The L.L. Bean catalog arrives in early June, in an avalanche of hospital bills, condolence cards, and COVID-19 reopening announcements from Red Lobster and the Pinch a Penny pool supply store that proclaim, Jeffrey, we want you back!
My first impulse is to toss the catalog in the recycling bin. But I can’t resist the lure of the cover, which shows a youthful mom and dad walking beside a stream, a child riding high on the dad’s shoulders.
I want to walk along that stream beside that healthy man. So I sit on the couch—next to the ghost of your rented hospital bed—and open the catalog. The Bean guys, sporting polo shirts, chino shorts, and loafers with no socks, hang out on docks over pristine blue lakes or flip burgers on the grill.
Make him happy on Father’s Day, the catalog entreats me.
I flip through the pages, considering what I would have chosen to order for you. Maybe a couple of the unshrinkable tees with a crew neck to protect you from the harsh Florida rays. Or some ripstop pants for your annual hiking trip out west. A field watch. A boonie hat.
You already owned a closet full of clothes meant to weather the elements—at least, before I filled a dozen black garbage bags full of comfort fit khaki pants, chamois shirts, and utility jackets and placed them by the curb for the Red Cross to pick up. The hems were frayed. The collars dingy. The sleeves pocked with holes. I grew up wearing rags, but anyone would think you were the one who had grown up poor; you wore your clothes down to the barest threads until I begged you to throw them out.
Every holiday, my goal was to get you new clothes and convince you to wear them. The Bean catalog was my coconspirator, arriving each season with spring daffodils and summer beach balls and autumn pumpkins on the cover. When the inch-thick holiday edition appeared—chock full of wool sweaters and corduroy pants—I parked the catalog atop your messy desk with a pink Post-it note attached: Pick out some new clothes or else Santa will surprise you with stuff you don’t want!
The catalog sat on your desk for days. Then weeks. I missed the free shipping window that came every Black Friday and later got pissed when the items you finally dog-eared in the catalog sold out.
Now I don’t have to worry about your gifts going on back order. Or fret about getting you any presents at all. But I want to give you all of this: the hand-stitched leather loafers, wicked good moccasins, and hearty gear named after places you’ll now never visit: Allagash, Kennebunk, Bar Harbor, Katahdin.
After you stopped eating and drinking and talking—but before I could legally call myself a widow—I read an advice book for what the courts call “the surviving spouse.” The author told me I should take my time going through your clothing and suggested cutting squares from some of my favorite items and making them into a quilt.
When I emptied your drawers and closet, I calmly rolled the neckties and folded the dress pants. But the shirts—all those long sleeves dangling off the hangers reminded me there were no more shoulders to lean on, no arms to hold me.
I can’t imagine cutting into the flannel shirts I kept. The red one you always wore on Christmas morning as you made us bacon and eggs. The tan one you wore every September when we went north to visit our daughter and see the fall leaves. The green plaid shirt you’re wearing in the photo we used for your obituary.
It’s always been a dream of mine to visit Maine. Maybe it was yours, too. The morning I found you lying still, I put my hand over your heart to feel it not beating. I unhooked the cannula from your nose and turned off the thumping pulse of the oxygen. Your hands were still warm, and your open eyes seemed focused on something in the distance—a canoe on a lake, a sailboat setting out to sea, a trail leading to the top of a sun-drenched mountain.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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