Everyone has a rag collection. Tucked away in a cabinet, on a shelf, or filling a closet bag, rags are close at hand though out of sight. Generally soft, absorbent fragments of cloth, we use them to wipe dirty surfaces, clean up spills, and to take care of the most indelible messes. Though unwanted scraps of castoffs, they hold an everyday magic we rarely contemplate.
My pile is a colorful, random accumulation of pieces ripped from old shirts and towels, trousers, blankets and underwear. Usually I mindlessly grab a rag in the hurry of a minor kitchen emergency or the rush of a project around the house, but the other day I paused and actually looked at them for a few moments. I saw an eye-catching collage of white, red, green, and a spectrum of other colors jumbled together. There were remnants of a yellow stripped shirt and a snippet of purple terry cloth that had been a hand towel. Suddenly, the assorted textures and kaleidoscope of colors seemed not just a pile of cast offs, but something beautiful. At last I understood why quilters cherished odd scraps of cloth in anticipation of stitching together a larger, coherent vision.
The arresting hues and contrasting arrangements caused me to look more closely than I typically might. Soon I saw beyond the wrinkled and ripped cloth pieces and started remembering the clothes and other items of which the scraps were once part. In just a glance I rediscovered the blue flannel shirt I had on my first climb of Mount Washington and the khaki pants I wore to a friend’s wedding. There were tee shirts celebrating events as diverse as concerts and winning baseball teams. I found a remnant of the one I wore on my first call as a volunteer firefighter. There were even a couple ratty diapers, remains from my college-age son’s infancy. The memories flooded back as if I were looking through an old scrap book or photo album. It’s now hard to mop up a spilled cup of coffee without a wave of nostalgia.
Exposed now to the artsy and time machine affects of rags, there’s new depth to some of the most mundane and menial tasks. I’m anticipating the future rags I’m now wearing, wondering at what odd moment I might remember this day.