“Know first who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.”
I’m not quite sure how it all happened. Like such things tend to, I suppose. They just kind of slide in, out of nowhere. And the next thing you know, you look around, and you’re a long way from where you started from. I certainly wasn’t looking for a lot of drama when I walked into the mall a few weeks back. A vest. A simple vest, half dressy, if they had such a thing. A vest that could be worn to a social event. That’s all I wanted, so help me.
And that’s why I was heading to the mall on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I was feeling good, good vibes all around. There was a wedding reception coming up, that next week. Down in South Carolina. And yes, it was going to be a reception only. Back when my sister Maggie was sick last year, some quick decisions had to be made. She wasn’t expected to be around much longer. And her son and my nephew, Steven, got married to his fiancé, Evonda, in a very private family wedding ceremony. So Maggie could see and partake. That was the thinking, that’s why it happened. Later, there would be a big reception, for friends and extended family. And that later was now.
And to the delight of all of us, Maggie got better, got totally cancer-free. So the reception was going to be a lot more joyful than anyone figured, back last year. I was invited, and I was going. I didn’t plan to get too decked out, or anything. I don’t have much of a reputation for showing up in fancy clothes. But I thought to myself. A new vest would sure be nice. Something you can wear with dress pants or jeans. And so I drove over to the mall that afternoon. I didn’t know if such a thing could be found there or not. But I was fixing to find out.
I parked at the far end, outside Boscov’s. That’s pretty much my favorite store at the mall, Boscov’s. They have a fine men’s clothing section. You watch for it, and you’ll always get great buys on their sales. I purchase all my winter clothes in the spring clearance sales. And I get all my summer clothes every fall as the season changes. You get real quality for less than you pay at Wal Mart, even. Not that I got anything against Wal Mart. I just don’t shop there for clothes, because it’s cheap junk that won’t last. I’ll shop there for just about anything else. Just not clothes.
I strolled into Boscov’s and headed to the far side to the men’s clothing department. Now I sure wonder if they got any decent vests. They’re hard to come by, vests are. I’ve taken to wearing a heavier Outback Aussie vest, almost every day. And I like it. But it wouldn’t work, to go to a wedding reception in. Too heavy, not spiffy enough. I wanted something a little more fine. But I couldn’t remember ever seeing vests in the men’s department. I figured maybe that’s because I wasn’t looking for one. Now I was. I wandered through acres of suits and dress pants and shirts, peering about. No vests around that I could see. Oh, well. I guess I’ll just have to ask someone.
And of course, when you want an attendant in a place like that, there’s not a soul to be found. Not like there is when you want to be left alone. They assault you incessantly, then. But not now. I strolled about aimlessly, looking for some help. Nothing. No one. I walked across the aisle, to where the new spring selections were spread out. And I couldn’t help but notice.
There were a dozen racks or more. All loaded with new spring offerings. Suit separates. The coat. And the pants. Well, well, interesting, I thought to myself. And then I saw the sale signs. Suit Coats: $29.95. Separate dress pants: $24.95. Wow, I thought. A suit for less than $50 bucks. I was planning to spend at least that much on a new spiffy vest. And I looked around a little more. All kinds of spring colors. Tan. Blue. Linen. And then I saw the rack, there in the middle of it all, and it was full of brand new suit coats. And these were gleaming a bright seersucker blue and white.
And all of a sudden, all kinds of wild unruly thoughts surged through my head. I tried to brush them off. But they persisted. Why not? Why not a new seersucker suit? I’ve always wanted one, just never had any really legit place to wear it. Now I do. A wedding reception in the South, where there would be dancing. And it’s springtime. And the new me, well, the new me would wear such a loud thing to a dance in springtime in the South, I thought. Just watch me. And just about then, I looked off to the side, and saw a large rack covered with dozens of sharp little white hats. Straw hats, with wide bands and short brims. I stood and gaped at it all, and saw the vision in my head. The new me, the cool me, dressed like I had never dressed before. I could see it in my head, and the tempting vision whispered low and soft. Come. Touch and taste. And I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and touched. And tasted, in my mind. And so I was lost.
It was a strange place for me to be. I’ve never been much of a suit and tie guy. Well, not so you could tell recently, anyway. Years ago, I had a pretty good selection, back in my attorney years when I had to wear a suit to the office every day. And it was OK. It just got a little wearisome, the pursuit of the next best thing. King Solomon wrote in Proverbs. Of the writing and reading of books there is no end. It wearies the mind, he said. Well, I got one on old Solomon. Of the mixing and matching of suits and shirts and ties and shoes there is no end. It never stops, and you can never have enough. Some new thing is always coming into style, some old thing is always fading out. And that little rat race all got a lot wearisome to me, to where I was happy to walk from that world back when I did.
Where I came from, there wasn’t a lot of suit wearing going on. The Amish are a practical people. You wear a suit only on certain occasions. And it’s a plain suit, of course, straight cut, with no tie. The preachers and the older men wear a suit to church on any given Sunday. The boys and the younger men, well, a suit is pretty much required for Ordnung’s Church and Big Church. Otherwise, there’s only a few special occasions. You wear a suit when you get baptized. You wear a suit to weddings. And funerals. That’s about it. It’s a practical thing. There is no scenario where a man would wear a suit, just going to work every day. At least, not in the world I grew up in, there wasn’t.
And you can kind of see it, and it makes sense, that the Amish would have straight cut plain suits. They’re distinct, they dress all different, anyhow. You look for it in them. It’s the plain Mennonites that make me shake my head. They have some very strange customs. Traditions, I guess. The thing is, the guys look pretty close to English, in their everyday lives. They dress in jeans and bill caps, and can easily be passed off as non-plain. Their women, though, well, they have to wear cape dresses and head coverings. No mistaking the plainness of all that. But then the men wear those awful straight cut suit coats, when they dress up on a Sunday. I don’t know why. They’re English in every other respect. Just not in their suits.
And that’s what I ran into when I moved down to Daviess from Goshen, way back when I left the Amish. The Mount Olive Mennonite Church made me welcome. I’ll always be grateful to those people for that. I was part of that group when I headed off to college a year later. At Vincennes, it was no problem. No dressing up was required. But down in South Carolina, at Bob Jones University, there was a huge problem. There, the men are mandated to wear a suit and tie every day until noon. After noon, you still wear dress clothes. But jacket and tie are not required.
Well. I didn’t have a suit with a tie. I had a plain suit. Straight cut and straight laced with hooks and eyes, just like any plain Amish suit you ever saw. The BJU people were most sympathetic and accommodating, I will say. They respected the dress requirements of my church. So I was given an exception. No tie. But I had to wear that awful straight cut suit coat every day until noon. It was just terrible. I was so self-conscious that first semester that I prayed every day for something bad to happen to me so I could leave. Break a leg, maybe, or an arm. Or get real sick, or something. Anything, so I could leave. I just wanted a way to get out of there with some shred of dignity. And nothing ever happened. And every day, I struggled off to classes dressed different than any other person on the entire campus. It was a heavy burden to bear, especially for a guy who had just broken away from his plain culture a few years before because he couldn’t stand to be different from the people around him.
I will say this, though. By the time I got through my first semester, none of it mattered any more. I got used to being different, I absorbed the classes, and I walked with my head held high. If you have a problem with my plain suit, I figured, that’s your problem. And that’s how I graduated from BJU. Magna Cum Laude, in my plain suit, without a tie. I was pretty proud, and it was quite an accomplishment. And I will stack the academic standards of BJU against any school in this country, Ivy League or otherwise.
It didn’t take me long after I got out of there to leave the plain Mennonites. Very shortly after graduating from BJU, I shook off the last vestiges of plain dress and plain people rules forever. I couldn’t get out of that awful straight-cut suit coat fast enough. I shook it all off, and I have never looked back.
I remember how exciting it was, to get my first real English lapel jacket. Olive green linen, on the clearance rack, for a price even I could afford. I took it home and timidly stepped out wearing it with jeans. And I picked up a few jackets, here and there, and wore them more boldly. I could do this. It was a gradual thing for me. And it would be a few years before I bought my first real “English” suit.
And that happened when I was a student in law school. I looked in wonder at my classmates and the second and third year students. We didn’t need to dress up for classes, or anything, but you needed a suit for the mock trials and moot court arguments. I think that was second year. It’s been a while. Anyway, at some point, I stopped off at Boscov’s at the mall and tried on a dark blue-green suit that was on sale. And I bought it, along with my first tie. It was kind of cool, I thought. I could really get to liking this.
And in time, I graduated from Dickinson Law, and moved on into the legal working world. And in time, I accumulated ten suits or so, and maybe twice that many ties. It was a bit of a strange world to me, to dress up every day like that. Not altogether unpleasant. Still, it seemed like some attorneys looked at it like a competition. I’m dressed sharper than you. My suit cost more. Look, how cool I am. Much of that was imagined, I’m sure, on my part. But still. There was something to it all. And it all got a little wearisome at the end.
After four years or so, I left the legal world. Maybe I should have given it more time, given myself more chances to take to it. But I didn’t. And in 2001, I was looking around outside the law, for something to do. And when the offer came from Graber Supply, I grabbed it, and slid into my new role pretty seamlessly. Since that day, I can count on one hand how many times I have worn a suit and tie. It’s been so rare that it’s almost nonexistent. And I’ve been fine with all of it. I wear my jeans and checkered flannel shirt just about anywhere, even to my book talks to college students. One good thing about being a bestselling author. You can dress just about any way you feel like, and no one blinks an eye. The guy’s a writer, so what do you expect? Of course he’s eccentric. And that red flannel shirt is kind of sweet. That’s what people murmur out there on the edges of my hearing. I’m not quite sure what they’re actually thinking.
All right. That was a bunny trail. Back to Boscov’s and the seersucker suit. I’d never owned one, because attorneys don’t wear seersucker suits to work. At least in Lancaster County, they don’t. But I’ve always been intrigued by those bright blue and white stripes. In a suit like that, you look like you should be selling ice cream off an ice cream truck, mostly. But still. Here I stood. And I fingered and caressed those bright striped threads.
And it all became very clear to me in that instant. Buy the suit coat, buy the pants, buy the white straw hat. A real seersucker outfit. You have a legit place to wear it, a place where no one will bat an eye. A reception party down South. You’ll look sharp, you’ll be all suave, you’ll be a dandy, a man about town. Sure, it’ll take some confidence, to pull it off. But I know the new me can pull it off. I can do it, because it doesn’t really matter to me anymore, what people might or might not think. I can do it, just because I want to.
I tried on a jacket. Perfect fit. Then off to the dressing room with a pair of pants. They fit pretty well, as well. Still, I wasn’t sure about one last little point. Seersucker is for the spring and summer, that I knew. But was it for mornings only? I didn’t know. I waited in line, then, and asked the attendant. An older guy with a limp, he looked all tired and world-weary. I’m going to a wedding reception down South next Saturday, I told him. And I really like this suit. Can I wear it in the evening, or is it for mornings only? He looked wise, which I guess he was. “No,” he shook his head. “It’s not for mornings only. You can wear it to the evening reception.” All right, then, I said. Ring me up. And right there I bought them, blue and white seersucker separates, and a little white straw hat with a wide band and a short brim. And I walked proudly from the store. Look out, world.
Well. Things are never simple, not when you buy a seersucker suit off the rack for under $50 bucks. After I got home, I unwrapped my treasure. Hung it up and admired it. And then I noticed. The seersucker pants were a little different. The coat and pants were separates. I bought them as such. And now, the pants were a little louder, a little brighter, and little harder white and blue. The coat was dull white and dull blue. The pants were bright white and bright blue. I shrugged it off. No big deal, I figured. No one would notice, much. And that nice fine feeling lasted until I got to work bright and early on Monday morning.
We were chatting that morning about how our weekends went. And I mentioned, all casual and offhand like. I got me a seersucker suit. I’m wearing it down at the reception in South Carolina. There was a fairly long, stunned silence. “A seersucker suit?” Someone gulped. I think it was Rosita. “Oh, those things look just awful.” Awful or not, I said, I got me one and I’m wearing it. And somewhere about then, I mentioned that the pants were a slightly different shade of white and blue than the coat. This caused great consternation and much conferring among my coworkers. And eventually it was decreed. “You have to bring the coat and pants in, so we can check them out. We can’t just let you go gallivanting down there in a mismatched outfit.” This decree caused me to grumble a good deal. Good grief. We got a committee now, to see that Ira gets dressed right.
