I have a sweater that my dear Aunt Betty knitted for my dad when he was in high school. It weighs about ninety pounds 😊 because it’s made of heavy weight wool yarn. Dad loved it and kept it in a special box in his closet, but I only recall him wearing it once.
The sweater is remarkable to me because my favorite aunt touched it…created it…and she chose unique horn buttons that were fashionable at the time, but very expensive. Maybe I love the buttons more than the sweater? They’re fabulously rough and smooth, displaying gradations of brown, beige, tan, black – and no two are the same. The photos don’t do justice to the sweater or the buttons, but I wanted you to see for yourself.
I’ll hold one potent memory of dad wearing the cardigan in my heart for the rest of my life. He sat on the edge of the bed, across from his closet and the box and tissue that held the sweater were on the floor by his feet. His head was lowered – I thought he was staring at the box, until I realized he was crying. Softly – no heaving. Just slow tears dripping from his face and falling to the floor. Feeling I was intruding, ten-year old me thought I should leave, but I was transfixed, cemented to the doorframe, looking in.
Aunt Betty died the week before. She had cancer and it spread quickly, giving everyone insufficient time to spill the contents of their hearts. Dad’s heart? It was full when it came to his only, sweet sister. She was his champion and cheerleader, his soft spot and rock, all in one. I imagine he was the same for her, remembering the affection they displayed for one another.
Family photos are treasures, but they’re slick and one-dimensional. Not so with the cardigan. It was the warm hug Aunt Betty could no longer provide and as I watched my tall, dark, and often stoic father break down, flooded with loss and love at the same time, I knew the sweater was magic. I watched as he pulled the right sleeve toward his face – at first, I suspected it was a move to wipe away tears – but instead he inhaled deeply. The sweater – the sleeve – it smelled of her and I saw him comforted by the cozy rapture of her handiwork.
Still wondering if I should approach or tiptoe away, I decided to creep in. I recognized the private moment he was having and didn’t want him to stop…but I also want to join him. I needn’t have worried. He saw me and beckoned me closer, patting the bed next to him, motioning for me to sit. As I did, he unbuttoned the cardigan and pulled me toward him, wrapping both of us up in the expansive wool warmth.
He cried, I cried…just as I am right now. No words were spoken. How long did we sit there? Maybe five minutes? Long enough for him to know, through our embrace, that we both missed her like mad and craved the closeness that was now forever out of reach, short of wrapping ourselves up in the beautiful honey-colored cardigan.
I kissed his wet cheek, he squeezed my hand, and I stood to smooth out the tissue paper, knowing it was time to put the sweater away. At least for that day.
Decades later, when dad died, mom was ready to donate the sweater, maybe forgetting that Aunt Betty made it for him? I don’t know, I just remember how grateful I was to be in the right place, at the just-right-time to scoop it up. It held magic that my mom knew nothing of.
I found the cardigan treasure recently, tucked away with other keepsake clothes – my wedding dress (made by my mom-in-law, Maxine) and sentimental baby clothes from the fleeting days when our darling daughter was a tiny bundle of love.
Just like my dad, I felt compelled to take the sweater out of the box and smell it. I suppose it’s way past the time when a trip to the dry cleaner would be in order, to properly preserve it, but I wouldn’t dare part with it, nor would I trade the dusty, musty smell…that must also contain remnants of both dad and Aunt Betty…for any fresh-and-new aroma. Not for anything in the world.
Cardigan hugs today…from me and a very vintage sweater.