Dad’s old shirts provide the warm embrace of memory
My father’s clothes were the least remarkable thing about him. After he died, wearing them gave me comfort.
My father was not known for sartorial splendor. Quite the opposite; he eschewed the classic dress shirt, tie, and white coat of many older physicians, preferring the comfort of hoodies, sneakers, and hats with logos. When he was cold, which was most of the time, white thermal underwear layered with wool or flannel provided the insulation he lacked.
At his packed memorial service, he was remembered with love for his compassion and intelligence, and with a smile and a laugh for his big galoshes and his green ski jacket held together with duct tape. When forced to dress up to deliver a lecture or accompany my mother to a gala or political function, he grudgingly donned an old wool suit and a Liberty of London tie.
His lifelong indifference to fashion maddened my mother for over six decades, so after his death, she wasted no time in throwing out the clothes she had barely tolerated for all those years. She wasn’t being heartless, but grieving in her own way. I saw his clothes as treasured memories, while she viewed them without sentiment. We filled the trunk of my car with garbage bags of clothes — but instead of dropping them off as she had directed, I found myself sorting through them, mourning the life they had contained.
Now I sleep in my dad’s blue paisley Liberty pajama bottoms and a soft, age-thinned T-shirt advertising DriBeck’s Light beer. I have a photo of him wearing the shirt, sitting in his backyard reading, eyes thoughtful behind round glasses. In another picture in that same shirt, taken at his cabin in Vermont, he smiles broadly at my then-3-year-old son, eyes sparkling with pleasure. When it’s cold, I snuggle into his forest-green fleece with the BMC Trauma logo, a gift from my job, which he wore with pride. He took such joy in my accomplishments.
He frequently appeared at my house bearing vegetables from his garden, wearing his black Jamaica Plain cap and that green jacket, a soft cover on his bony, aging body. We sat at my kitchen table, ate Teddie peanut butter, and talked. He lit up as I shared an amusing story or a challenging medical case. Sometimes we went to J.P. Licks for ice cream, which he loved. Before he headed back to work at the nearby state laboratory institute, we always parted with a tender hug.
In one bag, I discovered an old V-neck sweater aged to cashmere softness, with a small hole in the front where the yarn has frayed from time and use. Its mossy color brings out the green of my hazel eyes, so much like my dad’s — and my son’s. In his gardening coat, a four-pocket jean jacket that I now wear in my own vegetable patch, I found crumpled tissues. His nose ran perpetually, and he always stuffed tissues into his pockets. There’s a blue button-down Carhartt shirt from Hill’s 5 & 10 in Bradford, Vermont, my dad’s favorite store (it closed in 2015), where he delighted in the bargain prices. And gray wool pants so heavy they slipped off his thin frame when he wore them without a belt. I can see him now, hitching them up as he walked.
Eventually I dropped off 10 bags of clothes for the Boston University medical school outreach van. Medical students run the van, which supplies clothing to people living on the streets and staying at nearby homeless shelters. I wonder if I will see those clothes again on one of my patients in the emergency department, where I work. My dad would be tickled to know that his things went to the people I care for, people who need them more than he did. But he would also be touched to know that I kept a few items for myself, and that they bring me comfort. When I wear them, I can still feel his arms wrapped around me, holding me close.