McKean Minute: My Father’s Shirts

I inherited my mother’s left-handedness, my father’s nose, and my great-grandfather’s love of lever-action rifles.

If you inspect your own various anatomical and behavioral preferences, I’m guessing you can see shadows of your own kin, whether they’ve passed on to a happy hunting ground or are still on the sunny side of the sod.

There are some less fortunate attributes that I’ve inherited, too. I recognize my father’s intolerance for dim-witted people in my personality. I’ve gone as far as mimicking my father’s term for an enemy, whether it’s someone who cut him off in traffic or a neighbor who has been trying to bilk us out of our land for decades. He calls these folks “Friends,” as in “Thanks, friend, for being a wretched driver.” As a young kid, I recognized that my father’s use of the term “friend” meant pretty much exactly the opposite. I can only hope my own kids—who have well-endowed senses of irony—recognize my similar use of the term.

My maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, passed on to me a love of soggy bottomlands and the life they hold, including secluded duck holes in the stinking black timber. My paternal grandmother gave me a love of bourbon on the rocks. And a whole wave of paternal relatives gave me an abiding love of the wide-open West, that empire of drought-parched range, spindly vegetation, and wind-blasted homesteads where they left their mark, at least temporarily.

But my mother gave me her stature. My mom is tiny, and seems to decrease in volume every year. I recall when I was a freshman in high school, and weighed right around 100 pounds, that my mon and I made a bet about which of us would be unable to give blood. At the time, my mom packed 98 pounds into her 5-foot, 1-inch frame. I won, though I also passed out on the blood-draw gurney.

On the other side of the genetic ledger, my dad stood an imposing 6-foot, 3-inches, and he probably weighed 180 pounds at his fighting weight. He also gave blood, and he dressed in Wrangler jeans (or sometimes khaki trousers when he needed to dress up) and a rustic button-down shirt (always with an undershirt beneath) in either twill or chambray. I have a few of his old shirts, handed down to me after his death a decade ago. Some have stains, from bar oil or gear grease, but all have a comfortable, homey, rumpled hand.

My dad and I have similar taste in shirts—and in undershirts. I’d love to wear his old, work-worn shirts, to strike the same heroic pose he did when I was a kid, and transport me back to fixing fence or roping calves or baling hay.

But I buy my clothes—when I buy new clothes—on the Youth Large rack. I’m a small man, only slightly larger than my mom at her fighting weight. I could probably fit two of my statures inside one of my late dad’s shirts. Still, they hang in my closet, waiting for the next right-sized heir to heave into them, and then to swing an ax or a hammer, to shoulder a vintage rifle, or to coax a corner post into place. It’s what passes for inheritance in my family.


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