I stole my grandfather’s shirt last spring. I took it right out of his closet, hoping it would smell like him.
It didn’t. It didn’t smell like anything really; maybe there was a whiff of the detergent my grandmother liked to use, but that was about it. I was disappointed; I’d been hoping for something characteristic, some scent I could recognize that embodied my grandfather. I didn’t know what that scent would be, but I wanted it nonetheless. I wanted sensory proof of his existence, of what he meant to me. I didn’t get it.
My grandfather died several months ago, in the spring of my senior year of high school. It was a sudden and solitary death. We got a call one night that my grandmother had found him unconscious in the basement where he liked to work on his carpentry projects. She’d called 911 immediately and for a tense half hour there was silence on the line. We tried to finish our dinner, an hour and a half away from where my grandparents lived, but we were totally useless.
“It’s probably just a fall,” I suggested. “He’ll be fine.”
Then we got another call, this time announcing his death. I heard my father crying that night on the other side of the apartment, and was profoundly unsettled. I didn’t know how to process the information. We saw my grandparents infrequently – every month or two, if that – and so the fact that he was no longer alive was impossible to understand.
My grandfather and I had always been close – in his way. He had built birdhouses with me, taught me tennis, made dolls out of wood for me. Most of the time we’d spent together had some sort of connection to action, whether that meant physical activity or creating something. He was always in motion, fixing a dresser or painting an antique for my grandmother to sell at her store. I suppose it was only fitting that the shirt I took from his closet was his work shirt: Denim and baggy, covered in splotches of paint. It felt almost like a relic, a monument commemorating his presence on earth.
Of course, I didn’t actually steal the shirt. My grandmother had offered. “Take anything you want,” she said when I visited with my cousins, only a few days after the death. “I’m giving anything that’s left to Salvation Army.”
Yet there was still something sacrilegious about digging through his closet for things to take, that horrible feeling of stealing from a loved one. I kept waiting for him to come around the corner and ask why we were looking through his clothes.
The duality of clothing is, I think, something we all understand. On the one hand, my grandfather’s shirt is just a shirt – a wardrobe item, a piece of cloth. When I wear it over a floral dress it looks like something I could have picked up at a thrift store. And yet it means so much more to me than that. His shirt has its own emotional memories – the feel of my grandfather’s all-encompassing goodbye hugs, his warmth, the many small ways he let me know he was proud of me. It’s a comfort I am sometimes starved of at college, a place where I have no history at all. The shirt is a reminder of a person I loved, but also the person I was when he was still alive - a person who made her family proud. The shirt represents an important piece of my personal history, whether it smells like my grandfather or not.