I was a clothes-hanging machine. For several hours, I dug into bags and boxes of donated men's clothes and hung up pants, button-down shirts and suits on racks. My arms, arches and lower back ached. Dust and the rank odor of moth balls plugged my nostrils and made my eyes itch. My fingers felt grimy after touching several jackets covered with traces of moths. Those jackets ended up in the trash.
Around me, people walked in and out of our suburban Boston temple donating items for a rummage sale. A volunteer, I mostly worked in the men's clothing area and cared little about the clothes I sorted. Then, a woman, barely five-feet tall with thinning, coiffed and dyed red-brown hair, came in juggling a dozen men's shirts on wire hangers. I reached out to help her hang the shirts, and she began to cry.
"These were my husband's," said the woman whose wrinkled cheeks likely put her in her late 70s. "He died a few years ago, but I just couldn't bear to part with them."
"I'm sorry," I said. Not knowing what else to say, I put an arm around her shoulder. She smiled, her eyes still wet, then left. I thought she planned to return with more clothes, but I never saw her again. The shirts she left behind looked like their neighbors, standard men's dress shirts, button-down, some striped, some solid colors. They smelled sterile, as if just dry-cleaned.
I mentioned the encounter to another volunteer. Every piece of clothing could have a story, she said.
A day after my encounter with the widow, I went downstairs just to check. A stone-washed gray and blue Levi's denim jacket, jammed in the middle of my summer clothes, still hung in the utility room closet. The jacket belonged to my brother Kevin. I gave it to him in June 1985 for his college graduation present. He died nine months later in a car accident. He was 23; I was 21. After Kevin's death, my mother asked if I wanted any of his clothes. I took that jacket and a few of his favorite T-shirts.
In my first weeks of ownership of my brother's clothes, I buried my nose in them, trying to smell a recognizable scent. Maybe if I sniffed long enough I could smell a whiff of the grape Hi-C he used to drink, or his shampoo. Was it Pert or Breck? I don't remember. I remember that he washed his thick auburn hair every day when we were in high school and kept a comb at the ready in his jeans pocket. The jean jacket did not reveal familiar scents and soon smelled like must. I wore it several times in my 20s, but don't wear it anymore. It no longer fits well. It would feel odd to wear it now.
In the early years of mourning, wearing my brother's jacket gave me some comfort. It was as if he were with me. More than 25 years have passed since my brother's death. Now, the jacket serves mostly as a trigger of memory.
That jacket also has its own story. On Memorial Day weekend in 1985, Kevin came to visit me at Northwestern, where I was studying journalism. We took the train downtown and strolled down Chicago's Michigan Avenue, staring at store windows and jostling for space among hundreds of people shopping and sightseeing on a nearly 80-degree day. We weaved around vendors trying to sell us hot dogs. Kevin halted in front of a store, then pointed at the Levi's jacket in the window.
"I love that," he said. To him, that jacket was the epitome of 1980s cool.
The jacket cost roughly $40, a lot of money for me at the time. But my brother longed for that jacket. He had splurged on presents for my parents and me. I splurged on him.
Maybe it's weird to keep my brother's Levi's jacket. But it's a piece of him that I'm not ready to give up. Funny, I had no problem giving away my brother's last gift to me -- a purple Lacoste shirt. It no longer fit. I do not associate any story with that shirt. By keeping the Levi's jacket, I preserve a precious moment in time, a day when I could grant my brother exactly what he wanted. It was a moment I would never again get to repeat with my brother.
The button down shirts the widow brought in resembled dozens of others. As more shirts arrived, I jammed the clothing closer together. Maybe the widow should have kept a single shirt, one that reminded her of a particular moment with her husband. Or maybe it was just time to let go.