Love and loss and what he wore

Peter was not coming home. Letting go required a long goodbye to his possessions, too.

By Ellen Stern

The Stern family on Cape Cod.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

It was not a surprise when my husband died two years ago after being ill for three, but it was a shock. And shock is more than a jolt. It’s a state of being. Although we may think we’re reacting normally and functioning rather well, we may not be. The thing about shock is we don’t really know we’re in it.

When Peter and I met in 1960 at a Yale-Dartmouth game in New Haven, I found him intriguing. He paid me no mind. But I didn’t forget him. (Nor did my Ouija board, which gave me an uncanny prediction of his becoming the Man in My Life.) When we remet years later in New York, we started a romantic saga that would go on and off for ten years until clicking for real.

To me, he was the perfect blend of smart, caustic, and solicitous. He was a stage manager on Broadway, I was a writer at New York magazine, and this time was different. Mother had always said, “You’ll know.” I knew. One of the luckiest strikes in my life was that I got to tell her, the night before she died, that I’d met the man I was going to marry. From 1971 on, Peter and I were together til death did us part.

In the immediate aftermath—while trying to resume a life I hadn’t lived without him for 46 years—I moved nothing, cleared away nothing, tossed nothing. I didn’t change the sheets for two months. I didn’t throw out the chicory coffee I didn’t like or the six kinds of mustard in the fridge. I bought a perky hemp laundry hamper to replace our fractured wicker one, but couldn’t make the switch.

As the months went by, I slowly discarded small things of value to no one but Peter—the newspaper clippings and reminders tacked to the wall near his desk about a summer heat wave (he loved summer heat waves), a Mets victory, the alternate-side-of-the-street parking schedule. I cleared his desk drawers of 40-year-old check stubs and parking tickets and jury-duty notices and the manuals to long-gone appliances. I gave away his exercise paraphernalia but not his antiquated cameras, the Pentax and Minolta. I wouldn’t replace his beloved Mets towel, which still hangs on its bathroom hook. And I still can’t delete his entry in my email address book.

Nonetheless, I thought the official Stages of Grief didn’t apply to me. When he died, I didn’t deny it. I wasn’t angry. I didn’t try to bargain. Of course I was depressed. And yes, I accepted it—or thought I did. I knew his death was real, I knew cancer had won. I knew, I knew, I knew.

But I didn’t know.

Our home was so full of him.

His tools: the pantry drawers and cabinets holding his hammers, pliers, and wrenches; every size nail and screw, nut and bolt; glues, solvents, and stain removers; the saw and drill, packing tape and masking tape, rope and twine. The first time I had to hang a picture, wrap a carton, and attach a little pad to the foot of a chair, I could barely breathe.

His over-the-counter reading glasses, in many locations. I still wear them when I pay the bills, do a crossword puzzle, read the TV listings. I’ve never washed them; they’re still smudgy, and I like them that way.

Aside from such keepsakes as birthday cards the kids made for him, and all those parking tickets and manuals, Peter wasn’t much of a saver. Not money or ephemera, not even the Playbills that contained his name. But he did have two possessions he considered precious.

One was his working script, with every cue, move, blackout, actor’s measurements and voice range, from the Broadway musical 1776, on which he had been the original production stage manager. The other was a Rolex Red Submariner. When 1776 became a hit and he was in the chips, he’d bought the watch on Madison Avenue. He had money to burn. He wasn’t thinking about security, or a family to support, or any rainy day. What should he give himself? Why not a globe! He bought a globe. A sheepskin coat! He bought a coat. A Rolex!

“This is going to be worth something,” he’d always said. He loved its heft and pedigree. He maintained it with reverence and had it serviced by Tourneau. After he died and I became obsessed with an insecure future, a Rolex-wearing friend reported that Peter’s model had just sold at auction for over $500,000. My heart leaped.

In spite of the time-honored grief rules that warn against making major decisions too soon—such as selling houses, changing jobs, moving to new cities, and unloading valuable possessions—I booked an appointment with a gent at Phillips, the auction house with an abiding interest in important watches. Was I being rash instead of wise? Probably. But I was in such a swivet about money, I scorned any suggestion to sit back and wait.

At least I wasn’t my friend Alice, who, soon after her husband’s death, bought a pricey Miami Beach condo in a building yet to be built. . . or Brenda, whose wild affair with a rough-hewn cad made her feel so much more desirable than her husband had that he was able to seduce her out of $100,000 to buy a new house for himself and his family.

A widow, like Odysseus, should tie herself to the mast.

The watchman lit up, which confirmed that I held something precious—and worth holding back. But I was, of all things, flattered. After examining it and enlightening me as to its background, he gave me an estimate and a “hammer price,” saying he’d like to put it on the block at the spring auction in Hong Kong. The hammer price was far less than $500,000, and not even a guarantee. I momentarily considered taking the watch home, putting it safely away, and trying to forget about it until its value increased. But I didn’t.

The next examiner operated a nasty watch shop on Second Avenue. “What d’ya want for it?” he shot, and, with nothing to lose, I blurted, “$50,000.” “I buy ’em, I don’t bid on ’em,” he snarled, waving me toward the street.

Feeling more like Willy Loman than Mother Courage, I didn’t like this at all. So I went online, arbitrarily chose five Rolex dealers in New York City, and made five appointments on a Tuesday. It was a hot afternoon and I had stage fright, but I also had a new sense of command. I knew a bit more than I’d known, and I was curious to see if I could effect this transaction in an adult manner. If nothing came of the day’s outing, I figured I could always go back to Phillips.

