I arrived in LA for my mom's 78th birthday a few days ago. It was going to be her first birthday in 55 years without my dad. The first 30 minutes in the house are so odd and very difficult - looking for my dad asleep on the couch, his simple hospital bed in the corner of the dining room, his soft blue eyes opening and saying, "hi sweetheart," as if I hadn't lived outside of LA 25 years ago.
My mom had bought herself fuschia and purple dahlias and put them around the house. She told me she let herself open presents that had arrived early on the day they arrived, 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 by French and Portuguese.
I wake up the next morning and head to a yoga class with the slight buzz of the wine, the food and the chocolate mousse from the night before. Somewhere in my third downward dog, I remember the real reason for my coming to LA, or the second real reason, since there is usually not just one reason for being in a particular place.
After breakfast and a drop in from my mother's next door neighbor, my mom and I head upstairs to the guest room. It's small room that was briefly my brother Mark's and then my dad's caretaker's, but which, since my dad's death, had been turned into a guest room.
One wall is covered in sliding doors.
My mom sits down on the daybed with a yellow legal pad. I slide open the far right door. His clothes hung 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, and I remember something I always loved about my dad - the way he kept his shirts clean and pressed despite a full and hard day of work. The subtle stripes and tight plaids, the creases that held despite his not wearing them for a number of years. I put aside a small paisley print one 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 onto his short sleeves 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 sleeve and also didn't wear a tie or jacket) at work; 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 which make my mom and I giggle. All in a perfect folds over steel and plastic hangers, but obviously not worn in a very long time, which I can tell from the line of dust that rested along each crease.
But in the middle of the neat order, a pair of jeans bulk. I push the pants on either side away. His jeans, a pair of Levis, 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 was 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 one, 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 pair of clothing, summer clothing.
In the end, this is the list, a list of my dad's clothing:
- 5 sweaters, 2 sweater vests
- 8 pair of shoes, one pair of slippers
- 3 pairs of pajamas
- 12 short sleeved shirts
- 10 long sleeved shorts
- 22 pair of pants, one pair of Levi jeans
- 15 ties and 8 belts, two pairs of suspenders
- 3 sweatshirts and 3 zip up jackets
- 10 sports jackets and 5 suits, including the suit he wore to my wedding
I chose 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 into 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 up the bags, I put my head close to the opening and take in one last deep breath. I carry the bags down and place them neatly in a corner of the garage, which will be picked up some time 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 clothes many times. I will wear my dad's story in the form of a red v-neck sweater, a brown cashmere pull over and a paisley raw silk shirt, as another way of keeping his story going.
But I have to wonder, wow long will it take for the form of his life that is in every piece of clothing, to take the shape of another? If I was walking down the street in Los Angeles, or in Longmont, would I recognize a shirt, a sweater, his softly worn Levis 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.