What my father wore embarrassed me as a young man. I wanted him to dress like a doctor or lawyer, but on those muggy mornings when he rose before dawn to fry eggs for my mother and me, he always dressed like my father.
We lived in south Texas, and my father wore tattered jeans with the imprint of his pocketknife on the seat. He liked shirts that snapped more than those that buttoned and kept his pencils, cigars, glasses, wrenches and screwdrivers in his breast pocket.
My father’s boots were government-issues with steel toes that made them difficult to pull off his feet, which I sometimes did when he returned from repairing air conditioners, his job that also shamed me.
But, as a child, I’d crept into his closet and modeled his wardrobe in front of the mirror. My imagination transformed his shirts into the robes of kings and his belts into soldiers’ holsters. I slept in his undershirts and relied on the scent of his collars to calm my fear of the dark.
Within a few years, though, I started wishing my father would trade his denim for khaki and retire his boots for loafers. I stopped sleeping in his clothes and eventually began dreaming of another father.
I blamed the way he dressed for my social failures. When boys bullied me, I thought they’d seen my father wearing his cowboy hat but no shirt while walking our dog.
I felt that girls snickered at me because they’d glimpsed him mowing the grass in cut-offs and black boots. The girls’ families paid men (and I believed better-dressed ones) to landscape their lawns, while their fathers yachted in the bay wearing lemon-yellow sweaters and expensive sandals.
My father only bought two suits in his life. He preferred clothes that allowed him the freedom to shimmy under cars and squeeze behind broken Maytags, where he felt most content.
But the day before my parents’ twentieth anniversary, he and I went to Sears, and he tried on suits all afternoon. With each one, he stepped to the mirror, smiled and nodded, then asked about the price and reached for another. He probably tried ten suits before we drove to a discount store and bought one without so much as approaching a fitting room. That night my mother said she’d never seen a more handsome man.
Later, though, he donned the same suit for my eighth- grade awards banquet, and I wished he’d stayed home. After the ceremony (I’d been voted Mr. Citizenship, of all things), he lauded my award and my character while changing into a faded red sweatsuit.
He was stepping into the garage to wash a load of laundry when I asked what even at age fourteen struck me as cruel and wrong.
“Why,” I asked, “don’t you dress ‘nice,’ like my friends’ fathers?”
He held me with his sad, shocked eyes, and searched for an answer. Then before he disappeared into the garage and closed the door between us, my father said,
“I like my clothes.”
An hour later my mother stormed into my room, slapped me hard across the face and called me an “ungrateful little twerp,” a phrase that echoed in my head until they resumed speaking to me.
In time they forgave me, and as I matured I realized that girls avoided me not because of my father but because of his son. I realized that my mother had slapped me because my father could not, and it soon became clear that what he had really said that night was that there are things more important than clothes.
He’d said he couldn’t spend a nickel on himself because there were things I wanted. That night, without another word, my father had said,
“You’re my son, and I sacrifice so your life will be better than mine.”
For my high-school graduation, my father arrived in a suit he and my mother had purchased earlier that day. Somehow he seemed taller, more handsome and imposing, and when he passed the other fathers they stepped out of his way. It wasn’t the suit, of course, but the man.
The doctors and lawyers recognized the confidence in his swagger, the pride in his eyes, and when they approached him, they did so with courtesy and respect. After we returned home, my father replaced the suit in the flimsy Sears garment bag, and I didn’t see it again until his funeral.
I don’t know what he was wearing when he died, but he was working, so he was in clothes he liked, and that comforts me. My mother thought of burying him in the suit from Sears, but I convinced her otherwise and soon delivered a pair of old jeans, a flannel shirt and his boots to the funeral home.
On the morning of the services, I used his pocketknife to carve another hole in his belt so it wouldn’t droop around my waist. Then I took the suit from Sears out of his closet and changed into it. Eventually, I mustered the courage to study myself in his mirror where, with the exception of the suit, I appeared small and insignificant.
Again, as in childhood, the clothes draped over my scrawny frame. My father’s scent wafted up and caressed my face, but it failed to console me. I was uncertain: not about my father’s stature – I’d stopped being an ungrateful little twerp years before.
No, I was uncertain about myself, my own stature. And I stood there for some time, facing myself in my father’s mirror, weeping and trying to imagine – as I will for the rest of my life – the day I’ll grow into my father’s clothes.