Archived Story

Pocket squares evoke dear memories

Published 10:27am Saturday, November 10, 2012

My father died this summer.

He was my natural father, a German citizen named Gerhard Mertens. He and my mother married and separated before I was born, then divorced after I was born.

When I was 2, my mother married Jim Boone, who adopted me and raised me as his son.

I didn’t know Gerhard growing up – I had no contact with him whatsoever – but I did know about him and that I was adopted.

When Mary Lyman and I were married in 1982, the man I call Dad said that before we started a family, I needed to get to know my natural father and see if there are any medical problems in my bloodline. He offered to pay for Mary Lyman and me to visit Germany.

At the time we were both students at the University of Alabama. I wrote a letter to Gerhard explaining the situation, had the letter translated by somebody in the University’s German department and mailed it off.

Several days later I got a call from my mother, Gray Boone, who said, “You’re not going to believe who’s here in Tuscaloosa.”

It was Gerhard. He received my letter in Hamburg and immediately flew to Alabama to meet me. He was waiting in the bar of a hotel in downtown Tuscaloosa.

When I arrived, I walked into what appeared to be an empty bar, in the middle of the afternoon. There were mirrors on the walls, and as I walked through the room, I could see myself on the right hand wall. The room was shaped like an L with a door going straight ahead and the bottom of the L making a 90 degree turn to the right ahead of me. I glanced down the wing to my right, thought I saw myself in the mirror, then did a double-take and realized that a guy who looked just like me was looking back at me … it wasn’t my reflection.

Gerhard told me that he had been waiting 23 years for that letter, that he didn’t know if I even knew about him. And that was the start of a wonderful relationship that lasted 29 years until his death this summer. We traveled together. We spent lots of time talking about business and life. He was a man who lived life to the fullest, wanted “nothing but the best,” had lots of friends, traveled frequently and enjoyed many of the same things I do. After wondering why I was so different from Dad for 23 years – who by the way has been the best father anyone could ask for but who was obviously not cut from the same cloth as me – spending time with Gerhard was an overwhelming, revealing, life-changing experience. If I ever had any doubt about genetics, they vanished when I met my father.

The first day we met, we were both using the same hand gestures when we talked. We paused in the same places in a sentence. We made decisions the same way.

We looked so much alike that when I went to his bank in Hamburg this summer, the bank officer said he didn’t need to see any ID before he gave me access to his account. I can look at photos of Gerhard over the past three decades and literally see when and where my hair will turn gray.

His death this summer, from an aneurysm, was a huge blow to me. Last year, because of business, I had to cancel a trip to visit him in Germany. Mary Lyman and I were going to visit him this summer, in June. He died in May.

It’s been very tough, and it’s taken me half a year to even begin to write about it.

But I want to share something that’s happened. Gerhard was famous for dressing well, as are lots of men in Hamburg. I have all his clothes and almost everything fits.

Among his things that I inherited were about 30 pocket squares. I’ve never worn a pocket square before, which is basically a handkerchief in the breast pocket of a suit or sport coat. Now I have dozens, all different colors and textures. I didn’t know what to do with them, so I did some research. I learned that pocket squares can be folded many different ways, with one, two or three points, flat across, just casually stuffed in the pocket – but always with a bit showing. That rolled edges are a sign of a fine silk pocket square. That they’re meant to complement a tie or a shirt, not match it.

So this summer I started wearing Gerhard’s pocket squares, figuring I’m getting older and more dog-eared and probably need to spruce up a bit anyway.

Here’s what I have discovered: every single day, every time I look down, I see my father’s pocket square.

And I think of him.

And I think I’ll wear them from now on.

Boone is publisher of The Outlook.