“Fannie, what’s this supposed to mean?” asked Richard lifting a sweatshirt out of the drawer. “Is there something I should know about you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“This,” he said holding up the sweatshirt so I could read it.
“Oh that,” I said smiling. “I’ve never told you the history of that shirt?”
“I think I would remember something like that.”
“It’s steeped with family history. Are you sure you want to know?” I asked grinning.
“Are you going to tell me or not?” asked Richard throwing the shirt at me.
“All right, I’ll tell you.” I said catching the sweatshirt. “Aunt Verla and Uncle Carl brought it back for me from a trip to Maine when I was in college.”
Richard looked at me with expectation. “So?”
Aunt Verla and Uncle Carl drove down the slow moving street filled with cars and people walking on the side walk. Large leafy trees swayed in the gentle breeze carrying the smell of salt water. Seagulls squawked, jockeying for position as tourist dropped food on the ground. An old Chevy pick up pulled out of a parallel parking space.
“Carl, pull in there, we’ll only be two doors down from cousin Sylvia’s shop.”
Uncle Carl swung the car into the open space.
Walking down the sidewalk, Uncle Carl said, “doesn’t this make you feel like you’re in a Norman Rockwell painting?”
They entered the shop in the middle of the block labeled Sylvia’s Souvenirs and Custom T’s. Large display windows filled with souvenirs filtered the sunlight. The smell of fresh popcorn filled the air.
“Verla, Carl, I didn’t expect you so soon,” said Sylvia walking around the counter. Hugging her cousins she said, “I thought you’d be in closer to closing.”
“Our plane arrived early and the drive up from Boston was lighter than we expected,” said Uncle Carl.
“Besides, Sylvia, this will give us a chance to get our souvenir purchases out of the way before we settle in for a visit,” said Aunt Verla. “Since my father was born here, I thought it would be a great idea to get each of our boys and each of Velverlorn’s girls a souvenir custom shirt.”
“What do you want them to say?”
“We have a sale on sweatshirts right now, they’re less expensive than the T-shirts. Did you want to pick out one for each of them?”
Aunt Verla and Uncle Carl selected six sweatshirts from the rack.
“Sylvia, how much is the lettering going to cost?” asked Aunt Verla handing her the shirts.
“It’s twenty cents a letter including the punctuation.”
“Well we have a problem then. I didn’t quite budget for that. I’m going to be short sixty cents,” said Aunt Verla looking at Uncle Carl.
“Well, then somebody gets an abbreviated shirt,” said Uncle Carl. Turning to Sylvia he said, “just pick one of the smallest shirts, problem solved.”
Two weeks later Aunt Verla boxed each of the shirts. Mailing them to her boys and her nieces.
The thrill of finding an unexpected package from home eclipsed anything else in the day.
The box from Aunt Verla contained a note which read, ‘Fannie, your uncle and I had a great time in Maine. We bought you this sweatshirt. It was made by cousin Sylvia. We choose the town where your grandfather was born and where cousin Sylvia’s shop is located. Love, Aunt Verla. P.S. I ran out of money so we had to abbreviate Maine on your shirt. Enjoy.”
I unfolded the navy blue sweatshirt. Printed in white fuzzy letters across the chest, ‘KENNEBUNK ME.’
My roommate walked into our dorm room as I held up the shirt. She looked at the shirt, looked at me and asked, “How?”
“Oh great, most people have probably never heard of Kennebunk, Maine.”
“It’s supposed to be a place? I thought it was some sort of kinky invitation,” she said smiling. “You realize people are going to fight over who gets to wear that shirt, don’t you?”
“Oh no. Just wear it to class tomorrow and see what I mean.”
At 7:56 a.m., seated in the front row of the auditorium, I sat with my friends waiting for Professor Montcalm to arrive. The tan beret with protruding tuffs of blond hair bobbed just above the sea of heads. His matching smock billowed out behind him. Piercing blue eyes gazed over the room. With a flourish he put his notes on the podium and stepped to one side so the class could see him.
“Bonjour, Messieurs et Mesdemoiselles, aujourd’hui nous parlons français,” said Professor Montcalm as he surveyed the class, his eyes resting briefly on me. Pointing to the board behind him with questions and answers written in English he said, “Repondez aux questions suivantes selon le modèles en français.”
Pausing, he smoothed his pointed beard and began to pace. Clearing his throat he pointed to someone in the fifth row. “Monsieur, repondez vous à la question, ‘Is the work necessary?” he said glancing at me. He continued to pace. Smoothing his mustache as he waited for the answer.
“Oui, il est nécessaire.”
Glancing at me again, he pointed to a student in the seventh row. “Mademoiselle, repondez vous à la question, ‘What time is it?”
Before the she could answer, Professor Montcalm stopped in front of me. Leaning toward me he said, “I can’t take it any more, what does your shirt mean?”
A moment of silence followed as he stared at me.
“It’s the place where my grandfather was born,” I said quavering, “Kennebunk, Maine. My aunt couldn’t afford the three letters to complete the spelling of the state.”
The auditorium erupted with laughter. Professor Montcalm turned three shades of ‘rouge’.
“Now that’s funny,” said Richard laughing. “There’s no question what was on his mind. So did very many people ask to borrow it?”
“Oh yah. But that’s not all,” I said. “I went on a road trip to San Francisco with some friends that summer. It was chilly the last day we were in The City. I accidentally packed that sweatshirt, so I wore it. Walking out of a pawn shop onto the street an older couple from Connecticut stopped me saying, ‘You’re a long way from home.’ By the time we reached the crosswalk, twenty feet farther, five people asked, ‘How?’”
“If it’s that much of a nuisance, how come you’ve never gotten rid of it?” asked Richard.
“Sometimes you need a good laugh. And for sixty cents more, none of this would ever have happened,” I said winking then folded the sweatshirt and put it back in the drawer.
For more information on Kennebunk: Kennebunk, ME
(Please note: It has been years since I’ve studied French, I apologize if my grammar has deteriorated from lack of use. Merci.)