Bearing the Weight of My Grandfathers’ Old Clothes

In adopting outerwear worn by the men who came before him, Aram Mrjoian considers his childhood misperceptions of traditional masculinity.

Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,320 words)

The first time I was mistaken for my father on the phone, I feigned annoyance. It was around 2004, I was 14 or 15 years old, and my family’s main form of communication was still the cordless phone mounted to the wall at the threshold of the kitchen, important numbers listed in thick pencil on a faded pad of yellow paper taped to the inside of the neighboring cabinet door. My mother and father also had cell phones, single-function dull silver models with green calculator screens and pixelated numbers, but these devices were strictly for work or emergencies. I was too young for my own phone, which was still an uncommon luxury among my friends, especially those still without a driver’s license. At home, the majority of calls we received were from telemarketers, and by my adolescence my parents had trained me to decline the onslaught of polite, prodding inquiries from unknown numbers, so that once or twice a day I hung up on an unfamiliar voice the moment they butchered our last name.

This time, though, it was a number I recognized, from a family member, someone who knew both my dad and me well enough to identify the distinct tones and cadences of our voices. She confused us anyway. I remember the static over the line, my momentary pause as I tried to make sense of this error. How could I be mistaken for my father? How could there be any confusion given the unsure wavering in my adolescent voice? Even as a teenager, I understood one distant moment of misidentification was neither some portentous sign of manhood nor a hint that I had matured in a more physical sense of the word. At least, I didn’t see it that way. Today, the feeling of being lost in adulthood is as constant as ever, like I am still an anachronistic version of my younger self, winging it day to day, uncertain of who I am and what the hell I’m doing. This mood was intensely magnified in my adolescence. My conceptions of masculinity and adulthood were out of whack with my perception of myself. It wasn’t simply that I wasn’t a man yet, but a larger question of how could I ever be half the man my father is, at all?

***

After I graduated from Michigan State with an English degree in 2011, I moved back into my parents’ house in Ann Arbor. I had no long-term job prospects, a lack of motivation, and a handful of graduation checks from close family members, namely my grandparents. My father soon connected me, through a friend, to a position bussing tables at a local Irish pub. I bought two sets of cheap black slacks and fell into a routine of prepping condiments during dead lunch shifts and hustling through Big Ten football weekends, peeling ten-gallon tubs of potatoes in afternoon slumps and scrambling to clean the kitchen in the middle of the night before closing, and so most days I slept until long after the sun was high in the sky, having no obligations until at least 11:00 a.m. I was privileged enough to have neither expenses nor ambition, but felt lazy and embarrassed as I spent my time off bingeing Netflix in my bedroom or grabbing beers with coworkers. I read lots of books and spent hours pretending to write on café patios while I drank too much and embraced a hodgepodge of distractions. I worked a lot of hours, and took overtime when I could get it, but I goofed off just as much, if not more. My wages at the restaurant were meager and inconsistent.

I wore my father’s and grandfathers’ sweaters and coats to try and imagine myself as someone more distinguished, larger in stature, widely knowledgeable, certain in my identity, confident in what the world held before me.

Meanwhile, most of my college friends had transitioned to grad school or salaried jobs. I hardly bothered to send out my bare resume. I was one of a growing wave of so-called upper middle class lost Millennials, those of the group lamented in op-eds and corporate white papers for being entitled and ungrateful, lacking disposable income, and failing to meet the social milestones laid out by previous generations. In my case, this blanket assessment wasn’t entirely off the mark, but contrary to the generalizing headlines my entitlement didn’t rest in the expectation of being handed a stable career or a starter home or unlimited social mobility; it was instead in failing to comprehend the remarkable — if not downright unbelievable — opportunities already gifted to me by my parents and grandparents throughout my childhood and young adulthood. During my college years I worked a number of part-time jobs, in the cafeteria, at a sandwich shop, as a security guard at basketball games, but I left without debt. I never had to worry about whether or not I could pay the rent. I didn’t expect more to be handed to me, but hadn’t yet realized how much I’d already been given for free. I couldn’t yet recognize how easy I had it. At 22, I had to finally learn how to break out of my bubble of privilege, which is in its nature a journey without a firm conclusion, one I will certainly continue for the remainder of my life.

At the time, though, I felt worthless, and my gut reaction was to flee. By September, I took my shame and graduation checks and two biscuit tins full of tip money to the bank, a branch location nestled across from the checkout in the neighborhood Meijer, and deposited everything. I did the one thing I thought made sense: I filled a camping backpack with clothes and books and toiletries and skipped town.

***

The circumstances of my leaving were less than well received by my parents. I bought a one-way ticket to Paris, a cheap flight off some sketchy website, with no plans for lodging once I arrived. I had recently read Sylvia Beach’s memoir titled after her bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, and after some research was convinced I’d find a place to stay there as a tumbleweed, curled up between the stacks, living out some idyllic self-imposed exile before I even hit 25. My dad feared for my safety and when I left the country we were on less-than-congenial terms. I believed I would amount to nothing, not yet old enough to understand my limited impressions of what constituted success in adulthood. What my parents and grandparents had spent lifetimes building to ensure I had a safety net, I opted to squander on aimless travel.


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My trip began on several bad notes. Within minutes of being dropped off at Detroit Metro airport, I found out my first flight was grounded due to inclement weather. I slept for a night under a gossamer-thin blanket on a bench chair and read magazines until I could be rerouted on an early flight to New York the next morning. After taking a shuttle from La Guardia to JFK, I spent several more hours reading, but I became increasingly anxious about my first international flight and soon turned from books to beer. I drank several pints at the airport bar, sitting next to three guys my age in suits, briefcases tucked at their feet against the line of chrome stools. By the time my flight number was called, I was intoxicated enough that I don’t firmly remember boarding the plane. I slept from takeoff and woke up hungover at sunrise. They announced we were landing at de Gaulle in half-an-hour.

The problem was I had left my coat at JFK. In fact, not my coat, but one passed down by my Armenian grandfather, a wool navy pea coat, threadbare, pockets torn through, with snap buttons, the striped cuffs of a high school varsity jacket, and his name embroidered in loopy cursive white lettering near the inside left breast pocket. It was my favorite article of clothing, even if it no longer effectively held enough warmth to withstand the relentless Michigan winters. It was a unique garment, one worn for years by a better man than me.

Today, I can’t help but suspect stereotypical projections of masculinity stem in part from how we mythologize manhood as confused boys, the small acts of perceived toughness we inherit from older generations. Both my grandfathers served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. They tried to instill in me the value of hard work. As a kid, I believed my father, an engineer, was capable of fixing anything. And so I wore my father’s and grandfathers’ sweaters and coats to try and imagine myself as someone more distinguished, larger in stature, widely knowledgeable, certain in my identity, confident in what the world held before me. I believed someday I’d have it all figured out: my sense of style, my finances, surety in how to handle life’s unending difficulties, the movements and fluctuations of my body in the chaotic world around me.

When I inherited my grandfather’s coat the winter before my trip, it was the first clue that so much of that train of thought was unfounded bullshit. The coat fit well, perhaps a bit loose around the midsection, but tight in the shoulders, so that I could tell we were of similar height and build, and that he must have been no more sure of himself wearing it than I was when I decided to leave my immediate problems behind. I realized passed-down clothing was never intended to somehow reveal who I could be, but it could remind me where I came from and of the larger life lessons I perceived having learned from my grandfathers before they passed away. They were men who I believed had built success from scratch, exhibited patience, and didn’t fear a thing. Much of this, of course, is childhood fabrication; puerile hero worship leaving an indelible mark on my memory. Regardless, the lost coat, a physical object, couldn’t offer clarity about my identity, a personal construct. I couldn’t recognize that at the time. The coat was necessary to how I understood who I was supposed to be and who I was failing to become.

