I stood next to my mother in her parents’ bedroom for the last time. She would return for a few more visits over the coming months to meet with realtors and prospective new owners, but the room would no longer be theirs – it would be the “master bedroom, wood floors, private bath.” Shoulder to shoulder, we faced their closet. Gram had died a year before, so the contents reflected the simple life my grandfather tried to hold together in her wake, before bowing out to join his true love. Gramps was there among the sensible belts and well-spoken ties and humble shirts. He was in the re-soled loafers and the red vest he wore every Christmas.
Wordlessly, we began to remove the garments from their hangers and slip them into bags. Somehow my mother, the hero that she is, had the grace to imagine each item finding its way to a new, needing stranger via the aisles of the local Goodwill. The clothes that had hugged the body of the greatest man I have ever known were moving on to the next leg of their journey, as a matter of course. We smiled a lot, we brushed each others’ hands more often than accidentally, we carefully chose which stories to halfway tell and which to keep to ourselves. When we spoke, it was quietly, so as not to disturb the peace and final emptiness of the house. Every breath was longer than usual, as though we were afraid to leave any of the smell behind.
You were there, too. Your shirt was a wrinkled mess and there was a pink highlighter stain bleeding up from the hem as a result of your devil-may-care packing technique. You were with us on the church green that morning – you knew not to touch me as I held my sister’s hand too tightly and silently wept into my littlest cousin’s hair. You knew when to laugh along and when to just nod. You knew how to leave us alone while simultaneously holding us together with your foreign presence. I walked in step with my father on the way back to the car, but I could feel you just a few feet behind me, to my right.
You were there as a part of my family, because you were a part of me. You didn’t know Gramps – you only met him once, in his hospital bed. You saw him wink at the nurse and smile and sway when I sang “Swingin’ on a Star” while choking back tears. But you understood that you were in the presence of a great man, surrounded by the generations of his children, and you stood up straighter. His love and nobility were infectious, and you let them get to you even then, and I loved you for it.
You were there because I loved you, and my mother loved you as my lover. You were going to be a great man too, someday. You were going to think big thoughts and shake the world. You were going to do and say the right thing, and you were going to make her daughter laugh along the way. I was so proud of you. So when we came to my grandfather’s jackets, she put down her bag and turned her swollen eyes to size you up. Broad shoulders, long arms.
You slipped into the brown corduroy with the leather buttons and olive elbow patches. It fit. Or rather, you fit. I loved you the most right then.
I pictured you as a corduroy professor. I saw you as a blue-blazer statesman. I laughed at you as a seer-suckered summer gentleman.
One by one, we passed my grandfather’s jackets to you. And months later, you would visit me in New York City and as if I needed another reason to run across Seventh Avenue into your arms, you smelled like home. Or I’d wake up in your disgusting apartment on an unforgiving Vermont winter morning and see them hanging there in your closet. I had wild, girlish fantasies of you proposing in grey pinstripes, accepting your PhD in tweed. Surely I was going to be one of the lucky ones and spend the rest of my life with the man of my dreams, I thought, because the gods had assembled you to literally measure up to my grandfather! Meant to be, together forever, happy ever after for all!
In a cruel twist of fate, you broke my heart anyway. And you didn’t do it with grace or humility or a shred of dignity, either. You obliterated any naiveté I had left. You brought me to the brink of hyperbole. You effectively dismantled every last romantic castle in my sky like a tornado to a house of cards. Years later, the dust has settled and blown away but I’m still kept awake by the whiplash.
We’re friendly now, I suppose – we coexist pleasantly if begrudgingly and I barely have to suppress the odd homicidal day dream every time I’m socially awkward or romantically clumsy. We hover in the periphery of each others’ worlds, keeping tabs on family stuff and general well-being. I don’t miss you, that’s for sure. You don’t miss me, which is even better, and I really do mean it when I say I adore your new girlfriend. I’ve given back all your t-shirts, thrown away cards and photographs, melted down your ring, and every song that became “ours” is satisfyingly “mine” again.
But you still have my grandfather’s jackets, and I’d like them back, please.
I don’t know how to tell you that it offends me to see you wear the corduroy in your Facebook profile picture. I don’t want to have to tell you that you don’t live up to the pinstripes. I can definitively defend the old adage “clothes don’t make the man” when I see you wearing his sports jacket and my outrage still sinks in my stomach like a cannonball.
You see, my grandfather was a man of honor. He was dignified, selfless, humble, and strong. When those jackets graced his shoulders they may as well have been the robes of a king. You, on the other hand, behaved in a manner that would have been unfathomable to him. I afford you the benefit of the doubt and can even believe you will learn from your mistakes, but for an important moment you were a selfish, shameful coward. You were a liar and a cheater and even now you won’t own your mistakes. You’ve got a long way to go.
In the end, you did not crush me, for I am made of the rock of my grandfather. I have not lost faith in men because I know how great they can be. In times of struggle or sadness or fear, I can remember Gramps coming up the hill, strong strides and kind eyes.
Maybe it’s petty. Objects are disposable and fleeting and ultimately insignificant. But you know what? They’re not meaningless. I wish you a long and healthy life, may you find joy and prosperity, but for goodness sake give me back my grandfather’s jackets. They don’t fit you anymore.