Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Glimpse of a Glittering Inheritance

By Charlie Clark

Twenty-three years after my father died, his old tuxedo still hung in the storage room of my mother’s Northwest Washington apartment building. While preparing for her move recently, I decided on whim to take the perennially fashionable garment to be resuscitated at the dry cleaners.

It came out spiffy as new, well-textured and manly with its shiny black piping and wainscoted white shirt. It was, however, clearly too small for my expanded adult body. So I determined that with great fanfare at the next family gathering, I would present it to my older, and skinnier, brother.

We both would be aware of the penguin suit’s symbolism. He and my father were for many years estranged—removed from each other’s company (though not the other’s influence) by a complex stew of the political and the personal. One of the many concrete results was that my brother went through adulthood lacking the slightest desire to dress like a bourgeois man about town.

But in that puzzlingly indirect way so favored by fate, my brother, as he entered his 50s, decided to take up the hobby of swing dancing. Suddenly, a crisp black tux seemed just the thing.

So it was on a Sunday afternoon in the living room of my Arlington home, with various relatives looking on, I unveiled the freshened garment. My brother repaired to try it on. When he reappeared, he was glowing with the rest of us as he marched and modeled the perfect fit. A minute later, he had folded the tux back on its hanger and hung it lovingly in the backseat of his car.

An hour later, a caravan of us had parked our cars downtown in Adams Morgan, warmed by a feeling of family solidarity, to attend an aunt’s art gallery opening.

Emerging two hours later, we walked back down Columbia Road to find my brother’s car with its side window shattered. The tuxedo was gone, along with an expensive leather coat, some shoes, and a cell phone.

In this city so conversant with murders and assaults, I couldn’t react as if this were the crime of the century. I remembered that over the years I’ve personally been fortunate to have suffered very few crime victim experiences. When we were newlyweds, my wife once had her purse lifted out of our foyer—presumably by somebody who knocked on the door while we were out of earshot—and it was later found, sans cash, in a U.S. mailbox. More recently, the car my daughter drives had its taillights smashed and its tires sliced while parked overnight in our driveway, the result of some high school drama we never quite got to the bottom of.

Yet what our family on that recent Sunday did have in common with victims of more serious crimes is that we had to swallow the bitter potion of adjusting to the unpleasantness. We went through the same stages of denial, anger, resignation and acceptance caused by every random dose of unfairness or unforeseen detour that inflicts that lingering feeling of having been violated.

After a fruitless search through Adams Morgan back-ally dumpsters, my brother bucked himself up to file a claim with his insurance company.

The rest of us were left with no choice but to savor that earlier spectacle of my brother welcoming into his life a very special inheritance from our father. That brief, shining moment, still counts.