More than two months later, I returned home wearing a new charcoal gray duffel jacket — purchased in Dublin due to the November cold — and the longest unkempt beard I’ve ever allowed myself to grow to this day. The jacket was sleek, crisp at the seams, and struck me as cosmopolitan given its foreign origin. I didn’t feel like a new person, but I looked like a new person, someone more worldly and wayworn, and yet I’d lost something much more important during my travels. There will never be another coat like the one I left behind. Within a week I shaved the beard and returned to bussing tables.

***

In my early and mid-20s, I used to smoke two or three cigars a year: one on my birthday in June, a second when I returned home for Christmas, and sometimes a third, during the rare wedding or bachelor party. I had returned for the holidays and stood at the edge of the garage at my parents’ house, staring out over the dreary cul-de-sac, admiring another gray and snowless Michigan December. I shivered in one of the miscellany of jackets I’d found in the front closet, puffing away in my annual tradition. This was another bogus posture of manhood. Churchill cigars, bourbon neat, an affinity for grilled meats. I had moved out of my childhood home to an apartment down the road, renting a second bedroom from a close friend, but I was still working food service downtown, minutes away from where I grew up. My aunt, who was staying with us for a few days, came back from a walk around the neighborhood and paused near the top of the driveway.

“You look just like your grandpa,” she said.

She was referring to her dad, my mom’s dad. My Polish grandpa. He used to smoke cigars in the same spot I stood in whenever he was in town, after my grandmother and he made the two-hour drive from Grand Rapids to visit. As a kid I’d poke my head out of the warm laundry room doorway and wonder how he never got bored or cold standing there with nothing in particular occupying his time. I’d like to say I get it now, because I’ve come to appreciate such moments of reflection more and more as I age, but it’ll be another 40 years before I can truly relate. While my cigar phase subsided, my mother’s parents also taught me lifelong loves for pizza and donuts that remain as strong as ever. My Polish grandpa was a tall man, fond of plain-colored nylon jackets and rain layers and adjustable baseball caps, the type of old-man garb worn fishing: reliable in drab weather, durable, machine washable in a pinch, and untethered to any one season.

In fact, he did like to fish, as often as possible. When I was growing up, my parents often drove my brother and me to Northern Michigan where my maternal grandparents spent much of their summers. I learned to cast along a channel at the mouth of Indian River as boats zipped to and from the Burt Lake marina. Youthfully impatient, I lost uncountable bass and catfish yanking at the line the moment I felt the slightest tug. I’d snag a strand of seaweed and start reeling in at full speed. On neighboring Mullet Lake, in an inflatable dinghy, I learned to troll and pike fish. These monsters were big enough to keep and cook, and the one time I managed to bring in a pike large enough to legally hold onto, we brought it back and my grandfather pinioned the fish beneath the gills to his work bench and bashed it in the head with a rolling pin until the fish lost its fight and went limp. I watched my grandfather gut the fish, pick through the network of miniscule, translucent bones, knife away scales and grit. We ate its fresh meat off the grill that evening.

I have witnessed these inherited garments falling apart over time, and I sometimes think I am falling apart too, standing older with no more answers to anything than I had in my youth, a scraggly, unpolished, lesser version of the men who stood so proud and confident during my upbringing.

Years later, I’d read the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and think of my grandfather. Fishing became synonymous with the type of masculine pastime I expected to inherit. My adolescent insecurities led me to embark on traditionally masculine reading preferences and hobbies. It wasn’t until my grandfather stopped trekking up north and moved to California that I realized our trips were never about catching fish. It was simply time we got to spend together without distractions, no television or video games. But, as a kid, I thought being an outdoorsman was somehow indicative of the man I needed to eventually become. The truth is I still enjoy casting out on the water, even if I’m less inclined to kill and eat what I manage to land. There’s something peaceful about layering up and feeling the lakeside gusts cool down as the sun sinks beneath the tree line. On summer nights, a good hoodie allows just enough chill to drift up your forearms. Sometimes a rain jacket gracefully catches the wind and seems to relieve one’s whole frame from the persistent force of gravity. For me, the comfort of outerwear, new or inherited, lies in escaping the confines of the house, entering open space, and trying to get a better handle on the unceasingly changing conditions of the world. Maybe that’s what my grandfathers were trying to tell me. It’s only then, when I’m not thinking about much outside of my surroundings, that I begin to understand who I am trying to be.

