Valerie Schultz
After my father's death, his socks and shirts seemed sacred.

Although none of us had ever met the man, we all wore C.H.J.Jr.’s dress shirts that summer. Made of high-quality white, brushed cotton, each one featured French cuffs, a small collar and a classy, dark-blue monogram (from which we learned the original owner’s initials) over the left breast. My brother worked at a secondhand clothing store and had picked up a dozen or so of the shirts for $2.

It was the 1970s, and we were college students home for the summer. The shirts hung loosely on our skinny, hippie frames and looked just right over bathing suits, jeans or cutoffs. They were so comfortable and, at the same time, so establishment, uptight. I mean, monograms! But even while we lived in them, we mocked them. We joked about the idea of C.H.J.Jr.’s family cleaning out his closet after his death and donating his expensive, conformist shirts to Goodwill Industries. If C.H.J.Jr. could see his Republican shirts now, we laughed, on braless girls and longhaired boys, he would roll in his grave.

Thirty years later, I am assaulted by guilt over the cavalier way we treated C.H.J.Jr.’s effects. The pain was especially sharp recently as I sorted through my dad’s clothes two weeks after his death. I treated as sacred his socks, his pants, his shoes. I folded with reverence his trademark sport shirts—short-sleeved and banded at the bottom—of which I found enough to clothe an entire floor of retirement home residents.

After my siblings plucked their memories from my dad’s belongings, I brought home much of what was left, because I am the donor of the family. I am good at this kind of redistribution, and I am certain my dad would approve of our giving away his belongings. He could not stand to waste anything. I sorted through his military history books, his old pairs of glasses, his clothes—and then spent a day dropping off items at the public library, the Lions Club eyeglass-donation box at the optometrist and, finally, the state prison where I work.

The Catholic inmates there have established their own internal St. Vincent de Paul Society, which outfits the newly released—especially those of little means or with no families— with “dress outs,” or decent clothes to wear into the free world. My dad had donated an armful of his sports coats to this good cause before his illness took over. He was tickled by the idea and certain that his wardrobe would help the parolees land a good job. I pictured each newly released man wearing one of dad’s banded sport shirts: homeboys in Republican wear, turning over a new leaf, breathing free.

Today I wonder if C.H.J.Jr.’s family donated his things in haste, anxious after the funeral to get back to normal life (although I understand now that life will never be quite normal again when you are fatherless). I wonder if any of C.H.J.Jr.’s kids did with their father’s clothes what I did: rolled up one shirt, the one my dad was wearing the day the hospice workers came to set him up with a hospital bed and morphine, which was the day before he died, and put it in my suitcase before leaving my mother’s house. I could not quite put that last trace of his scent in the laundry. It is still unpacked.

When I was 20, I wore and washed my C.H.J.Jr. shirt until it was tattered and finally ripped into nothing. Had it survived, I hope I would now put it on with a different, humbler attitude. I hope I would honor C.H.J.Jr.’s life, unknown to me, appreciate his good taste in fabric and breathe a small prayer that his children and grandchildren are comforted by the thought of C.H.J.Jr. watching out for them from above.

But I might not, just as an ex-con probably would not think to bless the original owner of his funky new parole shirt. Then again, he just might. It is not a lot, that little breath of faith. But it helps.

Valerie Schultz, who lives in Tehachapi, Calif., is an occasional contributor to America.

Comments

Jo Harrell | 2/28/2010 - 9:29pm

When I brought home my mother's clothes from the nursing home, I lovingly washed and folded them all.  I carefully packed them in a bag and one of her sitters picked them up to give to needy residents of another nursing home. 

I understand about keeping the shirt because of the scent.  I still have her hairbrush and my father's half used bottle of cologne.  Some things I cannot bear to lose.  I am not ready to get rid of that scent or at least just knowing it's there.

It is so hard to give away my dad's books.  He loved to read and wrote his little comments about the book on the inside cover.  However, I am moving and we did not share the same interests in many books so I am only keeping a few.  I'm finding this to be the hardest thing to do. And, I wonder what the person will think who picks up the book and reads the comment.

ROBERT GLENN | 2/26/2010 - 12:50pm
I understand.
When my mom died I could not bear to give her things to an organizaation that I knew would sell the articles so I donated all of her things to a mission in Mexico. This particular mission was connected to the practice of a local doctor and his wife who went down there frequently to tend to their physical and emotional needs. The doctor and his wife personally took these items with them.
When I had to place my dad into a nursing facility again I faced with the same situation. This time his clothing and the furnishings from the house went to the relief efforts of our diocese in resettling refugees from the asian continent.
In this way I feel I paid tribute to my parents and took of the needs of our nrothers and sisters in Christ.