[NOTE: I got in here late and am trying to rework an old-ish CNF piece with new insights from the prompts and reading materials. I think it fits with the vibe, hopefully.]

Marie Kondo haunts the woman’s closet and nags about whether any of these old T-shirts spark joy. It’s a tough question. The box may as well be full of family movies, even if she can’t wear the shirts. There’s a lot more in there than fabric. It’s her best bet against forgetting.

Joy, she considers. Her father turns his old T-shirts into cleaning rags when they sprout holes, because space is limited, and every kept thing needs a utility. Most things don’t survive, like memories.

The T-shirts in her closet ask, what use is a memory? Theirs are murky. Mass-production, factories overseas, environments of malaise. A squeeze, vacuum-packed into boxes, the shipping. Storage and time, the shipping again. Waiting and wanting for a purpose, then being unboxed, separated, pressed, stamped.

One shirt finds its way to a girl at soccer camp, twelve years old, wheezing through a mile-run warm-up. Her coaches say she has promise, but needs to apply herself. She tells her parents that when she runs, her legs feel like they’ll give out. When she lays down after practice, her shoulders slip out of place. Yearly she collects more T-shirts that tell her who she’s been. Doctors tell her that she’ll grow out of the pain, but she only grows out of the T-shirts.

She becomes a woman. A rheumatologist tells her that she can’t run. You’ll destroy your joints, she says. Have you tried swimming? She considers joy again, can’t find it.

The girl’s mother holds onto everything. Boxes crowd the basement, full of papers, trinkets from distant vacations, participation trophies, T-shirts that don’t fit. Marie Kondo hovers, holding her tongue. A neurologist tells the mother that she’s fine. But she loses bills and keys and dates and words from time to time. She tells the girl about her life when the radio’s on, models a pom-pom routine from high school, reminisces about marching band covers and the boys who didn’t like her back. Without the 70s at 7, she is angry, sad.

When the girl gets rid of things, her mother fishes them out of the trash, out of donation heaps. She puts them in boxes. The girl is different from the woman. The woman argues, doesn’t see the world like her mother. In these boxes lives a daughter she could recognize.

Maybe some things, offer the T-shirts, are better to forget. Marie Kondo nods.

“But,” the woman whispers, “I want to remember something essential.” A time when things were whole and uncomplicated. The T-shirts, not yet spun with polyester. There could be joy in there; the blossom of a cotton flower, unaware that one day, it will turn inward, sprout fibers, and be used.

[449 words]


  1. Koss Just Koss

    I enjoyed this, all of the details you included. The contrast of repurposing shirts for rags to just preserving. Nice work! I might suggest eliminating “In these boxes lives a daughter she could recognize.” The details can carry this if you hone/let them. It’s okay to let your reader do some work.

  2. Benjamin Niespodziany

    This is a nice CNF! I like the Marie Kondo angle, but I haven’t heard her name in a few years, and wonder what this piece might read like if you changed it to something like “A woman needed help tidying up her place and a team of Hoarder Disorder Repairwomen arrived” or something like that, where there’s more of a direct/quirky connect and less of a pop culture thing.

    And while I love how it ends on “and be used”, which is gutting and heartbreaking, I almost think it should end one paragraph sooner with “Marie Kondo nods.” The matter-of-factness of that ending is nice and surprising and abrupt, and ends on a strange note rather than wrapping it up nicely in a gift bag.

  3. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Kellie, I have a dear college friend who I was helping through chemo for pancreatic cancer exactly one year ago (Nov and Dec 2021). One way I kept my sanity (other than walks and therapy) was doing his laundry, mainly tee-shirts. He’s a hoarder, never throws anything out. So almost daily, I did load after load. And now your piece!!! I like how Marie Kondo plays a contrasting role here- supposedly specializes in organization. Mainly we have this complex and nuanced look at mother-daughter. A mother who wants to characterize her memories of her children in boxes (how metaphorically wondrous!) Also the whimsy of tee shirts that come ‘alive’ and are given voice! AHA! Love the subtle implication here:

    ‘Maybe some things, offer the T-shirts, are better to forget. Marie Kondo nods.’
    This piece very much fits the ‘vibe’ of your own complex, layered writing! And this is a great re-purposed piece, filled with quirk and strange, playful yet dark truth(s). Bravo, Kellie!

  4. Len Kuntz

    Hi Kellie,

    There is so much intrigue and symbolism in this piece–“There’s a lot more in there than fabric.” I love how you keep checking in with joy, and how fabric is a thing that either holds everything in place, or frays and loosens. Really wonderful writing. I could see this being a much longer piece if you wanted it that way.

  5. Meg Tuite

    The use of the refuse we save to hold on to a part of what was this kid and the loss of memory yet it’s blasting through boxes and materials and she’s dumpster diving for every emotion she can’t live without. The micro/macro beauty of t-shirts, this family, their emotional paralysis, is brilliant and it lets every sentence breathe and open up the world through these lines! DAMN BEAUTIFUL! LOVE LOVE THIS!

  6. David O'Connor

    Kellie, the structure of following the t-shirts is genius. It says so much about memory and our culture. I really enjoyed this piece, so many layers, and they all fit so tightly together, well-done!

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