***

Over time, most of the cardigans and zip-ups and crewnecks I’ve accrued from these men have been discarded or set aside in storage in my parents’ basement. Some have unraveled at the waist. Others have limited functionality, because button after button came loose in the laundry. Ripped sleeves, permanent unidentifiable stains, material stretched so thin by time that tiny constellations of my undershirts burst through; I have witnessed these inherited garments falling apart over time, and I sometimes think I am falling apart too, standing older with no more answers to anything than I had in my youth, a scraggly, unpolished, lesser version of the men who stood so proud and confident during my upbringing.

The one sweater I cannot convince myself to set aside, despite its mysterious discolored blotches and missing marble buttons, is a baggy multicolored cardigan from a Saint Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church golf outing. Sections of it are ketchup red and fairway green and navy blue, even orange, stripes up and down the sleeves, all outlined in a white placket, with golf tees sewn in a line at the midsection and a striped shield bearing the colors of the Armenian flag embroidered over the heart. It is the ideal weight for a dawn tee time in autumn, but I don’t golf and have never worn it for any comparable pastime. The cardigan is gaudy and sags so much under its own weight that it sits unflatteringly across my frame, drooping over my hips, but it is so esoteric and irreplaceable that I can’t help but cling to it for a kind of inexplicable assurance of my half-assed ethnic identity. I love to wear it, but fret whenever it sits over the clumsiness of my body. Food, coffee, loose nails, doorframes, dog parks, campus benches — there are infinite hazards that can forever alter the fabric’s aging geography. And yet, to preserve the cardigan in my closet is also unthinkable; I could never archive it like a museum relic. There’s simply too much live energy imbued in the fibers, a lineage that would lose its electricity if stowed away. I know it’s only a matter of time before the cardigan becomes unwearable like any other ephemera tossed about in the course of living. There are so many items we collect with the strict understanding we will later discard them, rooms’ worth of familiar objects we are forced to claim or release, a lifetime of junk that we possess for seemingly no reason at all.

***

In two weeks, I will be 30 years old. Both of my grandfathers are gone. One for more than two decades, the other less than five years. The number of hand-me-downs is dwindling. Each lost or donated item is one less link to the past. The cliché is that memory fades. Moments lose clarity until they’re nothing more than a series of freeze frames, a few scattered images from long ago. However, complications emerge in misinterpreting what remains. Sartorial inheritance is perhaps innocuous, even if personally significant, whereas conflating outworn ideas of identity with homage is profoundly dangerous. Clothing is one avenue where these understandings can get jumbled. It’s too easy to sew the performance of traditional masculinity to representative physical objects. I owe it to my grandfathers to be an accepting and inclusive human being, to push for a better future, even if their understandings of that future would likely look antiquated and different compared to my own. I have no real way of knowing. The best thing I can do is eliminate the problematic notions of manhood I have imposed on myself and deconstruct the romanticized memories that encourage me to mythologize the men in my life. Love is in seeing the torn seams, the loose string dangling at the sleeve, the faded fabric, but wearing the sweater anyway, staying warm, and accepting that nothing is perfect.

It was foolish of me to ever fabricate false expectations of manhood based on misguided ancestral cravings I embodied in old clothing. If any of my clothes survive the wear and tear of the years ahead, I can only hope that after these items are given away or passed down, the person who inherits them will recognize their bare utility, and can rest assured they can be whoever they want to be wrapped up in the embrace of an old sweater, a cardigan, a winter coat.

* * *

Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the assistant editor at the Southeast Review, and the managing editor at TriQuarterly. He is currently a PhD student in creative writing at Florida State University.

Editor: Sari Botton