Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Trad Dad…My Father

The original of this poorly wrought image is about the size of those pictures that LFG and I take in the seaside amusement park photo-booths. My hunch is that a booth similar is exactly the source of this one. Probably in a bus station…en route to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. An acne faced kid from the farm, doing his best to be a man. After all, men get drafted. Men go to Fort Jackson for Basic Training. And from what I’ve been told, my dad was anything but pleased to be drafted at the tail end of a war. Oklahoma was about as far as my dad got after Basic Training. He loved the drinking, dice and cards part of his patriotic duty but was fairly ambivalent about the rest. He stayed crazy about two of those three for the remainder of his short life. Not sure why the dice trailed off.
I’ve stared at this photo for probably hours. Wondering how a kid in his late teens…a farm kid from Horry County South Carolina…ever found the inspiration for such an assemblage of texture, geometry and I assume, tone. Wonder what the colors were like? I’m taken by many things in this photograph and left speculating about many more. I’m like that. I have the gift/curse of an incredibly active mind. But what I mostly speculate about is the genesis of this kid’s style. The inspirational sources of his kit…his contrivance…his rig. My father was a clothes fanatic.
Alan Flusser and I discussed it several years ago and Alan was sweetly but confidently dismissive. Almost assigning my question to the silly category. “Movies and magazines…shop windows and men from the professions, fathers and uncles. That’s where people got sartorial inspiration.” Certainly makes sense. Ralph Lauren tells stories about shop windows and the Big Screen as sources of inputs to his pediatric noggin…antecedents for his sense of style expression. Alan’s dismissive answer was grounded in the obvious. He grew up in a fairly affluent Gotham suburb and watched his father don sartorially rich contrivances head to toe, day after day.

Alan mentions his father a couple of times in his books and his characterization of his dad’s style sensibilities always resonated with me. He dedicated his first book, Making the Man to his father.
“To my father, whose esoteric wardrobe first whetted my appetite for French lisle, hand-clocked socks, striped English suspenders and garters, Brooks Brothers button down shirts and alligator tassel loafers, and whose memory is never far from mind when in my travels I happen upon some exquisite legacy from his time, an item crafted by artists and altogether elegant.” 

Alan again calls upon the memory of his father in his 1985 sartorial treatise Clothes and the Man.
“I received my first lessons on how to dress from my father, for whom the possibilities of dressing well elicited considerable interest and enjoyment. He was in the real estate business and he used the way he dressed to project a successful image. Many mornings I’d watch him go through his daily ritual of dressing for work. The shirt, the tie, the suit, the shoes were all carefully selected so that he looked and felt his best. I believed it was normal to take that much care in deciding how one should look, to put such thought into the appropriateness of the clothes he wore. I didn’t realize then that my father was in a small minority of men, holdovers from a previous era who not only appreciated the feel and look of fine clothing but respected the rules and taste of decorum.”

I’ll never satisfactorily reconcile the sources of my father’s sartorial knack. The tobacco farms of Horry County require a bit more than a trip on the ferry or through the tunnel to be amidst a Stork Club and 21 esque reservoir of ape-worthy sartorial subjects. I do know a few things. And what I know doesn’t quell my curiosity, it rouses it. My grandfather was an unwavering stalwart of the agrarian New Deal Democracy. Never did I see him in overalls but never did I see him in anything other than a Hart Schaffner and Marx navy blue serge suit for church. Or khakis, a blue button-down shirt…short sleeves in the summer-long in the winter, a windbreaker or barn jacket, and a Stetson or Dobbs hat for weekdays on the farm. His everyday hats, straw or felt, were subordinated from their original role as Sunday go-to-church toppers. Rest assured that my father got none of the panache captured in that photo-booth snapshot from his own father.

But what about books, magazines and movies? My grandparents were honorable middle-class people who lived a provincial Southern life and wanted for nothing. Perhaps a bit of my dad’s sartorial traction was gained as a toddler. My grandmother made his clothes when he was little and I’ve been told that he always wore a hat. Bare headed JFK did nothing to assuage his hat affinity in later years. I never saw my dad dressed without a hat…ever. My sister and I still revel in our reminiscences of summers on their working farm. Do a quick inventory on every sound one makes when singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm and you’ve pretty much populated the farm of my father’s youth. We loved visiting the farm as much as my father hated it growing up.
My grandmother told me numerous times about my father’s insistence that he would never come back to the farm once he left. He was fastidious and loathed the grit and gum associated with what at that time, was a crop whose economic margins were stronger than anything else you could put in the ground—tobacco. And his loathing didn’t come from my grandfather working him and his brother like dogs. My grandfather was a softie and my dad took every liberty to skirt any form of callus creating, fingernail soiling farm work. My dad didn’t do squat that he didn’t want to do.

