My Father's Shirts
Watercolor and gouache on board, by JD.
My father died in January, as peacefully as he and we could have hoped. No lingering illness preceded his death, only a gentle decline. Sitting in his favorite chair, watching a football game on a Sunday afternoon, he had a stroke, slumped down, and passed from this life. The abruptness of his departure left us bereft. The shock was profound, first for my dear stepmother, Jane, suddenly his widow who had to cope most immediately with the event. But also for his children, stepchildren, extended family and friends. Across generations and connections, we all felt the loss. My father had been a big man, a benevolent patriarch. He was capacious in his ability to hold us all in his view, aware of our identities and foibles as well as our individual roles within that complex system that was the family. His knowing us and seeing us gave the family and larger community a coherence that could not be replaced.
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His going left the tedious pile of paperwork that death bequeaths to the living. The cruel business of dealing with bureaucracies and legalities is an unexpected death tax. Nine decades of life leaves unsolved mysteries. Organized though we thought he was, we found missing trails and documents of unclear pedigree. We had to figure out which of the folded sheets from forty years earlier, or fifty, were still to be counted among the valid testaments and which were obsolete issues from agencies no longer in existence. The task of tracking the many details was daunting and slow and Jane, with enduring patience, persisted through months of reviewing unsorted files and obscure papers. The work is grueling and sad. Each request for a death certificate to accompany a request replays the moment of passing. Loss registers in every transaction.
At first, his personal effects seemed almost too intimate to address. Only a handful passed immediately to the grandchildren. A folded flag, remnant of Army service, went to an inconsolable grandson, some cufflinks, hats, and other objects to others desperate to staunch the flow of sadness. These talismanic objects provide some solace, as if by holding them one might still connect with the living person, counter the disbelief at their loss. Death thus enacts a distribution and diffusion. Objects disperse from desk and drawers like consoling messengers. The after-life of my father had some continuity through the after-life of his things. Through a ritual touch to a singular object, we struggled to maintain connection to the departed. Mourning is a slow process, physical as well as emotional. One lives with loss the way one lived with love, as a daily awareness of absence instead of presence.
But the bulk of his clothing sat undisturbed for months. No one imagined he would return, or even that it was wrong to dispose of his things. But time had to pass before it felt appropriate to do so. My father’s clothes, folded or hanging in his closet, held the ghost of his body as a form, still present in the shape of garments molded by his wearing. Any touch would disturb them, banish the remaining traces of presence. So they waited, fading witnesses to a vanished being. In May, I made another of several visits to the apartment to assist my bereaved stepmother. We both felt the time had come.
My father was not a fancy man. His own father had been a bit of a dandy in his day, and had left a lingering association between flashy suits and irresponsible behavior that did not sit well with my father. Except on rare occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or other events that required a degree of formality, he dressed simply, and always in the same manner. He wore twill cotton khaki pants with striped suspenders, solid work shoes for the extra balance required by age, and an occasional fleece sweater or outer garment. He was disinclined to conspicuous consumption or display. His curly black hair had long ago gone silver but his complexion remained fresh, clean-shaven. His robust frame and heart were strengthened by years of daily swimming and he remained vital to the end even as the vicissitudes of age took their toll.
He had one great pleasure–his shirts. He varied the routine of his appearance mainly by his selection from the inventory he possessed. Each one had been the result of careful curatorial decisions to create a collection of fine-weave cottons in pin stripes and tattersalls, light plaids, and solids. He wore few deep colors, and tended towards light patterns with lots of white, in complement to the silver of his hair. Extra-large to fit easily on his substantial frame, the shirts were always dry-cleaned and pressed, fresh and crisp. He took care with his person, as with his daily routines of shaving and showering, making his bed with gestures that smoothed the wrinkles from the sheets in ritual movements that opened his day. So it was with his habits of dress, almost ceremonial in their repetition and adherence to standards of self-respect. He was ready to deal with the world, do his errands to the bank and pharmacy, to greet the concierge and bank teller to whom he presented himself, fully put together. And the shirts were the single variable. Blue stripes one day, pink checks another, a plaid of pale yellow and deep turquoise–each was selected to suit the occasion. With their bright soft colors, the shirts generated light and warmth. Nothing too intense, too harsh, too vivid. The pastel range of tones complemented his hair and complexion generating a lightness in his physical presence.
But on that May day, resigned to a long-postponed task, Jane and I began the difficult process of putting the shirts into heavy plastic garbage bags in preparation for removing them from the apartment. The shirts in the drawers were pristine. Most were in transparent bags, back from the dry cleaners, stacked neatly on each other. Each was as crisp as paper, collars and cuffs folded into place by the expert hand of the dry cleaners. In some cases, the shirts were still in original shipping bags, purchased and not worn, cardboard under their collars, tissue paper in their folds. My father believed in quality, but not excess, and the shirts from Eddie Bauer, L.L.Bean were well-made, each meant to last. His outerwear came from Burberry’s. He knew that for protection against moisture and warmth nothing could surpass the British. Suits and sports jackets came from Brooks Brothers or other men’s stores that guaranteed value and durability, timeless style. But for daily wear, he gravitated to the reliable fabrics and well-hemmed buttonholes of established brands.
Trying to buffer ourselves against the sadness, we worked in relative silence, voices low, and spoke only to communicate necessities, tie off a bag, start another. I had failed to find a charitable organization that might come and pick up the clothes, so we had decided we would take the shirts to the local Salvation Army. The store was just a few blocks away on Market Street in center city Philadelphia. The garbage bags into which we loaded were dark as body bags. We filed the flat envelopes into their depths with resignation. The bags were strong, but weighted with mourning.
