“Tell your mother I am not wearing the yellow shirt.”
My eighty-year old father is sitting in his paneled family room, fussing with his hearing aids and wearing his white undershirt and tan slacks. No yellow shirt.
“What’s the matter with the yellow shirt?” I ask, my eyes scanning the room for the unwanted shirt.
“Your mom knows I don’t like wearing yellow shirts.”
“Then why did she get you a yellow shirt?”
My father’s shoulders drop. He shakes his head at me like he did thirty years earlier when I handed him a progress report from my geometry teacher, red ink revealing my D average and need to stay after school for extra help.
“Go in my closet and get me my tan dress shoes,” he asks, redirecting me to another clothing item.
I open up his closet door. The smell of leather reminds me of the seventies and crawling atop his wingtip shoes to hide from my sisters. Sitting Indian style in the back corner of the deep space I played with a shoe horn, old wallets, and would listen for the thundering footsteps of my sisters running downstairs to find me.
All of his shoes are varying shades of tan.
Pair number one, “No, no, no, the other pair of tan shoes,” my father is shaking his full, wavy head of white hair, his face still grimacing, likely over the yellow shirt.
Pair number two, “No, the tan pair, hard soul,” Dad re-positions himself, his bony fingers reaching for his walker to hoist himself up so he can find his own damn, tan shoes.
“I’ll find them, I’ll find them,” I promise, going back into the closest again and presenting the third pair with success.
The correct shoes seem to perk Dad’s mood up so I suggest finding a shirt color to his liking.
Just beyond the garage is an addition to the house that was once my Dad’s dental laboratory. In the seventies and eighties, the lab buzzed with my dad soldering fake bicuspids and molars while whistling a Paul Williams tune or listening to Paul Harvey pontificate on a.m. radio. He had manila envelopes stuffed with dental impressions and polished crowns and bridges ready to be inserted into the mouths of dentists’ patients.
Today the room is a storage hodgepodge, present wrapping headquarters and an ironing room. There, hanging on a laundry line is an assortment of freshly pressed button down collared shirts in a rainbow of colors. My mother personally ironed each shirt for Dad, a man who only ventures out for doctor’s appointments, a monthly haircut and a grandchild event. Today the outing is for his sixteen year old twin grandchildren’s Confirmation.
I grab a pale lavender shirt and a pale blue shirt when my eyes catch a black and white framed photo of my twenty-something father wearing red and black checkered flannel. He is beside his father and a bunch of other huntsman posing with their deer. I smile at his big, movie star grin.
I return to Dad still sitting in the family room, only now he is wearing his tan shoes.
“You know dad, these are long sleeve shirts. That yellow shirt is short sleeved and it’s going to be warm today. You might be more comfortable in the yellow.”
Dad studies the new selection of shirts and then adds another hiccup to the yellow shirt debacle.
“It has to go with the sports jacket your mother picked out for me to wear,” and he points to the handsome blazer hanging on his closet door.
“Mom’s right dad, the yellow shirt goes perfect with that blazer, just wear it.”
“I am NOT wearing the yellow shirt!”
“Who are you trying to impress at church Dad? Jerry? “
Jerry is the other grandfather to the twins and is six years Dad’s senior
“He’s no fashionista,” I remind my dad.
“Go get the green shirt in the closet. Does that go with the jacket?”
“No, it’s green.”
Dad’s fuzzy white head is shaking again and I flee the room, jogging upstairs to see if my mom can mediate. She’s been dressing Dad for nearly fifty-three years, surely she’d know how to handle him.
Mom is still reeling from the pork ribs coming out too dry at lunch.
“They were good mom, lunch was good,” I reassure her, thinking back to the pork, buttery sweet potatoes and corn that she had whipped up in between making French toast for breakfast and chatting with me. Maybe the yellow shirt was going to put her over the edge, but I break the news to her anyway.
I can tell that she has started to put on her make up, but is still missing the final mascara. She mumbles to herself like a shuffling, tired vagabond, rummaging up some spunk to speak.
“We had a whole discussion the other day about the brown sports jacket and the yellow shirt. He agreed to wear it!”
“Maybe he thinks wearing yellow is effeminate.”
“He wears pink shirts!”
I start to laugh, feeling flabbergasted, stammering, searching for the right words or best exit strategy to get out of my childhood raised-ranch.
“Who is going to notice the yellow shirt? Jerry? What do you think he’s going to wear?” my Mother asks me as she wipes the kitchen table I ate at thousands of times. That table also made for a hard pillow on the nights I laid my head on it wishing the homework would finish itself and all the laughing and conversations that table witnessed from a family of six.
I give her my answer, “My guess is a golf shirt, polyester pants and no belt.”
I know deep down the yellow shirt is Dad’s way of controlling some little piece of his life. No more business, no more hunting trips, no more kids to raise; just an unreliable body and a lot of time to think and be.
Dad opted to wear a pale mint green shirt with the blazer.
At the crowded church I sit many pew rows behind my parents, a cafeteria Catholic relegated to the back with all the tardy atheists. The back of my parents’ heads are familiar, two beacons representing goodness, kindness and love. I smile, feeling happy about yellow shirts, dried pork ribs, Dad and Mom.