The Paint Shirt Legacy


Anyone who’s ever taken on do-it-yourself projects has one. No one talks about it. No one ever sees it except the dog… and household family members if it can’t be helped. Mine sits in a shadowy corner of my house 314.2 days of the year hidden behind things I treasure in order to keep anyone from discovering it. It only emerges for messy projects—deck cleaning, drywalling and painting. Yes, it’s the paint shirt.

My mother had one too. It was a short-sleeved, pigment-smeared, faded blue T-shirt I saw nearly every Saturday of my childhood because we were on a single-mom shoestring budget and there was never money to hire anything done (or even buy a new paint shirt). So, lawn mowing, out it came. Leaky faucet, it was there. Ritual weekend cleaning, the shirt was on the job.

A habitual home decorator, Mom would throw on that tatty, color-coated smock and paint a room nearly once a year, even if she had to have a garage sale to raise the money for the supplies. She was a wiz at painting; all she needed was a roller, a brush and that shirt.

It would have been an unremarkable frock, really, except for one thing: its design. The words “I.C. Hot” emblazoned the front in cherry red and a D.C. Comics® picture of Wonder Woman™ sprang into action all over the middle. Mom had worn and washed it so many times the “I,” “O” and “H” of “I.C. Hot” crackled, curled and peeled in several places.

So how is it possible that I saw this shirt repeatedly for the better part of 10 years and never wondered who or what I.C. Hot was or why Wonder Woman was there, especially when the shirt’s carefree, comical style was such a marked departure from the tailored, no-nonsense mother I knew. (The only frivolous thing I ever saw her do was dance around our living room to “Jesus Is Just Alright” by the Doobie Brothers.)

It wasn’t until just last year— not long after she passed away, when my older brother and I were reminiscing about all the times Mom had us clean, decorate or paint on a Saturday morning as kids—that I asked about that shirt.

“I.C. Hot was a band some friends of hers were in, and they made it for her,” he explained one Saturday night over the phone.

“What?” I exclaimed in disbelief, “Mom had friends in a band? When did she ever go see them?”

“I dunno. We had babysitters from time to time. Maybe then.”

“So what was with Wonder Woman?”

He didn’t know.

Maybe Mom reminded the band of Wonder Woman or maybe it was just because it was the 70s and Wonder Woman was so cool? Either way, after years of thinking that her ragged top was just a discarded item that meant nothing to her, I’d found out it was actually proof that my straight-laced Mom had a groupie buried deep within. Suddenly that tattered rag seemed pretty cool.

Not long after that, on a day I missed Mom horribly, a colleague reminded me that all the things my mother did for me I am now doing for my daughter. It is the meaning of a legacy. I just hope, one day, my daughter thinks of me in my dilapidated paint shirt with as much love as I did my mother…even if there’s no Wonder Woman on the front.