It's amazing how time flies. I wrote this story almost ten years ago and my goodness what a decade it has been for me since. My little daughter LFG who ultimately became as much of a focus here as topics sartorial will be twenty years old next week. She has two years of college with a 4.0 GPA behind her now. And I cannot adequately express what a privilege it is to be her father
She's taking me to dinner this evening and I'm doubly excited. Happy to be with her and also giddy to be--socially distanced and all other appropriate measures complied--out again with small, responsible groups of humanity. I moved back to Alexandria after being in Bethesda for six years and the world immediately went into lock down. Stir crazy is an understatement.
But what about clothes? I've not spent in the last five years what I used to spend every six months on clothes at my zenith. I still love all things sartorial. That hasn't changed. I just don't need anything.
Kudos to all you fathers who continue to make your kids a top priority. There's nothing more important.
Trad Dad…My Father
By Dustin Grainger
I’ve stared at this photo for hours over the years. Wondering how a kid in his late teens—a tobacco farm kid from Horry County South Carolina—ever found the inspiration for such a cool outfit. An assemblage of texture, geometry and tone. I 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 or 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 men 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 New York City suburb and watched his father don sartorially rich contrivances head to toe every 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 in New York City and 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 farmer 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 hats. 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 simple people who lived a provincial Southern farm life and wanted for nothing and that’s a good thing because they didn’t have much. 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 John F. Kennedy 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 our grandparent’s 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 about my dad’s style inspiration 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 sixteen. Timing is everything and at sixteen 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 series, 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 motivation I needed to finally 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 my genetic predisposition for clothes horsiness and I’d wear this fuzzy diced shirt of dad’s in a heartbeat.
Here’s my father and his best buddy
Russell Blackmon at Ocean Drive beach many years before I was even thought of. Russell was our 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. