When I pulled it from a box of tangled odds and ends left behind by my fashionable college housemate and held it up to the light, I couldn’t imagine Zoe wearing such a shapeless thing with square pockets and three flat brown buttons. Maybe it was her mother’s… or grandmother’s. I tossed the outdated sweater back into the box marked Salvation Army. We’d just moved to Montana from Southern California and had no idea what the weather would serve up.
Weeks of late summer passed and one blustery day, Autumn blew into the Rocky Mountains like a surprise visit from Narnia’s White Witch, bringing with her an icy chill. The firewood guy hadn’t delivered yet, so I turned on the oven to bake biscuits and warm our little chalet. After mixing and plopping spoonfuls of sticky dough onto a cookie sheet, I slid them in and leaned against the kitchen counter near the heat. I watched frozen rain pummel the golden hillside of harvested wheat fields. The wind whistled through the cracks around the windows, and I shivered and thought about nutmeg, cinnamon, and apple butter. Mmm, pumpkin bread….in my mama’s kitchen. I was a long way from home. It was then my mind wandered to the box of castoffs downstairs. I remembered several bulky items for layering against winter days that made a lot more sense now than when we first moved in.
I rummaged through the collection of old ice skates, ski beanies, gaters, mismatched mittens, woolen ski pants. Ah, there. With a tug, I pulled out the sweater and gave it a shake. I slid it on. It felt comfy as a grandfather’s embrace, the warmth of a campfire on a shiny black night, or the hay barn at harvest time.
When an item offers so much, for so little, it’s a treasure. It’s timeless.
Even if it is hideous. Old Orange has the sex appeal of a horse blanket, my husband says with a shake of his head. My beloved auburn wrap inters whatever feminine curve I might otherwise boast beneath its yarns, making me look like Dumpy the Dwarf. And when damp, it smells a bit odd. My ginger-colored fortress gives my skin a jaundiced pallor and ensures no flirtation or physical advance will be made as long as I don its rusted ardor.
Little did I know how much I would come to adore the homely “jumper,” as our European friends would call it. Like an ancient quilt, it has heft and is now buttery soft in all the right places. These years later, I still wear it for warmth, but mainly comfort… and a shield of sorts, a reminder that I don’t always have to be visually pleasing. We have history now, this sweater and me. And… it’s a writing day.
Some women are afforded art studios or writing sheds, maybe even a nook as creative space. For me, Old Orange is my fortress. When it’s time to exit this world and enter that one, I bar the door of my mind and with intentional ritual akin to preparing for battle—candle lighting, pouring wine and breaking bread—I shrug in, roll up the left sleeve, once-twice, then the right; I fasten the only remaining brown button and spritz citrus oil across the front. There. I toy with the remaining two buttonholes with affection. Smooth the front. Give it a tug.
After years of dedicated wear, Old Orange pills. While I tap away at the keyboard and ruminate, I mindlessly pick off fuzzy clumps and collect them next to my notebook. Tiny bronze snowballs lined up in a row. I roll them together, round and round with my index finger into a miniature orb while creating worlds, unrequited love and unsuspected villains.
When a local writer stops by my house to ask my opinion about a manuscript I edited for him, I balk at his untimely interruption. I like Andy well enough, but I happen to be ensconced in trail-blazing armor, my autumn camo. I’m weaving lyrical prose in other worlds. If my desk was a pumpkin patch, or a fort tucked under boughs of wild oak, I might remain undetected. As it is, Andy arrives in real time bringing a real paycheck, and he keeps on knocking loudly.
I’m obliged to answer. I stand and scoop up my tiny sculpture and a handful of Smarties candy wrappers and toss them in the trash before I schlepp to the front door. Andy steps back and with a tilt of his head does a once over. With a circular hand gesture, he announces that my cotton candy nail polish doesn’t exactly compliment that—that, What is that thing you’re wearing?
I smile a secret smile. “I thought you might not be able to see me,” I say, with my hands thrust deep in the square pockets fingering a tangle of lint in one and a lost hair clip in the other. I am a crone from the Highlands, a Peruvian shepherdess, a Desert Mother in the Egyptian desert going about her prayers. I am eight hundred years old, maybe more, and I consider not removing Old Orange for at least another year.