Old Clothes, New Voice

Way back at the far end of the closet is a long-sleeved, sky-blue poplin shirt with long, pointed collars that my mother bought me when she knew I was going to Miami.

We were in a BJ’s so she could buy a week’s supply of yogurt cups and a die-cast model car for my son. When I told her I would be spending some time in South Florida, she headed toward the piles of men’s clothing.

I was old enough not to need some of the stuff, but wise enough to let her do her thing. She wanted to believe that, among all my fashionably faded polo shirts, denim trousers, beat-up sneakers and zipped hoodies, I would need a shirt for that rare dress-up occasion. She handed me the shirt and she reached across a pile of sweaters–“this for when it’s air conditioned.”

My parents used to go to South Florida every winter. People were crazy down there about air conditioning, she told me, especially when they don’t have a view of the ocean. I should take Vitamin C every day with Tropicana (pronounced “trop uh can no”) orange juice, and wear a sweater at night because sometimes they have winter nights that can be as cold outside as it is inside.

I balked at the white polyester pants and we meandered toward the check-out line.

I actually did have a dress-up occasion in Cocoanut Grove one night. Out came the shirt and sweater and I looked just like all those guys who were so much older than me, with their dark tans, white shoes and pastel blue pants that rode up over their ankles so everyone could see they were wearing white socks. I ordered another rum punch. The drink arrived with a tiny yellow parasol stuck in the orange slice floating atop the ice in the glass. I took a sip and I fit right in.

My mother passed more than a decade ago. My son graduated college, got a job and, as far as I know, got rid of all the die-cast model cars my mother bought for him. My yellow sweater and blue shirt remained with some of the other stuff she bought for me. I may have worn the shirt once when I was teaching. The polyester blend fabric did not wrinkle, though it would cook me in the classroom.

I don’t know if I wore the sweater. The combination seemed odd to me until a few days ago, when I saw Ukrainian people flying their flag as Russian troops bombed their cities and towns.

I took the shirt out again. Somehow, the bright azure blue was a perfect match with the yellow sweater. I could put it on a show my support for these brave people.

For a moment I had a lack of nerve. What would I do if I walked into a supermarket and one of the neighborhood crazies started in on me about what right I had to make a statement about “someone else’s war”?

I reached for a red pullover and then, I paused and looked back on my history of mistakes, inept decisions and all those things that did not turn out the way they should–and I asked myself when was the last time anyone confronted me about the color of my clothing? Not once.

Those incredible Ukrainian people were fighting for their lives. My family descends from eastern European people who endured centuries in which their farms and towns became battlefields, as one dubious leader after another answered the call of destiny, or the “will of the people,” the need for “living room,” and so many other awful reasons to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands. What did these people do to deserve this? They were in the way.

And now some of those people were saying that they weren’t in anyone’s way: they will fight to be just where they are.

I put on the yellow sweater and marveled how old clothes can speak with a new voice.

And I thanked my mother for having enough faith in her son that, sooner or later, I’d wear the right ensemble and fit right in.