And later that week, I dragged it all in, and everyone hovered around to inspect my coat and pants. The pants are way too loud, too bright, it was decided. I was instructed to go back to Boscov’s and exchange them for the white pants. Or I could just wear jeans with the seersucker jacket. In either case, my shirt could be white, but not too white. And my striped tie, well, it never was quite decided how that would go. I was advised to take along several ties, and let Janice pick out the right one when the time came. This caused me to grumble a good deal more. Better I had just left it all back at the store, and never bought the thing, I muttered. This is a real production and it’s getting way too complicated. I should never have strayed from my jeans and checkered flannel shirt and vest. Too late, now, though. And I dutifully exchanged the loud seersucker pants for a straight white pair.
Saturday afternoon. Abbeville, South Carolina. A beautiful, beautiful sunny day. You can feel it the second you get to a place like that. How laid back things are, and the much slower pace of life. And it felt good that Saturday afternoon when Wilm and I arrived from up north. We parked outside and walked into the old refurbished livery barn where the reception would be. Dozens of tables were set and ready. A large crowd of people milled about. My sister Maggie stood off to the side with her husband, Ray. Janice came and welcomed us. There were hugs all around. I hugged Maggie hard. Just that close, I’m not here, I told her. And she smiled and told me. “Just that close, I’m not here, either.” I walked around, greeting others. The whole Beach Week crowd would be there, looked like. And a whole lot of other people.
Janice took us to the Belmont Inn, the old hotel just across the square, then, where everyone had booked rooms. A quaint old place it was, indeed, still exactly as it would have looked back in Thomas Wolfe’s day. It reminded me of the small towns he describes so eloquently in his writings. I checked in, and the clerk handed me a key. A real key, to get into my room. That was almost as confusing as that keyless card you just have to wave in front of the door, back there in Holmes County a while back. We walked to the elevator with our bags. Janice punched the button. We waited and waited. A small sign warned. Be patient. Everything is slower paced around these parts. The elevator will take a while to get down to you. And I just stood and absorbed the place and the setting.
My room was just as quaint and old as the hotel setting downstairs. Comfortable, though. And I told the girls. I got me a new suit coat and white pants. I’m not sure what shirt to wear, or which tie. I brought along a couple of shirts and a couple of ties. If none of it works, we’ll just go shopping for whatever does work. After Wilm had checked into Janice’s room, they came over to where I was. I unzipped my garment bag. Unwrapped the seersucker jacket and the white pants. The girls stood there and held the shirts and ties to the coat and pants, one after another. I just stood off to the side and watched. This is all so complicated, all this color coding, I grumbled. Better I had just stayed with my flannel shirt and jeans, and a nice new vest. And the two of them stood there, and it was amazing to watch them hone in and pick the same shirt and the same tie at the same time. The off-white shirt, and the striped tie. “This is it,” Janice told me. “You are going to look very spiffy in this outfit.”
There was some time to kill, so Janice and I headed out to her old home place. Maggie was waiting for us. I want to spend a bit of time with you, I told her. She asked if I was hungry. Of course, I said. What do you have? And she fried up fresh eggs for sandwiches. The taste and smell took me right back to when I was a child. You take the fried egg, put it on a slab of homemade bread covered with a layer of mayo, and cover the whole thing with fresh-sliced tomatoes. It’s beyond delicious. I wolfed down two sandwiches, and then we just relaxed and sat around to visit. I slipped off into a short nap. Janice left us soon, to go run some errands. And by 4:30 or so, Ray and Maggie and I were heading in to town for the evening of festivities.
They dropped me off at the Belmont Inn. And right as Ray was pulling up to let me out, Maggie laughed and told a little story from long ago. Back when she and Ray were young marrieds, their budget was pretty tight. One year, on their anniversary, they decided to go out to eat, at the restaurant in the old hotel. They had ten dollars to spend on a meal, an unheard of luxury back in those days. Ten bucks was a small fortune. They were seated in the restaurant. The waiter brought them water and menus, then left them for a few minutes, until they decided. Ray and Maggie opened their menus. They were horrified to discover that the least expensive meal in the place was priced beyond all the money they had on them. Maggie laughed at the memory of how shocked they were. And she told me. “We waited until the waiter had his back turned, then we sneaked out the side door, right over there.” I howled. Did you ever go back later and get that meal, when you could afford it? I asked. She shook her head. Ray chuckled from behind the wheel. “Nope,” they said. “We never did.” Well, you need to, I said. You can’t just leave the story unresolved like that, even after all these years.
I walked in and boarded the slow elevator up to the third floor. Much bustling about was going on. Steven and Evonda and Janice and Wilm and a lot of other friends were getting dressed for the reception. I walked into my room and got ready to don my new outfit. T-shirt. Shirt. Pants. Tie. And as I looped the tie around my neck and fumbled around, I realized with some horror that I had forgotten how to tie the Windsor knot. Back in the day, I tied that knot every morning before I went to work. Now I was totally blank, on how to do it. I freaked out a bit, then walked out and down the hall to where the others were. I can’t tie my tie, I told Janice. She instantly called for Steven, who was getting dressed for his big night. He wandered over and in a minute, he had the Windsor knot tied around my neck. I gulped with relief. Good grief. Can’t believe I forgot. Use it or lose it, that’s what they say. That sure held true here. And then it was back to my room for my jacket, my shoes and my hat. And then I strolled out and down the hall again. I felt pretty cool. And I looked pretty cool, too, I reckoned.
And the evening just came in at us. I walked out and across the square with my nephew, John and his wife Dort. We were among the few extended family who had traveled far to get there. And we chatted right along as we walked. It was just a gorgeous late afternoon. Clear skies. Warm, but not hot. I strolled along importantly in my spiffy outfit. It felt so good to be alive.
The livery stable was stirring with guests when we arrived. We walked around, greeting and hugging people, then found a table somewhere close to the middle of things. People trickled in and right at six, there was a pause. Sam Thomas, the very capable MC, intoned into his mic. “Ladies and gentlemen. Let’s all welcome Mr. and Mrs. Steven Marner.” The big old front doors rolled open, and Steven and Evonda strolled in. A grand entrance, indeed. The crowd clapped and cheered and roared. Steven and his bride took the dance floor, then, to a slow love song. We clapped and cheered some more.
At four different points around the vast room, the caterers were setting up. There would be carved beef slices, carved turkey so soft that it fell apart on your plate, all kinds of sauces and dips, finger foods, and a table with the basics, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken fingers, and meat balls. All of it was just delectable, cooked to perfection.
We feasted and mingled and feasted and mingled some more. I hung out with my brother Jesse at his table, then strolled around. A friend introduced me to a nice local couple. We shook hands and the friend told them. “Ira is a NY Times bestselling author.” Ah, shucks, I said. The man looked at me and boomed. “With that outfit you got on, I figured you’re from up north somewhere. Like New York City.” No, no, I said. I’m from up north, but I’m a country boy. I don’t hang around the city hardly at all. His wife asked what the title of my book was, and I told her. Growing Up Amish. She stood there and blinked for a second. Then she got quite excited. “I read that book,” she half hollered. “It’s in our church library. I can’t believe I’m meeting you here.” And so on and so on. We posed for pictures and there was a good deal of more fussing. Then I drifted off. I certainly wasn’t expecting such a thing to happen at a place like that.
The evening slid on, then, and it was all just delicious. Good memories of a good, laid back night. After darkness settled in, Sam Thomas turned up the dance music, an invitation to all of us. I had not hit the dance floor in a long time, probably years. But that night I did. How can life ever be a dance, if you don’t join the dancers now and then?
Around ten, the guests moved down a few doors to where Fred was hosting the after- party party. There, a loud band was set up, with flashing lights and all. I was done dancing. I sat out in the courtyard with others in a circle, and a good time was had by all. Soon after midnight, John and Dort and I walked back across the square to our quaint old hotel. It was late, and I settled in for the night, tired but content. The great, grand party in the South was over.
And it was all beyond lovely and it was all beyond rare and refined, the whole evening. The ambiance and the setting. But mostly the people. And I don’t know if I’ll ever wear my seersucker coat and striped tie and white dress pants again. I probably will, I’m thinking. Sometime, somewhere. But even if I don’t get it done again, it was worth all the hassle it took to get dressed that fine for this one evening.
And that’s about all there is to say.Share