They are a fine-spun woolen sort. Herbert is seven years dead now, and his socks peer down every day at me accusingly from my closet shelf. More than 2000 times they’ve asked: ‘What have you done with him?’ Today, after some somber reflection, I take them down to put on for Christmas. The color, at least, is right for this holiday. Herb is one of many I know, or knew, who have left behind a world of empty orphan socks. He, Erik, Jim, and Midge, are on the orphan sock list only as neighbors; I don’t include the suicides; but the list still grows inevitably with the addition of relatives and friends.
My father’s father, in his tenth decade, still wrote a book every few years, published 5 or 10 thousand copies, and then went about speaking and selling them himself, signing each laboriously, tremulously, with his long full name. No agent or publisher, no bookstore. I asked him about very old age. “I like it. I can do most of what I want if I do it slowly. And nothing surprises, or angers or alarms me excepting this: to witness endless births, christenings, graduations, marriages, divorces, remarriages, and deaths among several generations. It is a lonely vigil to be left behind.” To my regret I saved his orphan books but failed to seek out his orphan socks.
That was before I became so painfully aware of the universe of millions times millions of orphaned socks. Socks with no thought for their future. No sock insurance, no disposition in a will, no Sock Security despite years of faithful service. Not even the Salvation Army cares. Not the Legislators. They don’t vote or donate to politicians. In such cases a sock is without a mate: no right is left; or left is left, right? Either way, though a left is often a right for most purposes, it’s tragic. I confess that I, myself, have some lone socks; yet I have never been so heartless as to abandon them. I keep these shards of life in a plastic bag for a friend who finds it a waste of time to match sock colors; she only wears the same color on both feet at one time accidentally; by pure mathematical chance. The rest of the time, in unmatched orphan socks, she is an embodied statement about both fashion and rationality. About the ecology of socks. About recycling to preserve life on earth. But Herb’s were a matched pair of orphans, and I couldn’t ignore the uber-pathos in that fact.
Looking at the names of sockless dead in the light of a deathless limbo for so many socks, I realize the list’s length is directly proportionate to my own age. The fault, if there is one, is probably my own: living on unreasonably, and unseasonably. Herbert’s widow Midge lived on until last winter among the relics of the US Army Air Force of WWII, a postwar Japan, their Montana childhood, and a lifetime of earnest doing, collecting, and maintaining. Herb’s motto was ‘Civilization is Maintenance’. Strange, he neglected to provide for maintenance of his socks, even though his own demise was not sudden or unexpected. Midge’s mother had come alone to Montana at age 15, homesteaded, adsorbed a man, planted and grew her land, life and family.
Both Herb and his wife lived long deaths, without complaint, in perfect harmony with their lives, lives almost lost to translation error into the language of today. Words matter while they are living. Even names can shape a life. My wife’s aunt’s full given name was Justicia Espada (Justice Sword) and she became the first civil engineer in this hemisphere. My grandfather was of a generation whose names and lives were written in a nominally English, tongue. I say nominally because all languages are living entities, and North American is no longer English. Words, like people and language or socks, can be orphaned or lost. Like many in his time my grandfather read Greek and Latin fluently. Try on those hostile, haughty other worldly grammars if you dare! His first name, Leonidas, despite being rejected by spell-check, belonged to a Spartan king who died with 300 young men in the fall of 480 BC at the pass of Thermopylae resisting Xerxes I and several hundred thousand Persians. Leon’s second name was Lattimer after Louis Lattimer, a black who fought in the Civil War, helped perfect the light bulb, drafted Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone, and was one of 28 inventors and engineers working with Edison. Perhaps the name was one reason Leon marched with Martin Luther King, and raised money frantically to get him out of jail. He would, nonetheless, be greatly amused to know that the only other Lattimer that Googles to life quickly is John, who reportedly purchased Napoleon’s penis for $40,000.00. John’s daughter found the relic in a briefcase under Lattimer’s bed. With some orphan socks no doubt.
“He only wore these red socks once. At Christmas.” Herb’s daughter Kim from Kansas said, handing me the socks. “I think he would want you to have these.” I had never seen them before, to my knowledge. Herb’s relatives appeared to place great value in the socks, as they did in thousands of relics from one of a Greatest Generation’s Second Great War; so many artifacts that some were offered up at a garage sale. Herb had only one orphan leg after the war, so perhaps all his socks had particular merit in that they had suffered only half the wear of the usual pair. He suffered from recurring episodes of debilitating phantom pain in his long lost leg; the invisible leg had a mind and a will of its own not subject to medications, curses or incantations. When the sated pain left, Grendel like, Herbert’s effusive but sometimes exhausting humor and his intense desire to overcome his physical limitations returned immediately. During 50 years, never was he disabled by his disability.
It is with a wistful reverence that I put on the red socks, and wear them this Christmas. I wonder which sock belonged to the lost foot; neither, I suppose. In a community property state the survivor likely inherits both. I think I shall wash and preserve them, while I continue to function. On second thought, I myself am an indefinite who cannot adopt them indefinitely. No. I must cremate them; socks are the man; the man a time; a generation; a war; a life; all are incomplete without these socks.