Becoming Real

or: what the Velveteen Rabbit Taught Me about the Greatness of Crappy Old Sweaters

illustration by William Nicholson for The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“THERE was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid.” -Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

No one was baptized at the small Unitarian Universalist church in which I was raised. Instead, the minister gave you The Velveteen Rabbit. The Bestowal of the children’s book would take place during the ceremony welcoming a baby into the church community.

I remember reading the book when I was little and coming away with a very strong sense of “Wha-?” The deal is: A boy has a beloved stuffed rabbit that he takes everywhere and loves so hard that its whiskers and fur rub off. Then the boy gets scarlet fever and after that’s over, all his stuffed animals are loaded up into a garbage bag to be burned. Thee end. Inside the book’s front cover, our minister had written the words, “To Katy—that you might someday become real.” I had no idea what all this was supposed to mean. I wasn’t real? Wait—I would have to be burned alive? Or my Pound Puppy? Maybe it was that my Pound Puppy would one day be taken from me? Why was our church so unremittingly weird?

Like so very many UU lessons lost on the young, I feel like I get it now.

I realized it this morning when I got out my beloved cardigan sweater to wear to the library to do some planning for this semester’s classes. This is the sweater I poached from my mom when I was fourteen and wore just about every day for the five years that followed. At some point, it shrunk. At some point, the hole in the elbow became larger than my elbow. At some point, it lost one, then another, and finally all of its tan leather covered buttons. In my mind, I think of it as the sweater I wore to my first rock show in Chapel Hill in college (Five-Eight and Man or Astro Man?). It’s the sweater I wore while cutting class in high school to wander aimlessly through the hipster neighborhood with friends in Pittsburgh one frigid, icy day. Underpinning these memories are earlier ones, of my mother wearing the sweater while teaching at the nursery school where I went as a child. When I look at the cardigan, I do not see a sweater that no longer even does what sweaters are supposed to do: provide actual warmth. I don’t see a physical sweater; I see only emotional comfort.

Peru, 1998, wearing cardigan
Here I am wearing the cardigan during a college trip--an archaeological dig in Peru. 1998. Sweater was still full size and was missing maybe one button.

And that’s what I do to all the clothes I love.

In no particular order, here are the top three most deteriorated–yet-unreasonably-active items in my wardrobe:

1. cardigan sweater formerly belonging to mom, circa early-1980s

2. US Navy-issue t-shirt belonging to one of my father’s comrades in Vietnam (This is the softest t-shirt known to man. There is also a huge rift between 80% of the neckband and the shirt.)

3. Fall pea-coat (I actually cannot make any sort of judgment on this one. I only know that it’s a bit old in terms of how long people actually keep and wear clothing nowadays. I’ve had it since 1995, which in my mind is not long ago until I say something like “1995 is not all that long ago” to my students and they groan as one at their Old Lady Instructor.)

Cardigan sweater today: Note hole that swallows up elbow

It was the cardigan however, that sprang to mind, when I was talking with my mother’s friend last week. She and her husband, along with some other family friends were visiting my parents’ house the day after Christmas and she was explaining to me the one reality show she likes—in which they remake you by taking away all your old clothes and giving you $5,000 for a new wardrobe.
“Wait,” I said. “They take—everything?”
“Everything. They take it all to Goodwill,” she said. “But you get a whole new set of everything. And Katy, it’s like they’re re-making you. It’s a new stage in your life that these people really, desperately need. There’s always this moment of catharsis—” She paused, looking into the middle-distance. “The person is changed.” She told me the new-wardrobe/new-you show is the one reality show she’d volunteer for.

But as someone who’s kept a pair of jeans precisely because its hem still bears a puppy bite-mark from my first, now-deceased dog, it sounds like my personal nightmare. On the whole, I don’t keep clothing because of its natural entropy; it’s more like I just don’t notice it and since I’m writing this I guess that maybe, yes, I have a certain pride about not noticing the wear and tear because isn’t life about getting a little more worn as you go?

Cardigan sweater: Current Day View 2
Cardigan sweater today: Note worn pocket, broken silver doohickey where button was finally broken off on some ordinary day I don't remember

This is when I realize that maybe the Velveteen Rabbit sunk in more than I first thought.

This tendency to hold onto things has led to its share of unprofessional moments. Wearing my clothes as long as I do leads to a state of wornness I never, ever notice until someone points out to me that every single button on my suit jacket is missing. Or that there’s a bleach stain on my shirt (the same one that’s been there for months, actually, that I’ve ceased to see). These are regular occurrences. When I glance in the mirror before leaving the house, these marks of age don’t exist. I am either still imagining the worn article of clothing as it once was, sans rips, holes and stains, or in my mind, the said imperfections just don’t really matter. The wholeness of the object trumps them. It’s like being in a relationship, which, like everything in this world, has its flaws—and deciding that the good outweighs the bad.

It’s still only now and then that I realize that much of the world doesn’t operate this way. My first job out of college was temping at a corporate bank in DC while interning at a radical feminist newspaper in the evenings. At my day job, I remember one of the account managers tossing a J Crew catalogue into my receptionist station, saying, “They have some really good deals in there. You know, maybe you could just get something—nice.”

This was years ago, and if I had to step back into that role now, I’d be perfectly screwed. I buy almost all my clothes at thrift stores. These items already have histories attached to them, and I love that. They’re well-made, or at least inexpensive. (Whenever I go into a store in the mall, I can hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head, tsk-tsking the cheap fabrics and the crappy hems. “Forty dollars?! Not worth it. That’ll fall apart in two washes.”) And at my favorite all-time thrift store back in North Carolina, I believed there was a sort of magic in effect. I’d walk in thinking, “Cute jeans, cute jeans,” or “pretty sweater,” and I’d almost always walk out with that exact thing. And then wear it into the ground.

The Velveteen Rabbit is told from the rabbit’s point of view. Of course, it doesn’t mind or even notice the loss of its fur or whiskers or the fact that the boy has written his name on its butt; like all stuffed animals in children’s books and movies, it just wants to be loved by the boy. The book is all about the rabbit and his compadres—the skin horse, the wooden lion, becoming real through the process of being loved and worn down. The book’s final, beautiful illustration shows them all at the story’s very end, running off, real animals at last, with stories to tell.

3 thoughts on “Becoming Real”

  1. We are more like Mom and Dad everyday. I love this post because when I try to explain the reason behind the book people look at me like I am crazy. I am wearing a sweater that Mom gave me 1,000 Birthday’s ago, it is warm and fuzzy and I refuse to part with it!

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