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Essay: What we wear in this life

Photo by Ion-Bogdan Dumitrescu/Getty

I arrive in Los Angeles for my mom’s 78th birthday, her first birthday in 55 years without my dad. The first 30 minutes in the house are odd and difficult — I’m looking for my dad asleep on the couch, his simple hospital bed in the corner of the dining room, opening his soft blue eyes and saying, “Hi, sweetheart,” as if I hadn’t lived away from L.A. for 25 years.

My mom bought herself fuchsia and purple dahlias and put them around the house. She tells me she let herself open presents that had arrived early, instead of waiting until her birthday. “Why not enjoy the presents for as long as possible?”

We take ourselves out to a new French bistro and pretend we’re on the Left Bank, surrounded by handsome waiters joking with each other in French. I tell the waiter it’s my mom’s birthday, and she is serenaded in a combination of French and Portuguese.

The next morning, after breakfast and a visit from my mother’s next-door neighbor, Mom and I head upstairs to the guest room.

My mom sits down on the daybed with a yellow legal pad. I slide open the closet door. His clothes hang waiting, but not for him. I stand in front of the clothes and sigh. My mom says she doesn’t really feel anything, since he’d stopped wearing most of them long ago.

We sort through his sweaters first. I choose two for myself, a red wool V-neck and a brown cashmere pullover. I count them out and my mom writes it down, wanting to record what we are giving away. Next are his shirts, which make me remember something I always loved about my dad — the way he kept his shirts clean and pressed despite a full day of hard work. The subtle stripes and tight plaids, the creases that have held despite his not wearing them for a number of years. I put aside a paisley print shirt in red, brown and green — my mom’s favorite.

I’m glad I’m the only one his shirts will fit: my brothers too tall, my husband too broad, my nephews too cool. We move on to his short-sleeved shirts, the ones he wore most of the time, first at the store and then at his watchmaker’s station. He liked the open feeling of the short sleeves and also didn’t wear a tie or jacket at the office—one of the perks of working for himself.

A rhythm begins — clothes off the hangers and onto the bed. Counted and then moved to another part of the room. We get to his pants. Khakis, wool gabardines, various slacks. Even a pair of cruise ship whites that makes my mom and I giggle. All are perfectly folded over steel and plastic hangers but obviously have not been worn in a very long time. Lines of dust rest along each crease.

But in the middle of the neat order, a pair of jeans appears. His jeans, a pair of Levi’s, with the belt still in the loops. Somehow the pants seem warm and the denim very soft, but not worn out. The belt left in the loops is out of place, nothing my father would have done. He would have pulled the belt out and hung it up with the others on the hanger designed for that purpose.

The weight of the belt, a black Pierre Cardin, offers a form that is no longer here, no longer form-able. I run my hands down the jeans and cry. When my father arrived alone in Toronto, after a train, a boat and then another train took him away from the Nazis, he owned one outfit of summer clothing.

In the end, this is the list, a final tally of my dad’s clothing:

Five sweaters, two sweater vests
Eight pairs of shoes, one pair of slippers
Three pairs of pajamas
Twelve short-sleeved shirts
Ten long-sleeved shirts
Twenty-two pairs of pants, one pair of Levi’s jeans
Fifteen ties and eight belts, two pairs of suspenders
Three sweatshirts and three zip-up jackets
Ten sport jackets and five suits, including the suit he wore to my wedding

I choose a tie for my husband, with my dad’s knot still in it.

The clothes are all out. I proceed to pull down an old slide projector. Endless travel bags. Shoe polish kits. Old perfume and faded yarmulkes. Empty watch repair envelopes, the ones I used to carefully log in my dad’s record book when I was old enough to be trusted with the task. Two hours later, the closet is empty. I tell my mom I’ll take care of the rest, not wanting her to have to watch the clothes get placed into black garbage bags.

I fold the clothes and put them inside the bags, six in all. Before I close the bags, I put my head close to the openings and take in one last deep breath. I carry the bags down and place them neatly in a corner of the garage. They will be picked up sometime next week.

We wear clothes for many reasons: to keep us warm or cool, to communicate to the world a story of who we are. I’m happy that as I slip my arms into the few pieces traveling home with me, I will feel the memory of his arms having entered in and out of these same sleeves many times. I will wear my dad’s story in the form of a red V-neck sweater, a brown cashmere pullover and a paisley raw silk shirt, another way of keeping his story going.

But I have to wonder: How long will it take for the form of his life, which is in every piece of clothing, to take the shape of another? If I was walking down the street in Los Angeles, or in Colorado, would I recognize a shirt, a sweater, his softly worn Levi’s on someone else’s body? Will I look for them? For him in them? How far will his clothes travel? And what will I feel toward that person lucky enough to wear my dad’s clothes —kinship?

I hope I will, and to that I add: Amen.


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