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.