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What to do with a dead-man’s clothes…

Justin Lifflander

By Justin Lifflander

Matt and Grandma May

Matt and Grandma May

My father passed away five years ago. Beyond the many intangibles he gave us in life, the most problematic part of his estate was his wardrobe.

A corporate lawyer and lifelong Democratic Party fundraiser, Matt’s public image was very important to him. As a child I remember seeing a chrome donkey hood-ornament in an automotive accessories catalog. I thought it was the perfect gift for him and assumed he’d be ecstatic at the idea of replacing the prim crest on the front of his Cadillac. His rejection was gentle but firm: “Perhaps we’ll put it on your mother’s car.”

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If some people are mere clothes horses, Matt was a Clydesdale – a trait inherited from his mother. Grandma May was a known regular at most major department stores in central Westchester. After she passed away my brother went to retrieve her car from the repair shop. The mechanic admonished him: “Be gentle with her. She only knows how to go to back and forth to Lord & Taylor.”

Following Matt’s departure, my brother and I began to explore his closets and contemplate how to dispose of their contents. We half-joked that it would be more efficient to petition Brooks Brothers for a short-term franchise, announce the opening of a mini-branch in his condo and then have a going-out-of-business sale.

When we splattered the colorful collection of silk ties, leather belts and cashmere sweaters on the dining room table, my precocious niece took one look and said, “It looks like Neiman Marcus threw up…”

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The ties, along with hankies and cufflinks, were sentimentally scarfed-up by those admirers who were able to attend an informal memorial event that August.

There is something special about wearable mementos of a loved one. In the least, they induce imagery. A flashback to the day you first saw her wear that scarf; an important event where that handkerchief peeked out of his jacket pocket; the joy he took from his new walking shoes as you strolled in the park together.

Other senses and emotions come into play, especially for items not likely to have been washed – a cravat, belt or bowtie. A hint of the deceased’s scent and a tingle of their life energy remains. And there’s the soothing thought that a satiated dust mite, personally acquainted with your beloved and still fattened on their spent cells, may yet dwell among the fibers.

The quandary is not limited to men’s finery. Aunt Zoya, a retired kindergarten teacher, dropped dead in her 77th year during a friend’s India-themed party. The finale – a rented elephant – was late in making its appearance. Zoya distracted the crowd by organizing a group sing-along until the unpunctual pachyderm arrived. But her heart gave out on center stage before the end of the first verse.

Max clowning in Quito

Max clowning in Quito

We commemorated the first anniversary of her passing at her house in the Ukraine. Toward the end of the evening her husband Yuri organized a collective rummage through her wardrobe. My son found himself in possession of a billowy multi-colored summer skirt, which he subsequently used during a humanitarian-clowning mission to Ecuador.

Pajamas were dad’s preferred form of attire. It’s safe to say that when he wasn’t wearing a suit at the office in Manhattan or driving to and fro, he spent the majority of his time at home in one of a dozen pairs of jammies – at the breakfast table digesting the newspaper or on the couch writing briefs until the wee hours of the morning. I suppose he didn’t change his attire before finally dozing off.

Though not a pajama wearer, I kept several pairs. They make excellent yoga outfits, especially the silk ones from Harrods. And we’ve started a family tradition of celebrating Matt’s birthday every September 18th with a dinner in his honor at which everyone wears his PJs.

The pajama party

The pajama party

After the initial disbursement of mainstream garments, we were left with the perplexing question of what to do with his nearly three hundred hats. He had been collecting them my whole life. He mostly preferred military and police head gear. This hobby made it easy to find a birthday present for him and gave him an additional point of intimacy with friends. “I hope you enjoy your trip to Morocco,” he would say. “If you happen to come across a Zouave colonel’s fez…”

In October, with the formal memorial service at our synagogue only a few days away, my friend Jamie joined me in clearing out Matt’s recently sold condo. Those hats stared down at us from shelves, racks, and hooks like members of a theater audience not quite sure the play will end as they predict. Soldiers, officers and law enforcement agents of the world, some adorned with brass or silver emblems, a few with scrambled eggs on their brims, at least one with feathers – all demanded a proper resolution of their fate.

Matt in Russian police officer's cap

Matt in Russian police officer's cap

We boxed, bagged and sorted his other possessions. Stamp albums, ashtrays, autographed photos of presidents & governors and an adorable collection of memorabilia from the 1964 World’s Fair all had future homes.

But the destiny of the hats remained elusory. They were an essential part of his being, his time on earth. They marked the wars and nations he had studied, admired and lived through. They told stories of their acquisition from around the globe: friends in the service, antique merchants on Portobello, a baksheeshed officer in a third-world police force.

Jamie and I kept working, all the time puzzling and puzzling about the hats 'till our puzzlers were sore. We relieved that soreness with the remains of a forgotten whiskey bottle rescued from a closet shelf. Then, as dawn broke, a phrase inspired by the poetry of Dr. Seuss – read to me at bed time by my parents – made its way through the peat vapors of my mind and passed my lips. “Remember Matt…take a hat.”

It made perfect sense. We’d give the hats away after the memorial service, with the condition that mourners couldn’t have a hat they had procured for him.

I was concerned that the rabbi wouldn’t bless setting up a hat stand in the lobby of the temple. But my faith in the joyfulness of Judaism and the impression that it doesn’t take itself too seriously was borne out. More than two months had elapsed since Matt died, the grief had subsided. The rabbi agreed this was a nice way to remember him.

Jon, Justin, Jamie after the October 2013 memorial service

Jon, Justin, Jamie after the October 2013 memorial service

Jamie and I packed the collection in six large garbage bags, minus the Nazi SS officers cap, and hauled them to the temple. It seemed unthinkable to allow such an item, with its skull and crossbones emblem, on sanctified ground.

Following the service, the attendees poured over the hat covered tables, pointing out the ones they procured and picking ones for themselves. They wandered back to the reception with smiles on their faces, hats on their heads and stories to tell. Bankers, lawyers, politicians, real estate moguls all stood around looking silly and reminiscing about our dad. Matt’s life was soulfully celebrated.

A garrison cap

A garrison cap

By the end of the afternoon, only a few unadorned garrison caps (though Matt had taught me another, less polite term for those foldable creased military hats) remained.

As we prepared to leave, the rabbi stopped me, a look of curiosity and determination on his face.

“I thought Matt had a Nazi hat. What happened to it?”

“Rabbi, I couldn’t bring that symbol of atrocity into the synagogue. I left it in a bag at my brother’s house.”

“Can I have it?”

“Of course,” I stammered, not able to imagine why a rabbi whose congregation included Holocaust survivors would want such a monstrous relic.

He sensed my bewilderment.

“It’s a tangible link to the horror,” the rabbi said.  “I want to use it in Sunday school class. So, the kids will always remember.”

That’s what it’s all about. Remembering.