He’d dress in the quiet darkness of the early morning, as the bobwhite made its final call from the tree tops and the sun had not yet begun to lift the dew from the branches of the pine trees behind the house.
Draped across the wooden chair next to the window, his outfit had been carefully picked out the night before: overalls and a collared shirt, his unlaced boots resting underneath.
The overalls were black and white with narrow stripes, as straight and precise as the rows of dirt he plowed in the fields that surrounded him. By the looks of them, you’d wonder if he earned his living as a train conductor rather than a carpenter. My granddaddy — a builder of houses, a humble man that smelled of sweat, sunscreen, and hard work. He’d been wearing the same style since the days when he’d go to town to order them from Walter Jarrell at Cooliks.
As a child, I’d balance on his knee or sit beside him on the benches on the deck of the fishpond and reach for his breast pocket. Inside, he kept a pocket watch, as if his overalls had a beating heart of their own. Attached to a chain that dipped down the front of his chest, I’d hold the watch to my ear and listen. “Tick….tick….tick…” Quiet and steady, just like him. It became a game, my chubby fingers clinched tightly around his watch, and we’d both smile. He let me listen as long as I wanted to and when I was through, I’d slip it back into his pocket until the next time I needed reassurance that time was still passing by.
He wore them for the pockets: a walking toolbox, so to say. The uniform of a man who knew hard work and had known it all his life. They had an apron on the front, where he’d keep his folding ruler, nails, or screwdrivers. The breast pocket held his watch and a carpenter’s pencil. The pocket of his pants leg housed his knife – used to peel peaches, dig out splinters, and everything else in between. And on the side, a loop for his hammer, although by the time I entered the world, he was done slinging nails.
On Saturday nights, I’d follow Nini into the closet in the bedroom where the old living room used to be back before I came along and changed the house plans. Together, we’d pick out the outfit he was to wear the following day, Sunday, the one day of the week he didn’t wear overalls because that was back when people still dressed up for the Sabbath. Each time, I’d pick out a light blue shirt with shadows of birds with their wings outstretched. Nini would chuckle and say, “Not that one,” although one day he overheard us and wore it to please me or to spite her, I’m not sure which.
Over the years, his overalls became tattered and worn through, and my mom — bless her heart, the only one of us brave enough to try to buy him clothes, would scour the stores looking for overalls that might possibly pass his approval. Each birthday or Christmas, he’d pull the crisp overalls from the bag and look them over, kindly thanking us and telling us, “them’s nice” and “I thank ya for them.”
Yet months would pass and the overalls would stay folded up in the back room on the chest of drawers, untouched, in the same bag we wrapped them in because they just didn’t fit like the rest. He’d emerge each morning, wearing the same threadbare overalls.
Because Granddaddy didn’t wear overalls to impress. Plus, what does a pair of clean overalls with the crease still running down the leg say about a man’s work ethic?
He wore them for the things they carried – the tools he could take from his pockets and turn over in his hands or the knife he’d run along the edge of his fingernails while telling a story from his childhood. But above all else, Granddaddy wore them for the things they carried that couldn’t be picked up and held in his hands: the specks of paint that formed constellations on the rough fabric, tiny reminders of every house he’d ever built. Small, worn holes and splotches of Clorox stains, left over from a wife who would beat the dirt out of the pockets and wash them clean in time for another day of work. And the pocket on his chest that had been worn bare, a bit more faded than the rest, by a little girl who would reach inside, pull out his watch, and press it to her ear.