I’ll allow an occasional movie in my speculation but that’s about it. I’d bet that the magazines and books that I saw in my grandparents home were similar to what was there when my dad was growing up. Readers Digest, Progressive Farmer, local newspapers, The Bible and maybe another one-off publication from time to time but that’s about it. This was not an intellectually curious household.

So who knows? My father died when I was fifteen. Timing is everything and at fifteen I wasn’t exactly amidst long, twisty turny “tell me about your childhood; dad” interactions with my old man. There are a remaining few who could probably add a piece or two to the mosaic but it’s not worth the effort for me to sort it out with them. I rarely see them and the collateral subjects about my father that I’d have to endure are just too much for me.
My father had auburn hair and blue eyes. When I watch the newly discovered by me, Mad Men, I see my dad in all those guys. I was a child of the Mad Men generation. I think watching the first season of Mad Men was the final catalyst of motivation I needed to write something about my father. When I recollect my father’s business interests in tandem with his sartorial bearing I come up with Don Draper meets Tony Soprano. Suffice it to say that my father had interests in businesses that involved lots of “cash transactions.”
My dad was selling real estate and tending bar on the weekends at the Elks Club when he met my mom. Here’s the bartender on casual Saturday I suppose. I’ve speculated about the genetic predisposition for clothes horsiness and I’d wear this fuzzy diced shirt of dad’s in a heartbeat.
My father and his best buddy R.B. at Ocean Drive beach many years before I was even thought of. R.B. was a small town hero. Life Guard, dirt track racer and fellow bon vivant with my daddy. And this photo sums up my father’s affinity for the beach. R.B. is fully engaged in solar fun. My father is not. He’s there for one reason only…because my mother wanted to be there. 
Another photo shows the girls sitting on beach towels in those Betty Draper bathing suits. My father hated the beach. That’s why he’s still dressed…in a cotton lisle knit-shirt and probably cotton Bermudas of some sort. Weejuns…maybe.
High and tight haircut, trad glasses and understated leather watch strap. That was my dad.
R.B. lived for a couple of decades after my dad died.  His wife, one of the gals sitting on the beach while dad and R.B. strolled, still lives around the corner from my mom. She does smocking on little girl’s dresses. She did this one for LFG.
My earliest memories of my dad involve longwing shoes, whiskey and an ottoman. He’d come home from work and plop down in a club chair with at least one cocktail already under his belt. My older sister and I would climb up on him hug him like little people are want to do to their parents. He was very affectionate and really loved us no doubt...but we had a job to do. He’d direct us down to the ottoman for our nightly task of unlacing his longwings and at least for me, having said shoe drop on the floor upon release. It seemed heavier than me and the wax laces—I can remember my little fingers trying to unleash that heavy ass shoe…untying that waxy rope of a shoelace. I’m not certain I could tie my own damn shoes at that age.
I remember my dad in two guises…either pajamas or a suit. The man did not recreate…he couldn’t. He was either working or playing cards or doing whatever. He’d install us at the beach, load my mother up with cash and he’d split. The man was absolutely one dimensional…all business and of course, in an era where if you kept everyone at home well heeled and you hired others to do everything else, all was good. My father was nocturnal and the man could be found in one of about four places in our town of twenty thousand people. Cards and cocktails were de rigueur.
Grainy old photograph of me, a ball, a dollar bill clutched in my left hand, a fish and my dad. One thing’s for certain, some of the farm help caught the fish on behalf of my dad, as agent-in-fact, for me. My dad didn’t get dirty and he damned sure didn’t get fishy. Straw hat, cigarette and for a moment—a fish.

My father died on a Sunday. Fifteen year old boys, who have provisional driver’s licenses for daytime driving and an MG Midget in which to do so, are generally disengaged from their parents. My father had been ill, dramatically so but he’d made a turn and was to be discharged the previous Wednesday. I spoke to him on the phone that Wednesday morning. He asked me if my MG was running ok…I’d just had the clutch repaired…again. I told him that it was indeed and I hurried off the phone. Surely I had to be somewhere and besides, they were bringing him home that afternoon and I’d see him then. I never spoke to him again. As a matter of fact, he never spoke to anyone again.

I didn’t miss my dad for the ensuing fifteen years. I was blessed with some mechanism that shielded me from the loss I suppose. I navigated the teen years reasonably and my twenties were go-go great. And then I woke up one day when I was thirty years old and I missed my old man. I missed having the conversations that other grown men and women had with their fathers. There are two instances where other adults, my peers, spoke of their fathers and it gut-punched me. One guy said the simplest but most admirable thing about his dad. He had seen the world, his father hadn’t. He’d gained gobs of post graduate education. His dad had none. But about his father he said, “I could just sit and talk with my father all day. He is the greatest person I know.” I think I was sick with jealousy for a week. A friend said about her recently deceased father… “I became a PharmD. because my father was a PharmD. He was a brilliant, brilliant man and I’d live the rest of my life under a bridge just to have another day with him.”

And my wingman JTS and his retired Navy diesel sub CIA spooky dad can sit on the porch drinking a bourbon in fellowship for an hour…without saying a word. But they are engaged with each other. My buddy Michael remembers his dad buying him his first adult sized suit at Paul Stuart… “My dad bought all his suits at Paul Stuart. My first grown up suit came from Paul Stuart- a 2-button navy Southwick.  When I think of my dad I think of those suits with the smell of Aramis cologne in them.  Weird how that brings me back. After my dad died in '88 - I never really shopped there much.” I’d give my left arm to have something other than vague pediatric memories of my dad.
So dad here are a few things that I’d like to update you on…

I call my daughter Monkey...the same thing you called me. She’s named for mom and she’s the prettiest of all your grandchildren. You’d love her so much and I bet she could get your longwings off without much trouble. And she’s funnier than I ever was. I know that you loved us but what I’m trying to do with your granddaughter is love her differently. I want her as an adult, to say the same things about me that my friends said about their fathers. And I want to be around to hear her say it. That’s why I drink slightly less hooch than you did.

Mom quit smoking. Something you never did. But it took a mild heart attack twenty years ago to do the trick. By the way, they cost about ten bucks a pack now. I can just hear you say something about ten bucks “being the current cost of pleasure” or whatever. And there’s a show called Mad Men. It’s about smoking and drinking. You’d relate.

I heard you call me a “little fucker” when you had to come home from the office and take me to buy new shoes. I was six. I know you weren’t frustrated with me per se but I realized it wasn’t a compliment when you said...“he’s the toughest little fucker on shoes I’ve ever seen.” It’s ok dad. I now have an ass-load of shoes and the clothes horse in you would want a pair of each for yourself. Butcept maybe not the Belgians.

I did throw the brick that hit your ’54 Corvette. I didn’t mean to but you can bet that I wasn’t gonna ‘fess up. “Little fucker” would have been a complimentary warm up compared to what I would have had coming after you regained your motor skills and could catch me.

I’ve made and lost more money than you but that’s ok too. I’m still here to make more and I’ve learned something you never did. It isn’t as important to me as it was to you. I’d rather forgo a billable day to make certain that your granddaughter sees me on the front row…of whatever event it happens to be…because that event, at that moment, represents a memory making opportunity for me and your granddaughter…both your Monkeys.
 So Dad…Onward…in your shadow.

ADG

41 comments:

J.P. said...

What an amazing and heartfelt post. I lost my dad when I was 19 and I identify with a lot of what you wrote.

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Scott Alexander said...

Thank you so much for this post, and may God bless you. My dad suffered a heart attack and two strokes two years ago. He's still around but not who he used to be, and this post reminds me to value each moment because you never know when things will change.

Reggie Darling said...

Great post, Maxie. I mean it. Really touching, and heartfelt, and focused. Excellent and thoughtful writing. One of your best. Reggie

Richard M said...

A lovely, lovely thread.

TWJ said...

