The intricate fabrics of love

Saturday, February 6, 2021 - 3:01pm

.

Illustration by Eileen Kelly

My dad shows his love through gifting t-shirts.

It doesn’t matter the occasion or the time of year or the person receiving it — the man does it out of pure joy. Because of this obsession, it would seem rather intuitive that his go-to holiday presents are t-shirts galore, from the “Don’t speak to me before my coffee” shirt for my mother to the “Michigan Grandpa” shirts for his father.

My dad’s knack for gifting t-shirts kicked off 15 or so years ago, at the height of March Madness with his best friend Scott. The two met when they were 18-year-old students at the University of Michigan, living as freshmen in Alice Lloyd, and they quickly grew close when they rushed a fraternity together. The two lived together for the rest of their college careers and eventually moved to the same New York City suburb of Millburn, N.J. They were, and still are, an inseparable pair who love to create fun in any situation, no matter the circumstance. 

Through the years, with a love of sports and a passion for adrenaline, Scott and my dad had done their fair share of casual sports betting. So every year when March rolled around, they both cashed into a handful of leagues with numerous potential brackets on their side. After some time, that tradition became boring and repetitive. They no longer got a kick out of just cheering for Michigan or winning a few bucks here and there. My dad and Scott needed to do what they did best: Make something out of what had become not so much.

Something to note about March Madness is that there are always a handful of lesser-known teams that emerge out of the shadows as forces to be reckoned with. They’re the upset teams, the Cinderella stories, the “Who beat Duke?!” soundbites. They’re the schools my dad and Scott loved to occasionally place wagers on saying they’d go far, but their fun usually ended there. But then they found the perfect way to spice things up: Become dedicated fans of these underdog teams. And what better way to become a dedicated fan than by purchasing the team’s apparel for one another?

This was the early 2000s, and the internet wasn’t the mass-marketplace that it is today. My dad and Scott had to physically pay a visit to the smaller universities whenever they had the chance just to secure a t-shirt. For example, when my dad took a business trip to Nashville, Tenn., he made a point to stop by Belmont to get Scott a Bruins short sleeve. He did the same with Florida Gulf Coast when he went on vacation in Naples, Fla. 

And with that, a tradition was born. A small tradition that, with the help of the internet, became larger, more accessible and undoubtedly significant with the years to come. Since the pair began this ritual, they extended the limitations to shirts with famous movie quotes on them, and individually have collected and gifted over 50 t-shirts for the other (all of which they wear). 

The author’s father pictured wearing a “McLovin’” shirt, as gifted by Scott.

The author’s father pictured wearing a “McLovin’” shirt, as gifted by Scott. Buy this photo
.

The action of gifting Scott the perfect short sleeve tee gave my dad so much satisfaction that it began to carry over to other significant relationships in his life. After every business trip, concert or outing, my dad returned home with a shirt for each member of my family, allowing us all to start collections of our own. Because of him, I now have a pile full of obscure Grateful Dead tees, a Longhorns sleep shirt and a Breckenridge v-neck, among others. I also now have an extremely sentimental Ruth Bader Ginsburg dancing bear shirt — a gift that was sent to comfort me and commemorate her after she passed. Most recently, a shirt with cartoon drawings of my beloved dogs was added to my collection, which I received following an anxiety attack that occurred on the phone with him. With each package came yet another reminder that he loved me, was thinking of me and was here for me whenever, through whatever. 

The author pictured with a t-shirt of her dogs received from her father.

The author pictured with a t-shirt of her dogs received from her father. Buy this photo
.

I’ve only bought a t-shirt as a gift for someone a few times in my life, with my dad being the primary receiver. But even so, gift-giving has never exactly been my strong suit. I never know what to get, where to get it or what I’m even looking for. I’m much better at showing my love through articulating my emotions rather than offering a tangible symbol of it. Birthday cards and love letters take me only minutes to write, and when I feel something strong enough, I feel compelled to verbalize it in whatever capacity I see fit. I often don’t take vulnerability into consideration — I see words as my armor and verbal support as my form of expression. 

