92: Sliding into My Father’s Shoes

92: Sliding into My Father’s Shoes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Sliding into My Father’s Shoes

He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.

~Clarence Budington Kelland

“Do you want any of this stuff before I send it off to Goodwill?” I looked over at the shirts my mother had just piled on the dining room table. My dad’s shirts. Stacked on a table that had just been moved back to its usual place in front of the windows overlooking the slope of the front lawn. The hospital bed that he had occupied for six weeks and died in had been picked up yesterday.

What could I possibly do with my father’s clothes?

Wandering over, I started pulling out familiar pieces. The tie-dyed shirt the grandkids had made him with help from an adventurous aunt. It bordered on obnoxious, but it would make a great nightshirt. The red striped polo shirt. I didn’t “do” red—black was more my look—but it was so familiar, I couldn’t stand the thought of it heading to a donation box. The red and black insulated hunting plaid would be perfect for farm chores—if I ever got a farm.

“Sure, I’ll take a few.” Translated, that meant at least five.

I hauled the clothes home. First thing, I washed them, then washed them again. I couldn’t stand the scent of flowery detergent any more—still can’t to this day. Its smell brought back cancer and hospital beds and Dad fading away in front of me. But getting rid of the scent allowed me to actually wear the clothes. And actually wearing the clothes allowed me to come to grips with Dad not being around anymore.

I don’t remember much of my relationship with my dad when I was a teenager. We didn’t fight—we just didn’t talk much. He was always there, each and every time I needed him, but ours wasn’t some daddy-daughter connection immortalized in stories and songs.

I grew up, went off to college, then to grad school, then to work. Each time, more geographical space grew between us. Our relationship stayed the same though. He was always there when I needed him.

Like most teenagers, and later as an arrogant young adult, I swore I never would be like him—teacher, farmer, good guy that he was. I was going for the big time—scientist, travel, money. But I discovered a funny thing on the way to my jet-setting job.

It didn’t make me happy.

I wanted roots and good clean dirt and people who knew my name. I wanted all the things that Dad had been. So I moved back to my home state, became a stay-at-home mom, and my husband and I plotted our course to our own farm. We fought our way to actually owning those ten acres in the country the fall after Dad died. The problem was, when we got it, Dad wasn’t there to see it.

His clothes were though.

I wore the tie-dyed shirt to bed just like I planned. It draped wild and vibrant around me. My last sight at night and my first in the morning was a swirl of colors. Even when it was raining, that shirt lit up my country kitchen like a mini-sun. My little girls snuggled into my lap and we remembered just how much fun they had making the shirt in the first place. Sitting on the porch steps, I could pull it down over my knees, listen to the birdsong and drink coffee. I had the perfect nightshirt. It felt like Dad was around.

On an afternoon when I felt particularly beat, I wore the red striped polo. I was on my way to a wellness fair and just wore what was folded on the top of the laundry basket. A denim skirt and my dad’s shirt. Listless and miserable, I drifted through the booths trying to stay low-profile. An energetic woman stood in front of one of the tables. Heaven help me. She was the personal style consultant, and she had focused in on me. I wanted to peel off, run away, get off her radar, but the stream of people pushed me right to her.

“That is a perfect color for you,” she said, gesturing to my shirt.

“It is?” I was stunned.

“Absolutely. It’s perfect with your hair. But not just any red. This red—the old faded barn-type red. That’s what you want.”

I floated off from the encounter. Faded barn red—an old farmer’s older shirt—and it was one of my perfect colors.

That fall, cold weather rolled in. Hand in hand with our farm came the inevitable daily chores. My secret weapon to ward off the chill? Dad’s insulated plaid hunting shirt. I wore it layered over sweatshirts to muck out stalls and to daydream of being a child again and seeing Dad head down to the barn. That was the fall I started teaching, just once a week, at our church.

It took me almost two years to quit wearing Dad’s clothes (although truth be told, they still sit folded on my closet shelf). I hadn’t just slid into his shirts, I had slid into his shoes. I had become the farmer, the teacher. Every day, I struggle to be the good person he was. Dad is still there for me—wrapped around me. Just like always.

Not more than a month ago, I went to the funeral of a childhood classmate’s mother.

“I’d recognize you anywhere,” she said. “You look just like your dad.”

In my distant past, when I was young and less than wise, that remark would have wounded me. Now I just smiled and said, “Thanks. I’m glad to hear it.”

I look like my dad, whether I’m wearing his clothes or not. He’s still around.

~Theresa Woltanski

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners