Flannel and my father

My wife surprised me the other day by asking to wear one of my shirts – a black and white flannel. I last wore the shirt a year ago when we took family pictures on a cold, blistery day. In the photo, the guys wore flannel, and my wife and daughter wore gray ponchos. I remember shivering, wishing we had planned the timing of the shoot better.

Of course, I had no problems with my wife’s request, but I couldn’t help but laugh at it. 

Anything but flannel

My wife could have kept the flannel shirt for all I cared. I have a complicated relationship with flannel. When my father was alive, he wore flannel no matter the season. I rarely saw him in anything else. He wore flannel shirts because they had pockets and held up well at the steel mill, where he worked, and later in life, working in his workshop in the basement, surrounded by tools and little cups of screws and nails.

I have just two flannel shirts in my wardrobe, the black and white one that I wore in the picture, and one of my father’s old shirts that my mom gave me after his funeral 18 years ago. 

Smells like home

I rarely wear flannel, but I still occasionally pull out my father’s old flannel shirt and put it up to my face. The shirt smells like a mixture of wood, Aqua Velva Aftershave, peppermint, and a hint of cigarette smoke. I close my eyes and memories —some good, some bad — come to mind:

  • I’m a young tyke in the back of our car waiting with my mom for my father to get off work. A whistle goes off and the men start coming out of the factory. Some head to their cars, to wives and girlfriends, and others to a local bar. Finally, we see my father, he looks tired, but excited to see us. He’s wearing a burnt orange helmet, a work coat, and a blue flannel shirt. I’m not sure if the memory is real or one that I’ve created in my mind, but he’s younger than I am today and full of life.
  • Several years later, we’re working on our car in the driveway. Of course, he’s got a gray flannel shirt on, tucked into his jeans. The job is supposed to be a quick one, but has turned problematic. He yells at me when I get bored and forget to hold the flashlight firmly where he needs it. When he asks for a wrench a few minutes later and I’m slow to respond, kicking over a jug of oil when I do, he calls me names — swear words I’ve never heard before, but I know now to be more common on a dock or factory floor, than a home — and storms away to grab a tool. When he comes back outside, he’s still fuming and tells me that it’s my fault that the car isn’t ready and I’m going to have to miss my baseball practice. 
  • I see another memory. I’m 12 now. It’s late August and hot as heck, but he’s wearing a flannel shirt. He’s tired and takes a nap. Minutes after lying down, he starts to convulse on the couch and froth at the mouth. When EMTs and an ambulance show up at our house, the first thing the EMT does is loosen the buttons of my father’s flannel shirt and get him started on oxygen. Of course, my father had a devastating heart attack that would change his life
  • Six years later, I’m graduating high school. I will be leaving in a few days to start college. It should be a happy day for me, but my father, dressed in a red, plaid flannel shirt, and I butt heads. We’re two stubborn bulls, neither giving ground. I’m bigger than him now and not intimidated anymore by his anger. I dare him to hit me. Fortunately, my mom intervenes and we maintain a fragile peace. Later at my graduation, we both hug. I notice his eyes are wet and he’s holding back tears. He offers an apology, which is hard to hear over the shouts of my classmates, and tells me that I’m going do well in college.
  • Finally, I see my favorite memory of my father. He’s a grandfather now, still dressed in flannel and jeans. He’s an old man sitting awkwardly on my kitchen floor with my four-year-old daughter and the two of them are painting her Little Tikes Push Bike. On a whim, she wants to paint it blue. I make a joke about the two of them, but they don’t hear me. They’re focused on their task. The two of them are like two peas in a pod. She gets a dab of paint on his shirt, he doesn’t even budge. She could spill the entire jar on him and he wouldn’t say a thing. In his eyes, she can do no wrong. 

I hang my father’s flannel shirt back up in my closet. It reminds me that people are complicated messes. They’re full of good and bad, kindness and anger. Often times, their faults are there for everyone to see. I could opt to focus on a few of the painful moments involving my dad, no one would blame me, but I choose to focus instead on the moments he brought love and kindness into my life.

Yes, people are most definitely complicated.

What clothes and smells bring back childhood memories for you?


Thank you for reading. Please follow our site and join in on the discussion. In addition, please visit my personal blog at www.writingfromtheheartwithbrian.com or follow me on Instagram at @writingfromtheheartwithbrian.

All the best, Brian.

Photo credits by Unsplash and Pixabay.

