My father passed away a few months back after a lengthy illness. He was 88. It was a peaceful, painless crossing, and for that my family and I are grateful.
My father was a good, decent, hard-working man. He loved his wife and children, his relatives, this country, the outdoors, and had many friends. He was loyal, smart, wise, and witty. He also was pretty good-looking, with sharp blue eyes and a wash of curly hair that held high on his head throughout his life.
What my father wasn’t was a sharp dresser. I mean, he looked sharp when he dressed up. And he had plenty of clothes and shoes to do just that — name-brand sweaters and slacks, wool pullovers and classic-collar shirts, stylish loafers and oxford shoes, and finely made coats for any season or situation.
But he much preferred to lounge, work, or even go out socially in worn jeans and old T’s or sweatshirts. In fact, in the latter years of his life, what he most liked to wear came from his two grandsons, who, after passing him in height and weight by their middle teens, gifted their used duds to my father’s already substantial wardrobe. I’m not joking. My father had oodles of clothes at the time of his death, many of them never worn, folded neatly in drawers in their original wrappings or hanging in closets with sales tags still affixed.
My father’s swelling and swell store of clothing as well as shoes was the work of my mother, an apex and expert shopper. With a keen eye for quality and price, my mother bested many a department store over the years, showing patience and the smarts to wait until even the most expensive item became a bargain. But she was not frivolous in her purchases.
There is an old joke from the legendary comedian Henny Youngman that goes like this: “My wife will buy anything marked down. Last year she came home with an escalator.” That was not my mother. She did not buy my father new clothes on a whim, or just because it was a good deal. Her motivation was to help my father look his very best, and to feel his very best, in the very best that money could afford.
But it was just not in my dad’s psychological DNA to feel comfortable in new attire. He was, in many ways, a “secondhand man” when it came to his dress. I believe this sprang from his upbringing. He was born in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, the second and youngest child of Irish immigrants. His parents had come to this country a decade earlier, finding their way to eastern Long Island, where they secured jobs as domestics for a wealthy estate-owning family here.
It was a good, sustaining life. My father grew up in Wainscott with shelter and security. And, as was the case after he met and married my mother, really nice clothes. But these were passed on to his family by the family they served, hand-me-down threads from the most esteemed stores of the day. It was such an article of donated clothing, a lovely cashmere sweater, that caught my mother’s fashion-focused eye when she first met my father.
It was more or less a blind date, an informal mixer, with my father and a few friends from a nearby college coming to the college my mother attended to meet her and a few friends. My father, to start, was matched up with someone else, and so was my mother. But once she saw that sweater, and those blue eyes and that hair, it was over and she made the switch. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I started to unpack this history, so to speak, not long ago when I went through my father’s closets and drawers with a relative, selecting items to donate to a Goodwill store. During the work, we marveled at all the new and wonderful clothes he had and never donned, and also mused and remembered when we did find a pair of pants or a shirt he always wore.
As we moved to his pile of shoes, I found a pair of beat-up suede leather mocs made by Lands’ End. My father wore them all the time, and I remember they were given to him by his eldest grandson. They were clearly too big for my father’s feet, but he loved them nonetheless. I decided to slip them on and found they fit perfectly.
I worked the rest of the day, placing my father’s things in bags and boxes and hauling them to Goodwill, wearing the worn mocs. My feet never felt better. Nor my soul.
I will wear them for however long they hold up, or I hold up. Only time will tell.
John McCaffrey’s most recent book is a story collection, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” He is a director at a nonprofit mental health treatment and training center in New York City.