September 23, 2019

You can’t take it with you – And Socks are Forever?

“You can’t take it with you.”

I’m certain we’ve all heard this expression and come to understand that we enter this world with nothing, and similarly leave property-less. In my family’s case, this saying took an interesting twist when my father passed away.

To understand, it is necessary to go back a generation earlier.

During WWII my father’s father was member of the Royal Canadian Air Force and saw active duty in the European Theatre. At war’s end, he was honourably discharged, and once remarked that the only thing he had been allowed to take with him (besides his medals) from the Air Force were his socks. Of course he had collected personal mementos and the like, but things like his uniform, shaving kit, even his underwear were considered Armed Services property. Not that you’d want your boxers from the war, but imagine having to buy underwear for the first time since who knows when. At least he was able to keep his socks.

My grandfather went on to become a very successful businessman and had an affinity for the finer things in haberdashery, including tailored suits and handmade shoes. All were colour co-ordinated and of the finest material and quality. Sadly, upon his passing, his being a small man left me without any of his nice clothes fitting me. It was quite the scene, his three grandchildren divvying up his personal wardrobe.

When it came to his socks, they were the only article of clothing which fit so I almost sheepishly took them, some 20 pairs of the finest woolen socks one could buy. As a result, I had them to remember him by.

My father had a brief stint in Canada’s Army after being thrown out of college. He never saw active duty and mostly held desk jobs for two years until his discharge. Again, (and I apologize for the pun) as a footnote, he was only able to keep his socks. He spoke little of his military service, and mentioned this just once but I knew he wanted to put this period of his life behind him as quickly and completely as possible.

He went on to join my grandfather in business, and he too developed a penchant for fine clothing, including gold toed woolen socks. I recall while I was growing up, mother had special sock forms with which she used to stretch and dry his socks. It seemed overboard to me but I wasn’t an Orthodox housewife in the 60s, and hardly in a position to judge the proper tasks or role of women at that time.

Fast forward to my own discharge from the Canadian Coast Guard and, to my surprise, my Commanding Officer mentioned I could only take my socks with me. He wasn’t the most patient of men, so I never had the chance to explore this military tradition with him. Thankfully I had had a civilian life, including clothing, and so there was no need to take my military issue socks with me, and I left empty-handed.

After my undergraduate studies, I joined my father and grandfather in the family business, but I never developed their taste for fine suits and clothing. I was much more of an ‘off-the-rack’ fellow. Despite their prompting, and even when they took me clothes shopping, to me a suit was just a suit, and I just didn’t see any reason to purchase fancy items of clothing or have them custom made – so I did not follow in their footsteps (as it were). No fancy haberdashers for me. I think they may have despaired or my dress sense, but clothes were never that important to me.

In fact, since leaving the business, and the corporate world, nearly 30 years ago, I have found no need for a suit, and the socks I buy today still come in plastic wrapped packages of six pairs – and they are good enough for me. So I did not give even a thought to fancy handwoven socks.

Time passed.

It was the day before Yom Kippur nine years ago when my mother called and said I needed to return home and come directly to the hospital. Upon my arrival at the ICU, doctors were already discussing removing my father’s life support. He finally succumbed to heart disease on Yom Kippur.

From the moment I came into town, and during the entire period of his final illness, we had camped out at the hospital, and I had not entered their home. Only after the Chesed Shel Emes had removed my father from the hospital to prepare him for burial did my mother and I return to their home. We spent a fair bit of time talking, and just absorbing the shock of his passing, until we finally called it a night. At that point, I went into the guest bedroom, and turning on the light, found a box sitting on my bed. Inside that box were twenty four pairs of fine new gold toe socks. I asked my mother about this right away, and she said my father had asked her to put them in my room earlier that day, before they called the ambulance.

Did he know his time was up? Was he trying to tell me something? Perhaps ultimately when you leave this world you have a premonition of it and find small ways to impart yourself to others. I don’t know, but the fact remains that he had arranged this, and now, as with his father before him, I have my father’s socks to remember him by.

Kerry Swartz is a member of the Community Chevrah Kadisha in Vancouver and Victoria BC. He is a professionally trained photographer holding an MFA from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a student and of and a member of the staff for the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a board member of Kavod v’Nichum, participating on the social media, fundraising, and grant writing committees. Kerry is happily married with two teenagers who think his library is gross.




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