40 thoughts on “Flannel and my father

  1. I had a white Oxford shirt that was my dads from before I was born. Now my daughter uses it. First…amazing that the shirt is 60 years old and in great condition…but wonderful that it’s passed down generations

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Thanks so much for this poignant post, Brian! I have a sweater that matters to me — made for my dad by his sister and like your dad’s shirt, the sweater still smells of him, and a little of my aunt’s perfume. I love it. My hubby also has some prized flannels from his adventures in life — one that he’s kept as a reminder of how fleeting life can be — it’s a flannel shirt that he wore when he had a horrific Jeep rollover accident, years ago and nearly died. I almost tossed it out once and didn’t understand the tears in his eyes when he said ‘no, not that shirt’. I didn’t know the story behind it until he shared. I’m so glad you have one of your dad’s shirts…and love that your wife recently asked to wear one of yours. 💕💕💕

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Wow, what a moment between your husband and you, a great reminder of how precious life can be. Glad you guys were able to save it before it was thrown out. Sort of what I was trying to get across, we have a choice in how we process things. For your husband, it was a choice to see not the horrible thing that almost happened to him, but to remember the fleeting nature of life and that he’s still here. Thanks for sharing Vicki!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I love the poignancy of emotion here, Brian. Just wow–you really captured those moments, both good and bad so well, and I felt like I was right there with out. 💕
    Not clothing, but my late grandmother had a favorite quilt that smelled like Chanel No. 5 and cigarette smoke. It’s threadbare now and the smell is long gone, but my mom has held on to that blanket for 15+ years now and the memory of it’s scent still lingers in our hearts.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. It’s fascinating to me the way our brains and bodies make associations using everyday objects to tie emotional moments together. Then add in scents or sounds and things long forgotten come flooding back. You’ve shared in a wonderful way Brian, the happy and difficult ways this full body reaction can occur. While I don’t have any remaining items of my fathers if I happen to get a whiff of English Leather or Old Spice aftershave he is suddenly right there with me.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Ha, ha, I’m right there with you Deb. My father passed away 18 years ago, but if I smell certain colognes/after shave, I’m back in our tiny house as a kid. I always shake my head like how did that happen. I joked with my wife recently that I don’t wear cologne much anymore . . . what will my kids associate with me. She had a quick response: the smell of coffee and gummy red and black raspberries (something the kids and I used to pick up in a wholesale candy store near us). Ha, ha. Thanks for sharing. Very much appreciated.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I could feel your father’s presence in everything you wrote. When my father passed away, all my daughter wanted was one of his stretched out white t-shirts with a runner in it. That was my dad. I can see him sitting on the kitchen stool dressed in his jeans and a worn out t-shirt, sipping instant coffee and smoking a cigarette. I often get a whiff of that distinct smell out of nowhere and I know it is him. Thank you for stirring this memory. And you are right. Life is a mix and we can choose what we carry forward.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. You are so right Maggie. Smells have a way of taking us back. I find that smells and taste have a way of taking from the moment back through space and time to when I was a little kid. We were with family over Thanksgiving and the smell of the turkey and food took me back to when I was a young kid helping my mother break the bread to prepare the stuffing. It’s crazy how that works. Thanks so much sharing and the feedback. Much appreciated.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Reading well written prose does the same, too. Your comment made me recall my grandmother saving all her spare bread in a brown paper bag above the stove for her stuffing. Memory is such a gift.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a very good word for it VJ. Hopefully that came through in the piece. As I’ve gotten older, though, I feel like I have a much better sense of my father. I’m more understanding. I’ve come to see that his anger came from worry and anxiety and he didn’t know how to handle it in a healthy way, so instead, it was directed at others. The strange thing is that I have those memories and right next to them are memories of him making incredible sacrifices and shows of us love for us kids. It’s, well, complicated. Thanks for the feedback!

      Liked by 3 people

  6. You have me in tears, Brian. You’ve so perfectly captured the essence of family dynamics: complicated. I’m on a quick break, so will keep my comment short, but thank you for this most beautiful post! This is one I will return to again and again! 🤍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seriously honored that you took time from a break to respond Kendra! My problem with writing about my father is I feel like I need to have an asterisk or caveat after everything I write. He wasn’t a horrible, mean person. He also wasn’t always nice as you expect. He was . . . complicated. When I became a father, I came to understand him so much better. He was simply worried about taking care of us, paying for bills, etc. His father died young and he didn’t have a lot of great role models. So . . . it was a challenge for him. I’m just glad that my kids got to see the best part of him . . . That was a true blessing. Thanks so much for commenting and sharing Kendra. Appreciate it. Have a great day.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow wow wow, what a great post. Amazing writing encapsulating so much texture and wisdom. What an incredible continuum of memories you have for your father and ending with that one as a grandfather says so much – about his progression and your relationship. Beautiful – just so beautiful!!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I loved this post, Brian. And funny – I was out having a lunch with my husband yesterday and noticed several young people out having lunch together. One young man particularly stood out to me: he was so young and so impeccably dressed. I realized that my husband and I – who both used to have to dress nicely for work – haven’t really made those kinds of efforts in years. And I briefly wondered why. You forgot how much you change, after becoming a parent. Your honest and loving description of your father touched me deeply. I’m not sure it was always easy, being a man in those days… you captured the paradoxes of that time perfectly…💕💕💕

