes, prescribes and subscribes to many old-fashioned ideas, but especially Charles Dickens’ observation that “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”