ADG, wonderful post. You made me ask myself again, why do we compete with our Fathers? My father had the same experiences as yours did. Went to Fort Bragg, hated being a tobacco farmer, and never wanted to come back. My father is still with me thankfully.

I had to read this through twice. Are you sure we are not related? Busy working dad, mom that pampered us, and, in my case, one really sweet 1976 MG Midget, sunburst gold.

TWJ

Anonymous said...

I've never commented on a blog post before but this is the best I've ever read. Simply beautiful, thank you.

yoga teacher said...

Your lovely post brought tears to my eyes. My last conversation with my dad was also on the phone. He'd encouraged me not to cancel a long-planned trip as his cancer was beaten; he was just going to do a round of proactive chemo. We'd seen the Paris apartment he lived in as a teen in the '30's, and were headed to Italy. "Go straight to Florence. It's one of my favorite cities in the world." A week later, for no real reason, I cut the trip short and headed home. Got here just in time to kiss him goodbye for the last time. (And that is my "There is a God" moment.) Thanks for sharing, and reminding me how much I still love my dad.

Suburban Princess said...

I miss having a dad too and mine is still alive.
Beautiful post - you had me all verklempt once again!

Pigtown-Design said...

Just lovely... I lost my dad three years ago, and still regret not learning all from him that I could have.

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head when you wrote what you would give just to have a conversation with a lost parent. That really resonated. I better call my living parent soon.

Flo Ingram/INGRAM DESIGN said...

Young man, you need to start charging admission for masterpieces like this. I'd pay the ask just to get a look at that palimpsest double portrait you put together, very powerful.

SouthernProletariat said...

I'm crying at work over this. Beautifully written.

tintin said...

I know you've been working on this for a while. And I love it.

LPC said...

Tears in my eyes. Held out until the last couple sentences, damn you. We spent yesterday with my father. At one point we were talking about calendars, and he told us about how the English and European calendars used to be 10 days apart. It's always like that with him, the retired professor. We said, "Dad, it's amazing how you know all these things." I'm making a mental note of trying to hear more of the things my dad knows that no one else does.

Very few people that I read online write as well as you do. Very few. And some of the people that I read in print fall short too.

Gail, in northern California said...

This was tough to read. Can only imagine the struggle to write it. Filled with so much "if-only". Beautiful piece worth waiting for.

The one saving grace would seem to be your determination to be the best dad you know how to be--with little or no guidance to draw from. Your little golden hair...a lucky monkey.

Patsy said...

I'm sad that your Dad never got the pleasure of knowing the Dad and man you grew up to be.

Scale Worm said...

Thank you for the well crafted heart felt post. I as well had my last conversation with my dad via the phone, talking about politics, and raising kids: my own. Well done, Sir!

Main Line Sportsman said...

Outstanding and powerful. This post bored deep into the collective soul of all of us men...as evidenced by the comments above. I am inspired. I metioned in a prior post on my site that I intend to do a post on my old man...and now I'm gonna get on it. Thanks ADG...this really was a wonderful read.

James said...

Ya know kid, sometimes you are awe inspiring.

Anonymous English Female said...

ADG - I love the way the picture of you taking the the picture of your father turned out - it says as much as your beautifully crafted and eloquent words.

Barbara said...

Dear Maximus,
I just found your blog although I have often seen the link on other blogs.
I agree with all previous commenters.
You wrote with your heart and the keyboard
followed your commands.
Well said, well done.
With appreciation,
BarbaraG

Nelle Somerville said...

I'm so glad I read this at home. I had to take three breaks to wipe my eyes. I lost my step-father in 1998. I was blessed to be there for his last breath with the priest, mother and my sister's surrounding him. I will remember those moments vividly for as long as I live. It was like heaven brushed up against us as he drifted peacefully home. Thank you for opening your heart and putting it all out there. You remind me how lucky I am to still have my Daddy. LFG is blessed to have you.

Laguna Beach Trad said...

Awesome. That's all I have to say. Less is more if you catch my drift ol' chum.

ilovelimegreen said...

It's taken me almost 24 hours to decide what/how to post. I'm lucky my father is still alive - I'm lucky he is not far away - but only in the past few years did I realize how lucky I was to have spent so much time with my father and that he went out of his way to make himself available for me, and to be a part of so many memories -shenanigans and fun times.