A combination of deference and avoidance accompanied the task. Respect for my father, his possessions, and the poignant awareness of his absence were palpable. We put his cherished objects into a bag for disposal—no euphemism masks the reality. Tenderness was one feeling, but the task also required a clinical distance. The shirts needed to go, be sent to their next destination. The inevitable had to be faced.
Each item taken from the drawer or closet marked another moment of loss. I did not know every shirt. I had not lived near enough to my father in the preceding decades to see him in every mood or moment of his life. But Jane must have had associations with each of these, consciously or not, as they triggered material memories in the depth of her psyche. We went about the packing, respecting each other’s need to process what we were doing while also being pragmatically aware that we had only a limited time to go about the business on which we were focused.
Closets were emptied. The hangars hung loose. The drawers were voided of their contents, sliding easily now they were released of their load. A hollow sound echoed as they closed. My father seemed to be evaporating with the departure of his shirts, as if their relation to his corporeal existence gave them a role to play in this phase of letting go. The empty drawers concretized my sense of mourning, made it physical. Jane said little. We applied ourselves to the necessary task.
Once the sacks were full, they bulged in their vulgar green-black plastic skins, indiscriminate with regard to their contents. They might have contained old curtains, sheets, even office files for all that their shapes revealed what was contained within them. But they held a whole life, a set of possibilities for encounter and events. Each shirt was an unfulfilled promise for a future event, options never to be used ahead. Each was part of my father’s regime of decisions about what would be appropriate in which circumstance. The light blue might be too formal, the pink tattersall too lively, the pinstripe not quite in tune with the mood of the destination for which he was dressing. And if, as was often the case, he was dressing to be home with himself and Jane for the day, then what matched the tone of the light, the mood, the atmosphere as he moved from shower to bedroom to dress? So he consulted with himself on the colors to raise for the day, even if were to be passed in relative privacy.
Once finished with the packing, we had to get the heavy bags to the Salvation Army a few blocks away. The old store had been there for decades, its shop front windows cluttered with random offerings, abandoned detritus washed up on the shore of the charity site to be offered for re-sale. The store seemed well-run and inviting, but the idea of consigning my father’s precious shirts to the hands of strangers was still upsetting. The shirts seemed an unused portion of his life, the balance left on the account that he had not been given time to use.
But no one in the family could wear the shirts, they were too large. But they were also too personal, too intimate in their connection to him, to appropriate. Putting any of them on would have felt like a transgression. Even slipping them from their pristine packages, unfolding the perfectly pressed fabric, would have felt like a violation of his personal space.
So we dragged the bags to the elevator of the apartment building, tag teaming the tasks. Jane is tiny, capable and determined, but the bags were large and awkward. Between us we managed to maneuver the bulky objects to the entrance to the apartment building, where we flagged a taxi. At first, seeing the load and finding out we were going only a few blocks, the driver was impatient. But once the sad precious cargo was loaded and we were in the cab, I told him what our mission was–that these were my recently deceased father’s belongings. He immediately softened, his tone became gentle, respectful. He understood the need to honor ancestors and he registered the pain of loss.
We arrived at the Salvation Army in a matter of minutes. The trip was almost too fast, too short a time in which to process the loss we were about to experience again by handing off this massive bulk of personal items. The act felt brutal, violent, but prolonging and stretching it out seemed to serve no purpose either. So we stopped in front of the store, looking for the drop-off and intake counter. Then the shock. The store was closed. A fire had caused some damage in the building next door and though the Salvation Army was intact, it had suspended operations for that day. Just for that day. We hesitated. I was leaving in the morning, heading to the airport. We had the bags in the taxi and could not imagine taking them back to the apartment, pathetic in their mournful dead weight. So much psychic energy had been required to pack them up, get them out the door, and even the transaction with the taxi driver had been an expenditure of emotional reserves. We looked at each other, Jane and I, and said, ok, we will do something we would never have imagined and just pile the bags at the back door of the store, abandon them to their fate.
The task was quickly completed. We paid the now sympathetic driver and let him go, wanting to walk the few blocks back through the early morning city as a way to clear our heads and ease our hearts. We turned from the pile of bags, leaning slumped and sad against the building, and walked away.
I felt wretched abandoning the treasure in those sacks, as if I had failed to pass my father’s legacy on to a proper end. But we could not imagine another solution in those moments and I could not burden Jane with the weight of finding another destination for the shirts. Their modest splendor was now concealed from view, muffled by the dark shroud of plastic.
A somber afternoon followed. We did not speak of the act. We went through the day, sorting and finishing other tasks, making surface talk. In this gentle avoidance, mutually agreed upon, were both fully aware of the many dimensions of our sadness.
In the morning, I took a taxi to the airport early in the day. The sun was up but the streets were empty, quiet, and without traffic. The taxi moved smoothly from the apartment building, then turned on Market Street to cross over toward the entrance to the expressway. And then I saw the store front windows of the Salvation Army. From sill to ceiling they were alive with color, a vividly glowing spectrum of soft tones and pastel hues filled the windows with light. My father’s shirts had been hung in a continuous curtain of display. Each had been taken from its bag, unfolded, and carefully placed on a hanger. Row after row filled the entire shop front. The shirts appeared to float upward with the transcendent energy of material released from earth to spirit. All the many moments of his existence filled my eyes, luminous and incandescent. I could not have imagined such an appreciative gesture of farewell from the hands of strangers.
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What an amazing testament to your father and a beautiful narrative in its own right. I'm thankful to get a glimpse into the person he was.
Reading this again. What beautiful story and tribute to the great man your father was.