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Clothes Encounters

Getting hung up on family hand-me-downs


Published March 31, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

If clothes could talk, their fashion statements would often have chronological connotations: what year it is; what time of year; how many years we've got under our belts; how we feel about time altogether. A guy who sports wire-rim aviator specs in 2004 gets dismissed as an outdated dork. A woman who wears white shoes after Labor Day in the John Waters comedy Serial Mom gets shot for her footwear offense. In the early 1900s, pant length separated the men from the boys. Members of Amish and Hassidic communities wear their religious objections to modernity on their 19th-century-styled sleeves.

Often, though, our dressing decisions are more personal than cultural. Some people wouldn't be caught dead wearing last year's lines, but for some of us, the sentimental stories our clothes carry overrule other sartorial considerations. That might mean wearing the sweater your wife gave you last Christmas, even though you think it's hideous. Or maybe you refuse to retire the T-shirt you bought at your first Grateful Dead concert, never mind the rips and faded logo. Lately I've been attached to certain hand-me-downs because they give me the illusion that I can go back in time and reclaim the people who once wore them.

That's what I'm doing when I wear my mid-weight jacket. It's an "Eisenhower" style in a light brown polyester-cotton blend with a zip-out acrylic-pile lining and epaulets. It's a little roomy on me, in a fun, boyfriend's-letter-jacket sort of way, and its cut suggests the retro work-wear chic of this year's Dickies and Carhartts.

But I didn't buy it this year. I found it in my father's closet in 1994, not long after he died. He'd worn it on weekends: raking leaves, running errands, going to the movies. My mother was thrilled to find a use for one of his many personal affects that still filled the house. I was grateful to have a garment that let me put myself inside the same intimate space he'd occupied.

I'm not sure how long he owned the jacket. Its label says Hahnes -- a New Jersey department store that predeceased him by several years. When the jacket came to me, it was already showing signs of age, which added to its appeal. The first time I put my hand in the pocket and discovered the hole there, I thought of my father's fingers finding that same breach. When my mother noticed that the button on one of the epaulets was missing, she carefully folded the flap underneath and gave it an approving pat. Maybe not quite good as new, her gesture said, but good enough. Each time I refold that flap, I feel that I'm doing the right thing.

But for all my efforts to preserve my father's jacket, time, and I, have left our marks. The tear in the pocket didn't stop at a hole. When I reach in now, there's no pocket -- just a hole. At some point, the zipper tab broke off. At my husband's suggestion, I replaced it with an oversized paperclip. Then, last fall, when my daughter came home from college unprepared for the weather, I pulled out the jacket for her to borrow. Sophie put it on, then took it off again almost immediately. Something had scratched her wrist. Examining the inside of the cuff, we discovered an inch-long tendril of stiff plastic thread: a remnant of the original tags.

Sophie was amazed and appalled. But not me. Obviously, when my dad got the jacket, he did a half-assed job of getting it ready to wear. This was completely in character for a guy who'd never been known for his patience or his small-motor skills. It was also clear that although the left-behind plastic poked him season after season, he'd never tried to remove the irritation. He'd simply learned to live with it. This was also perfectly understandable behavior, and absolutely in keeping with our family's approach to the material world.

Either by tradition or genetic disposition, it often doesn't occur to us that we have the ability, or maybe even the right, to interfere with our physical surroundings. Instead, we learn to accommodate ourselves. I know, because for 10 years I'd felt, but failed to remove, the same irritating piece of plastic. That's not Sophie's way, though. Within seconds of slipping her arm into the sleeve, she was reaching for the scissors.

If I inherited my father's

laissez-wear attitude, my sartorial sentimentality is a hand-me-down from my mother. After she died, I found among her things a white "bucket" hat with "45" embroidered in crimson on the front. My father graduated from Harvard in 1945. The hat was one of the goodies given away at his 50th college reunion. The event took place in June, nearly a year after my father died, during a family vacation on Cape Cod. But my mother -- fearing his old friends might forget him -- attended the reunion in his stead. She came home with the hat.

A couple months later, we took our first family vacation without him, at a rented house in the Adirondacks. It was hard not to think about the previous summer, when my father had been in the Hyannis hospital, or all the summers before that, when he'd been healthy. My mother's back was bad, and she was keeping secret from us the still-undiagnosed lump she'd found in her breast. The house smelled damp and had mice. For all that, we made the best of it, my mother gamely working her way to the rocky lakeshore with a stout stick, her face protected by the "45" hat that should have been shading my father's bald head.

When my siblings and I were divvying up our parents' estate three-and-a-half years later, I claimed that hat as my own. I brought it with me on a visit to Colorado with my in-laws, and wore it when we went to the 1999 state fair. But somewhere between the prize heifers and the Indian fry bread and the as-seen-on-TV slicing-and-dicing demonstration, the hat and I got separated from each other. We all retraced our steps, scouring the ground, but the treasure was gone. For the rest of the day, I kept looking for my lost relic, which I figured must have landed on the head of some Colorado kid who thought he had found a mere hat.

Some of the things we wear acquire their significance through stories. Others came with meanings pre-assigned. Just before each of our parents' funerals, the rabbi pinned black ribbons on our clothes, then cut into the fabric with a knife. The ritual replaces a biblical tradition in which mourners rend their actual garments. In both instances, I wore my ribbon for the customary week, and then put it away. But after my mother died, I took to wearing an additional -- and much longer-lived -- sign of my orphaned status.

The last time she was in the emergency room, my mother told my sisters and me not to bury her with her ring. "It's too beautiful to waste," she said. "You three decide among yourselves which one of you will wear it, and that person should have it."

Later, when my sisters announced that they had no interest in wearing a diamond ring, I readily agreed to take it, feeling sheepish that fate had singled me out as the sole recipient of such a significant memento. When the ring came to me, I slipped it on my hand: not my left hand, where I wear my wedding ring, but my right, which I came to consider my own corporeal memorial to my parents.

For four years, I loved wearing it, and did so constantly, as my mother had done. It gave me something to fuss with when I was nervous. When I held it close to my eye, I could see the room reflected in its facets, miniaturized and upside-down. It caught the sun when I was writing, casting fragments of rainbow on the walls, as if my parents were guiding my hand. I loved the way my hand wearing the ring looked so much like my mother's hand. It seemed almost as if she and I had become the same person.

But of course, we hadn't. Keeping a ring on my finger could no more turn me into my mother than wearing a jacket could bring my father back, or losing a hat could make either one of my parents more gone than they already were.

This seems obvious, but it didn't fully dawn on me until last summer, when I realized that for some time my mother's ring had been annoying me. The prongs that held the stone caught on things. The band wore a groove in my finger. I worried about losing the thing when I was kneading dough, digging in the garden or swimming. As my hand had aged, it had started to look even more like her hand. Now, when I saw it, I felt more dread and disappointment than delight: Was that all that I wanted for myself? To become an imperfect reflection of my parents? Did my life have to stop because theirs did?

It took me until fall to finally remove the ring, and longer to get used to having it off. Six months later, the groove it wore in my finger has faded to a trace. But sometimes, when I'm nervous, I still catch myself reaching for the ring. When I find my own skin instead, it can still be surprising -- and also a little bit thrilling. It's like the first time I realized I was riding a two-wheeler on my own, without a helping hand.