Because one firm had a classier web site than the others, and I’ve often judged a book by its cover, I went there first. It also happened to have the most gracious showroom of the lot, and, as it turned out, the most gracious buyer. He too lit up when I unwrapped my treasure from the folds of its French cotton napkin and offered me more than the Phillips man had. I was gratified, but moved on to see if I could do better.

I couldn’t. The succeeding connoisseurs were repellent both in their venues and social skills. Two colleagues in a Fifth Avenue joint worked a well-practiced duet, handing the watch back and forth to each other, touting various attributes such as “the original glass” (which even I knew was crystal), and offering a silly amount. The next guy, occupying a messy nest in West 47th Street’s jewelry district, snatched the half-eaten sandwich and soda can from his desk before I’d approach. Taking the watch with a hungry hand, he examined it for a long time before issuing his critique—the crystal was really plastic, my bezel didn’t turn the way his did—and insulting offer. As I stood to leave, he yelled, “How much ya want?” This time, without a beat, “$50,000.” He grabbed the phone and called an associate, yakking in Yiddish. The upgraded bid: “$8,000 to $12,000.” No, thanks.

The last prospect, in Rockefeller Center, was so unpleasant we didn’t even get to his proposal, so I returned to the first man and accepted his. It was no $50,000. But I felt desperate.

Before parting with it the next day, I touched the crystal protecting its face and kissed it goodbye.

His closet.

The Paul Stuart suit, J. Press tweed jacket, Brooks Brothers navy blazer, L.L. Bean plaid pajamas, white Bermudas we bought on his birthday at Ralph Lauren’s Paris emporium (and he stained an hour later with a dripping chocolate glacé in the Bois de Boulogne), smart spectrum of ties, brown Gore-Texes and a second pair yet to be worn. And, most poignant of all, the khaki safari jacket, last of a series that started at Abercrombie & Fitch and ended at Hunting World, and brown bomber jacket he treated with saddle soap, mink oil paste, and leather conditioner.

Peter’s possessions were not symbols of status or pretension, any more than were his friendships or alliances. He didn’t name-drop, didn’t boast. He had good taste and wore, when the occasion demanded, the same classic stuff he’d always worn through prep school and college—although his daily uniform was jeans, a polo shirt, sweatshirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap. Day in, season out.

I knew that he was never going to wear these things again, but I also understood Joan Didion’s inability to give away John Dunne’s shoes because, as she wrote, “he would need shoes if he was to return.” There’s a big difference between missing a husband and knowing, really knowing, he’s not coming home.

Peter had always come home. It took a long time to accept that no, not anymore.

And then one morning I was ready to unclothe his closet. I didn’t need the space, but I needed the task done. I’d consistently offered his things to my grown-up daughter Katie, son Charley, and son-in-law Kyle, but other than a shirt here and a pair of slacks there, they never really took me up on it. His jackets and suits didn’t fit Charley or Kyle—although Kyle looked terrific in the long navy Burberry trench coat which I urged him to take, and Charley regularly “borrowed” his father’s socks and ties. A particularly poignant moment occurred the day he tried on a pair of Peter’s sneakers. Murphy the dog raised her head. Catching Peter’s scent, she followed her nose to Charley’s bare feet and plopped herself down right on top of them.

I’d chosen a thrift shop that not only benefited a cause that wasn’t a disease but would also pick the clothes up. It wasn’t easy depositing these oh-so-familiar duds in four alien black garbage bags, but then I felt an odd relief. Like a barber with itchy scissors, I found that once I’d started clearing things out, I almost couldn’t stop. It reminded me of the tidying spells that occurred during periods and pregnancy.

Inspired by my friend Vicky, who’d held onto her husband’s cashmere sweaters to wear for comfort, I kept Peter’s winter turtlenecks and scarves. I also kept his L. L. Bean boots. And baseball caps. And safari jacket.

But not the bomber jacket. I knew how he’d cherished it, but knew that someone else would enjoy it, too. So I took a photo and bagged it.

The clothes were picked up on Monday. On Friday, I mentioned it to Katie. With which my darling daughter sparked like a bouquet of kindling.

“How could you? Why did you?” I reminded her that Peter’s closet had been open to her, her husband and brother for over two years. “We can’t keep them just to keep them,” I said. “They’re things. They’re not Daddy.” Overwhelmed by grief, she sobbed. Overwhelmed by remorse, I folded.

Rushing to another room, I called the thrift shop in a shaky whisper. Had they been sold yet? If not, could I retrieve them? I’d been impetuous, I said, and my daughter felt betrayed, and we were both distraught.

Marlene, the angel on the phone, flew to the rescue. Had I made a list? Yes. Did I have photos? Just one. The bomber jacket.

Text them to me, she said, and I’ll see what I can find. Have faith. And come to the shop as soon as you can.

I was there within the hour. She had isolated a few things she thought might be Peter’s, but they weren’t. Nor were any of the other garments on the racks. And then, from behind the counter, she presented three outdoorsy jackets. One was a brown down. One was a brown wool.

The third was Peter’s bomber jacket.

I returned twice more, gripping my list and hoping for other needles in the haystack. And then I stopped. What was I doing? I didn’t want to bring Peter’s clothes home again!

I had the jacket, and I counted my lucky stars. Recovering it had been a miracle—to me, who doesn’t believe in such things, and to Marlene, who does. “Of all his clothing,” she asked, as we hugged goodbye, “which piece was his favorite?”

The bomber jacket.

“Of course” she said. “This is how it was meant to be.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .

Ellen Stern is a writer and editor who worked at New York magazine, GQ, and the Daily News for many years. She is the author of Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence and of a forthcoming biography of Al Hirschfeld.

You may enjoy other stories by Ellen Stern: Safe on Second: A New York Story,  Murphy and Me and Household Effects: an Illustrated Inventory

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