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Going through household things (a task many of us have done or face in future) after mother’s death I found a small suit of clothes that set off sharp recollection. I was eleven when that suit entered our family, and I can tell you mother was non-too happy about it. The fault was not with the clothes or with their source. The issue was one of pride.
The time was near the muddled end of our family migration to Minnesota. Mom and dad were pinching pennies (dad could make them squeal) so they were not at all keen on pouring money down the rat hole of a growing boy. In my suit, worn weekly to sing Sunday High Mass at 10:00, I began to look like four clappers missing their bells. From each sleeve and cuff dangled a clump of lonely wrist or ankle looking like misplaced or excess body parts. The suit was tight on me, but singing wasn’t an athletic event so that didn’t matter. It may even have helped on the higher notes.
The person this bothered more than me or my family was the mother of my friend Michael. We were of an age where being welded at the hip was fairly common and not much remarked on. We moved as one and talked often in a blur of colliding words intelligible to us but few others. If Michael had been from the same middle class working class framework as I the cut of our clothes would have mattered little. But we were in an era where commuting was not yet widely practiced, meaning a pocket of affluence often lived in the middle of lower class or commercial areas. And so it was that the superbly appointed son of success had as his best friend a boy doing Ichabod Crane in a suit strained to the point where a deep knee bend would have answered the question of BVD or Fruit of the Loom. I wasn’t too aware of it and I suppose Michael wasn’t either. It wasn’t the sort of thing boys bothered with, but every time she saw me on Sunday Michael’s mother saw pathos in need of help.
Sometime when I was at their house, which I was often as possible because Michael had the BEST things to play with, it was suggested I might like some of Rolf’s old clothes. I honestly believe that Michael never wore a hand-me-down in his life, so it is puzzlement why the family saved Rolf’s old things because a youth off the college was never again going to need the things he’d worn at my age. I smile with wry bemusement at the way this played out, smiling in part because it was my precise good manners that had gained and then kept my entry into a household where a boy visitor rarely got beyond the rear delivery porch. It had to be entrenched manners more than an interest in clothing that allowed me to stand in my underwear to try on a succession of items, some of where were as new to me as a cummerbunds or high collar. With her son at her side watching, Michael’s mother made selections from among several stacks. One of the maids (I said the family was successful) would then hold the item against me or I’d be told to try it on. This went on for some time and rather than feeling odd or embarrassed about my condition I felt a glow of warmth that the family of my friend cared. It felt good and I believe it was good.
The pile of things that was to go to me grew to considerable size. There were beautiful knit sweaters and trousers stitched so finely that even I noticed the outstanding quality. That clothing may have well out valued everything I’d worn to that time and frankly I was thrilled, a sensation that grew larger when I got in the “big car” with Michael to be driven home with armloads of treasure my friend gladly helped me ferry inside our two story bungalow on 83rd and Hermitage. I knew almost from the instant mother saw the “heap of stuff” there was something wrong.
To my parents, both of whom were working at the time to make our move affordable, the gift of clothes well beyond what we’d afford buying from the Jews on Maxwell Street were close to an insult to their pride. They appreciated the intention behind the gift and were happy to see me look better dressed than ever in life, but the cut to their dignity was a hurtful wound that stung deep. The gift, items of which I milked out in use for years, formed a basis for my sense of style and quality. Ever after I’d feel fine in a silk shirt and would appreciate beautiful buttons set in exquisitely stitched settings. Of course, I also valued these things for their association with the dear friend I had to leave behind and with his family full of impressive accomplishments. The sister’s music room sat at least fifty and contained a baby grand plus full harp. So while the gift discomforted my parents it was a valued lesson for their son.
We don’t always know these things at the time, so finding mother had saved the double breasted and belted brown suit I so adored as a boy told me that she too, over all those years, had seen and known that garment not only as cloth but as cloth with meaning and cloth with a role. Had it been 1930 I could have walked right into Eton in that suit without raising an eye. I do not mean to be snobbish, but if today wear of flip-flops, sweatpants and a T at Brasenose does not raise an eye this tells of lost standards. It’s simple really. A writer too casual to bother with vocabulary gives evidence of bothering not to think.