As I was walking across the parking lot at our shopping center, an attractive woman leaned out of her car window to smile at me. "Hey," she said, "that's a good-looking sweater you're wearing."
Now any kind of public compliment from a woman you don't know is such a rare event in male life that it tends to linger in the mind. I was in fact wearing one of my favorite sweaters, a hand-me-down from my college-age son.
It's tan with a band of bright horizontal stripes running across the top. A little youthful for a man with graying hair, perhaps. I think this lady was trying to reassure me on that point.
Maybe she was a sweater manufacturer with a daring new line she wasn't sure would sell, or she could have been a salesclerk in a men's store, weary of the new dismal formalism prescribed for the middle-aged male. (I mean, we're back to buying vested pin-stripe suits again, for God's sake.)
Any Small Compliment
Whatever her intentions, any small compliment feels good. My train of thought continued on to recognize that I also was enjoying the idea of wearing my son's sweater. How often during the years had I seen him proudly wearing something of mine?
I believe he was 13 when it happened the first time. One night at dinner he matter-of-factly announced that some girl he hardly knew had invited him to a box-lunch dinner-dance sponsored by her church, and he had accepted. He would have to rent a tuxedo.
Discreet inquiry by Mom discovered that the boys were not going quite that formal--"just dark suits." Still, Eric hadn't owned any kind of suit that fit him since he was 8 years old.
Ah, I thought, this is one of those father-son openings not to be missed. So the two of us went out to a steak dinner the next night, and then to a good men's store. With enormous reluctance, he tried on maybe three suits. I could see from his face that it might have been cheaper to rent the tuxedo.
In the forlorn hope that my son might actually agree to wear it a second time, I bought him a navy blue blazer instead. The salesman assured Eric that with gray slacks, white shirt with cuff links, a conservative tie and black shoes, the outfit would be quite formal enough for his dance.
Shoes. We stared in dismay at those three-toned jock monstrosities on his feet. My Scotch blood rebelled. With sudden inspiration I slipped off my own shoes and, to our mutual surprise, they fit Eric perfectly.
So it was settled. That night we had another nice moment as I stood behind my son, reaching around to button his collar and show him how to tie a Windsor knot. Just the way my father had taught me. Then Eric spent half an hour practicing with the tie on the living room doorknob, exactly as I had.
At my office the next day I was in the middle of a harried conference with five or six people when the phone rang. It was 5:15 p.m. and Eric's voice was full of panic. "Dad," he croaked, "where are the shoes ?"
I glanced down with shock to see my mistake. "Family crisis," I muttered, and tore out of the meeting.
I guess he enjoyed himself that night--parents never really find out. But of course he never did wear that blazer again, and I got my shoes back. The symbolism of that act had to register with him somehow: He had literally stepped into the old man's still-warm shoes--and they had fit.
From then on I'd offer Eric an article of clothing when it shrank or I grew tired of it. Usually he turned me down, but not always.
Suddenly my son was three inches taller than me--and about that much broader across the shoulders. "Hey, Dad," he said one day with just the hint of a smile, "I hate to throw this sweater away."
"I like it," I said, and put it on. Something passed between us. Life has a way of coming full circle, if you let it.