Why you should care
Because some things just shouldn’t be thrown out.
John Ptacek is a retiree who writes essays, composes music and lives in Wisconsin.
I am on the move again. Each time I move, I shed a few boxes filled with mostly useless possessions, but I still wind up with way too much stuff — a wok I haven’t used for years, old photos I will never look at again, a load of heavy cookbooks that have more sentimental than practical value. Certain kept items are nonnegotiable, including anything my son ever gave me. These include a rock the size of an egg on which he printed his name and the date when he was 5 years old, and a small stack of paper place mats on which he earnestly doodled designs and contraptions while we waited in restaurants for our food to arrive.
And then there are the scarves and ties draped carefully over a wooden hanger in my bedroom closet. It is a time capsule of sorts that captures cherished moments spent with my late wife, Kitty. She without a scarf was like Saturn without its rings. Early in our 30-year marriage, she adopted this swank fashion statement and ran with it. Pluming out under her chin, hanging loosely inside open spring and fall coats or draped over one shoulder for dramatic effect, Kitty’s colorful scarves hinted at her lively personality. Whether she was blonde or brunette — when her hair grew back following chemotherapy, it was the shade of dark roast coffee — her broad array of scarves was the perfect accent to her appearance.
Shopping was just another way for us to spend time together. It was a shared intimacy, no different than attending a movie or preparing a meal together.
My collection of ties was prodigious, but it didn’t quite rival Kitty’s stockpile of scarves. I was a salesman for a good portion of my life, not because I wanted to be one, but because it was a good way to feed my family. I had great doubts about my ability to sell, but decided that even though I may be out of my league as a salesman, I was damn well going to look like one. I was always a bit of a clotheshorse, so this wasn’t much of a transition for me.
But our mutual penchant for dolling up is not the storyline here. Rather, it was the way our lives intersected in pursuit of our earthly possessions. It was rare that either of us shopped for clothes without the other tagging along. Shopping was just another way for us to spend time together. It was a shared intimacy, no different than attending a movie or preparing a meal together. Before our son was born, Kitty worked a job that required a dressy wardrobe, and often I’d find myself sitting on the carpeted floor of a department store, back to the wall, waiting for her to put on a fashion show featuring the armful of suits she’d toted into the dressing room. I honestly don’t remember a time when she bought a suit over my veto. And when I shopped for suits, she had similar veto power.
When tie shopping, we would both roam the half dozen or so tie displays in the men’s department, each of us carving a different path. I’m picky, so it was rare that I would find more than a tie or two that matched my tastes. And I’m fast, so I would always finish before Kitty. I’d come upon her scrutinizing ties with pursed lips, as if there would be hell to pay if she made the wrong decision. One arm was hung with ties that made the cut, and awaited my final decision. Kitty’s tastes were always a bit more conservative than mine, but more often than not she found me a winner.
We especially liked shopping when visiting New York, where we were as likely to buy scarves and ties on the street as we were in boutiques or department stores. I have a picture of Kitty standing on an Upper West Side street wearing a calf-length copper-colored coat with a black felt collar. Around her neck is a loosely tied sheer black scarf shot through with bright gold lines that blended in nicely with her shoulder-length blond hair. It is one of my favorite scarves, and one of my favorite pictures of Kitty.
When Kitty died, she left behind three closet hooks overflowing with scarves. These were among the last of her possessions I gave away. They took on a sacred quality in her absence. I escorted her friends and family upstairs to the hallway closet, each one walking away with one or two as a memento. I gave most to Goodwill, keeping a couple of favorites for myself.
These days I wear ties only to weddings and funerals. I have just a handful left. They rest on the same hanger as Kitty’s scarves. This wooden hanger will follow me wherever I go. It doesn’t just represent history. It represents a piece of my heart.