I show my love by explicitly telling people I need them, I care about them, I’d give anything in the world just to spend time with them. This is a drastically different experience than gifting t-shirts. But then again, people often have radically different and niche ways of expressing their love. This phenomenon is so persistent in society that in 1992, the author Gary Chapman created a theory explaining these differences in a book titled “The Five Love Languages”. Chapman theorizes that each member in a relationship — romantic, platonic or familial — offer love in the way they want to receive it, with actions falling into one of five so-called “languages”: physical touch, quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation and receiving gifts. 

The book ended up gaining more attention than anticipated, with over 13 million copies sold worldwide and a spot on The New York Times’ best seller list since 2007. Chapman’s theory of love languages has received a significant amount of praise from major media organizations and the general public, becoming a common phrase in everyday conversation. The amount of positive feedback and success stories from reading the book makes it evident that Chapman’s theory has at least some truth to it. And though I admit I have never read the book myself, I see his general ideas play out in my everyday life.

However, I didn’t consciously buy into the idea of love languages for a while — and that was a problem. 

Because I have always been so vocal with my feelings, I saw others staying silent about theirs as a sign of dislike or mistrust. I desperately wanted my friends, family or significant others to not only tell me how they felt, but to shout it from the rooftops. I needed to hear a confirmation that our relationship was real because in my eyes without that articulation, it wasn’t. 

As I write this now, I am further reminded of how backwards and toxic that train of thought can be. I failed to recognize that some people have a harder time speaking in a vulnerable capacity than others, and that some people avoid it all together. But this absence of explicit language doesn’t necessarily equate to an absence of love — it just indicates that they have a different way of expressing it, a different love language. My perspective on relationships, kindness and care changed significantly once I took a step back and recognized that. 

When I started actively training myself to practice patience and awareness with those I care about, I began to realize how many little instances of love are deeply embedded in my everyday life. Love exists in the little representations of support, whether it be through a gift, through an action, through a subtle touch, through time well spent or through words.

I see love in the way my roommate Emery teaches me how to cook each time we prepare a meal, showing me simple techniques that even a 5-year-old may know, but I may not. I see love in the pictures my mother sends me each day of my treasured dogs, knowing that I miss them ever so dearly. I see love in the way my grandmother always answers the phone, with a simple yet beautiful “Is this my Andie?!” each time I call. I see love in the memory of how my high school boyfriend and I valued our tradition of coming home to my kitchen after a night out to devour endless amounts of cold cuts.

I see love in my roommate Natalie’s long distance relationship, seen most specifically when her boyfriend Noah came from College Park, Md., to visit us in Ann Arbor this past October. He told her that he bought her a gift, and upon hearing this news, she went to buy him one too. It would be easy to assume that the gift was something typical of couples, like flowers or candy. But upon arriving at our apartment, Noah showed up with a sheet full of stick-on mustaches and in return received a 7/11 toy race car. I see love in their unspoken, silly understanding of one another. 

I see love when remembering the moment I returned home to my apartment after a not-so-good-very-bad day, and my roommates offered me my favorite goods, explaining to me that they raided the nearest convenience store in an attempt to make me smile. I see love in the fact that they repeated this heroic action again today to make me feel better about the writer's block that inevitably crept up with this piece. 

I see endless amounts of love in every t-shirt my dad ever gifted me or Scott or my brother or mother. It’s deeply ingrained in the fabric of each purchase.

Love exists in the personal, in the private, in the public — it’s everywhere. But if you limit your lens to only seeing love in the way you personally offer it, you’re destined to miss it. So I urge you to take a deep breath, step back and open your eyes to every action of care you’re missing. It may seem a bit cheesy and romantic, but put on the rose-colored glasses and allow yourself to see the overwhelming amounts of love that exists in the moments in front of you. 

You may just find it in the shirt you’re wearing.