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Patti, this one was a tough one to write. I’m still not sure I really nailed it. I’m sure I’ll read this one six months from now and want to make tons of changes. Yes, I can’t imagine it was an easy time to be a father. My dad’s father died young too, so he didn’t have much of a role model either. As challenging as this one was, it’s the type of piece I like to read and write. I’m glad I wrote it. One more thing, I’m with you on the dress. I used to have to wear a suit to work. Now I’m not even sure I could tie a tie! 😂😂😂 Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you commenting!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. It was really neat seeing him as a grandfather. Once I got past some of the hurt, it was cool seeing the patience, calmness, and genuine peace. His body was falling apart, but he was joyful to spend time with his grandbabies. I really hope the piece worked … it’s such complicated relationship to write about. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts Belladonna!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks for sharing this Brian. It was lovely to read of your memories of your dad. Its true what others have also written, it’s comforting the smells, tastes and objects that bring back memories of our loved ones. When my gran passed I asked for her sewing box. It was a little wooden cube made by my grandfather when he was working on the building of the Queen Mary liner (he was a carpenter). My memories involve me sitting at my gran’s feet with her sewing box threading needles for her. Special moments by the fire 😁

    Thanks for prompting the memories

    Liked by 3 people

  10. It’s so interesting how memories cling to material things. I also had a complicated relationship with my Father and saved an article of this clothing. Never thought to blog about that, so I’m really impressed with your words and courage. Thank you for sharing your memories. Beautifully written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely challenging. I would write something positive or negative and feel the need to put an asterisk or caveat explaining what I just wrote. I also care immensely about the rest of my family, I don’t want to hurt them with anything I write. And I want to be honest, I have a lot of great memories of my father too. He just lost his father at a young age, didn’t have a lot of role models, and didn’t really know how to handle his anger when tough financial times hit. He loved us and made some incredible sacrifices to help my family. I owe him a lot. Thanks so much for the feedback and for your comment Tracey!


  11. I’ve read your excellent post at least three times over the last couple of days. I wanted to take every bit of it in; it reminded me so much of my own father, who had his own idiosyncrasies, similar to your father but also different in a lot of ways. I think the main difference between your father and mine is that my father didn’t ever change as he aged or gave me the impression that he loved me: quite the opposite, which is sad, looking back. Like you with your father’s flannel shirts, I remember my father as always having a pipe hanging out of his mouth – virtually all the time. I sometimes wondered, with my childish thoughts, whether he went to sleep with that pipe in his mouth.

    Isn’t it odd how the personal belongings of our loved ones can come to mean so much and hold such solid memories? After I lost my Mum, the one thing I wanted to keep most was the blue and white checked blouse that she so often wore. I keep it folded up in one of my bedside drawers. It’s so characteristic, and I vividly remember her wearing it with all its frayed cuffs and worn-out sleeves (she would never ‘waste’ money on new clothes.)

    I’m so glad that your memories of your father, although very mixed, have an overall feeling of him having loved you in his own way. I’m so pleased you have those thoughts about him now. Thank you for a wonderful post and account of family life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Ellie. I appreciate the feedback. My father meant well. I’m convinced of that. He just got caught under the stresses of fatherhood and providing and didn’t know how to let go of his anger in a constructive way. I had a lot of anger toward him. It took me becoming a father to really start to see and understand what he was going through. I’m sorry to hear about your father. I hate for you that he never gave you the impression that he loved you. I’m sure you’ve heard this in the past, but let me repeat it: That is his loss! That’s not on you. His mistake. His loss of what could have been. And, yes, personal belongings do help us to remember. I have a few of his carvings that have been helpful to me. They help me get past the darker moments and remember the good times. Like I’ve written in a few other responses, he wasn’t always bad. He didn’t drink, which would have made his anger issues a whole lot worse. He sacrificed much for my family. He just could be tough to love. The post took a lot out of me to write, but I’m glad I did it. Like your poems, it lets me release some of my emotions that I’m feeling inside. It lets me handle my feelings constructively rather than letting things boil up inside. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. It really means a lot. Thanks so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Such a complicated and potent relationship, parent and child, you captured it so well. Your words deeply touched me, so much of what you wrote resonated, and I thank you for your vulnerability and wisdom. My boys have flannel shirts from my dad, I love when they wear them, and those memories come flooding back. Hugs, C

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so sorry for the late response, Cheryl. Your comment got stuck in the filter again and I can’t figure out why. But I’m determined to figure it out because I LOVE comments from you — like this one which is so warm and touching!! Hugs to you!!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Thanks Cheryl, I’m glad the post touched you. It was definitely a complicated relationship, lots of great things about it, but some memories too that took me a long time to get past. It has definitely helped me to write about it and share with others. Thanks so much Cheryl for the encouragement and for reaching out! Much appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

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