Many days since my father’s death, I have worn some piece of his clothing. Often it is just a belt, brown or black. Today it was a blue dress shirt (several from which to choose), a navy blazer, an overcoat, and a wool cap…and the brown belt. I also have pullover sweaters, turtlenecks, mock turtlenecks, a plaid blazer, a brown hat with a brim, and more dress shirts. Lots of blue, red and white which fit the school district in which he worked and also his personal preferences. I’m more of a black, brown and green kind of guy—closer to my mother who would drop the black and add orange to her list of favorite colors to wear.
It was interesting going through the clothes. The sons and grandsons all had opportunities to choose and did. I had more opportunities than others as my father and I were closest in size and in style. Some items were easy to take and wear like dress shirts that intermingle with my own to the degree that I’m not always sure whose is whose. Other items are definitely my father’s, not things I would have bought for myself, yet I am willing to wear them because they were his and I’m willing to stretch and incorporate more of his presentation into me. And then there were those items that I just couldn’t do, and not because they wouldn’t fit my body. They just wouldn’t fit.
Wearing my father’s clothes is a comfort most of the time. As I dress, I think of him putting on the same shirt, buttoning up in front of a mirror, making sure things line up just right. I smile as I become more like him, getting “older and colder,” needing more layers to be comfortable. More layers of my father’s clothing. More layers of my father…and mother, and grandparents, and relatives, and friends past.
You can feel it, can’t you, and you do it, too? We all wear the clothes of our parents in ways visible and unseen. They are part of us in the normal, everydayness of living. In how we dress, what we eat, how we sit, the tilt of the head and the tone in our voice. We have been imprinted in ways we realize and ways often hidden to us. There are parts of us that push back against this imprinting. We spend much of our young lives sorting out how we will not be like our parents but instead be our own persons. In doing so, we also come to realize many of the ways we are our parents’ children in manners both wanted and unwanted. Sometimes others can see it better than we can as we are told how much we look like or remind others of our parents. My son has been told countless times that he looks like his father. I was told countless times that I looked like…my mother, and if I had a dress on and pigtails… (well, that is a reflection for another time). We also see it in old pictures and in a glance of realization in the mirror and hear it in the voice of our partners when they say, “You’re just like your…” Sometimes a comfort and sometimes an easy way to push buttons.
We may be tempted and can try to leave our parents behind but we can never be fully successful as they, living or dead, are part of who we are. We can also never be fully successful in holding to a static image of our parents as time changes them and us, again, living or dead. How can we truly leave them behind or take them with us in whole? Our task lies somewhere in-between.
I was pressing one of my father’s blue shirts this week when I noticed a stain that would not be coming out. Like my father, it appears, I am prone to get things on my clothes. As I put the shirt in the back of the closet, out of rotation, I felt sad as if I had lost a little bit more of my father. Eventually most, if not all, of the clothes I inherited will go away, stained, worn out, moth-eaten, lost or obsolete. They were not designed or intended to last a lifetime. But my father’s imprint, my mother’s presence, and the influence of all whom I have loved and who loved me first or back, will continue to part of me as I was and will be for them. That is some consolation in the midst of loss. But in the meantime, I’ll be wearing my father’s clothes.
Center for Good Mourning