Thank you, as always, for reminding me of memories I forgot I had.

Anonymous said...

There are few people writing for pleasure, not money, that are as good as you - this cements my thesis.

- Kit

Young Fogey said...

I'm a little verklempt.

Miguel said...

ADG - muchas gracias, beautiful and touching.

Gretchen said...

Astonishingly, achingly bittersweet and lovely. Whenever you do decide that traveling here, there, and everywhere to do the job you love becomes too much for you, your "real" career is self-evident, dear sir. You write. Because you have to, you want to, and you DO. I'd say I'm jealous, for so many reasons--some silly, some very serious--but mostly I'm just glad you are here, and that you remind me through your sartorial choices, your word choices, and your amazing attitude, that we all can be better than what we may have thought. Looking forward, but not afraid to look in the rear view mirror, either. Bravo.

Hiram said...

Well said, Brother. One of my fondest memories of my late, great Dad is raising my son.

Vicky said...

Beautiful. Your Dad was gorgeous and your writing about him was elegant, heartfelt. I'm sure that was a tough post to write but it was meaningful to all of us who read it. Your blog is great -- a well-dressed gentleman who is also thoughtful and analytical, dotes on his lucky daughter -- and a very good writer to boot. A heady combination.

Giuseppe said...

The best thing(s) that ever happend to me are my two kids.

It's good to be reminded, every now and then.

Pat's Addition said...

Such a thoughtful bit of memory. It must have been tough to write. But it is a pleasure to read.

oldominion said...

I'm obviously late coming to this but I add my praise for ADG's prose. I'm going to call you out next time you drop a deprecating comment about your writing, old fellow.

My old man is still around and we get along better now than we ever have; 'twas not always thus & this post, like all good writing, allows one to recognize what has passed and bear witness to the present. THanks for the great post.

Maggie said...

The people who really love us are never gone. They live on in our hearts. I was one of those people who could talk to my father for hours on end about every subject under the sun. But I lost my mother at 21 two months before my wedding when she was my best friend in the world. So I have experienced both sides of the best relationship you can have with a parent only one got cut short. Like you, I feel that stab of pain and jealousy listening to those my age talk of outings, trips, and just plain rap sessions with their still living parents. Still and all I'm happy for the time I did have with each for there are those that haven't known either. Thanks for a great post. Found you when looking up POLO coats of all things. I'll stick around.

Whitney and the Preppy Puppy said...

That is such a lovely tribute to your dad. I was 24 when my daddy died and I long to have 'adult' conversations with him. I am sure my life would be much different now if I had his thoughtful advice to guide me.

Anonymous said...

What struck me about this recollection of your father was how your upbringing has influenced your goals as a parent. Based on your words above you are indeed on the right track, lucky daughter of yours.
-Amber

Belle (from Life of a...) said...

You amaze me...and inspire me. I've thought for some time about doing a post on my daddy...he passed away the summer before my sophomore year in college. He didn't smoke or drink or run around (although I must admit that one or two things have made me wonder about the running around part over the years), but I can't watch an episode of Mad Men without thinking of him every time. And don't get me started on the Betty Draper-ness of my mama. You rock, ADG...you rock!

Jg. for FatScribe said...

thanks for sharing such a heartfelt, well written piece with the rest of us. trad dads are great, especially evinced when the rest of us are a pale impersonation mimicking their original style.

Vickie H. said...

Many months have gone by since I first read this piece. I typed out a comment at the time but could not send it. I saved this as a "favorite" piece...I have a treasured stash of gorgeous writings that I never tire of referring back to. Aside from the topic setting my heart on fire, your writing is some of the most luminous I have been fortunate to discover. I can only say that my experience with my own father was only slightly similar to yours...I lived with him and my mother until I could escape to college in 1971 at age 18...then she left him and he wandered away...my last contact with him was the summer of 1983...I don't know if he is still alive. Although I was his firstborn, I was never "daddy's little girl"...but oh, how I wanted to be.

ADG said...

Vickie...I haven't, for a plethora of reasons, ever responded to anyone's comments about my dad story. All the emotion that I have about him...It's still too close to the surface for me--I still can't read it without getting choked up.So after a year and a half I'm mustering a thank you. Thanks for taking the time to say what you did.

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