Posted by: Kate | July 14, 2008

Twenty-One Shirts

My father-in-law was a complicated man.

He spoke at least four language fluently and could maneuver through two or three others with more ease than many native-born Americans speak English. He was a successful doctor. He could carry on an intelligent conversation about any topic I ever heard raised in his presence.

But he could never figure out how to communicate the simplest, most basic matters with his family, whether it was making dinner plans or giving driving directions. Everything could get tangled and confused and angry, defensively so, within moments, with no apparent provocation. He couldn’t express any emotions, except for anger. He was very good at anger.

His respect was hard-won and grudgingly bestowed. He acted as though he wanted the people around him to be subservient and accommodating, but then he scorned that very passivity. He treated his wife with a vague disdain, as though she might possess basic human worth but he wasn’t completely certain. After 30-some years of an unpredictability and mutual dislike, one could argue that she deserved some respect simply for putting up with him.

One could also argue that putting up with his behavior, instead of demanding better, is precisely why she never earned his respect.

Regardless of his private feelings toward his wife, he would leap to her defense at any perceived slight from an outsider, even another family member. But that, in its own way, only belittled her ability to stand up and speak for herself.

He was born and raised in post-World War II Holland. His own father was killed in somewhat mysterious circumstances (killed in action? prisoner of war? no one is quite sure), and his mother felt unable to raise an infant alone. She left her son when she moved to the United States before his first birthday, and he was raised by alternating and unwilling sets of grandparents. When he turned 18, he moved to the States to live with his mother and attend college. It’s quite possible that he never had a simple, uncomplicated, reliable relationship in his life.

Being Dutch, he had a frank curiosity about just about everything. He tended to focus rather obsessively on one topic, or person, at a time, with a tendency to believe that if he just asked enough questions, then he could learn everything he needed to know.

He loved his sons, to the extent he was able, but he was never able to share an unconditional love with them, in words or in action. The closest he could come was to demand, “You know that I love you. You know that. Right?” This usually came after several drinks.

Within the family, it was common knowledge that any important interactions or questions had to be completed before 3:00 in the afternoon. After that, he was drunk, and not happily so.

He was a radiologist, but he smoked two or three packs of cigarettes a day.

As he aged, he did start to mellow, just slightly and in subtle ways. He was able to tell his older son that he was proud of him, and he was willing to get down on the floor and drive toy trains with his grandchildren.  After a strange spat one Christmas morning, he stood and argued with me in the driveway for two hours, and then said, “Well, I may not like how you do things, but I respect you enough to let you do it.  Let’s go in and eat breakfast.”  There was potential there.

Instead, a year later, he died.  There was a little time, a chance for his sons to say goodbye, and for his wife to experience a sudden about-face and switch from overt hostility to fawning affection; he almost certainly preferred the former.

Being a complicated man, he left behind a series of complicated relationships.  None of us has been able to feel a simple, normal sort of grief at his loss, with the exception of my kids, who just miss their Opa.  Willem is still sorting through a lot of complicated emotions, and it wasn’t until last week that he felt able to sort through the big bin that his mother sent back after his father died.

The bin contains clothes.  All brand-new, mail-order things with the tags still on.  A few pairs of pants, a few button-down shirts, and twenty-one short-sleeved, solid color golf shirts.  We don’t know why he ordered so many, whether it was intentional or an early version of the mental confusion and disorientation that eventually robbed him of all the brittle, authoritative dignity he’d wielded for so long.  We won’t ever know.

And we’ll still be sorting out the complicated grief long after we’ve gotten rid of the shirts.



  1. I came upon this post completely by accident. And I love it. Your words draw, so achingly well, a picture of a complicated person. Wow. And over there on the sidebar your “attempt at organization” tempts me, though dinner prep calls at the moment. I’ll be back. Regards – Amy

  2. Families are so freakin’ tough. I hope I can manage to not be a tough nut for my kids and their future families.

  3. This is a wonderful post.


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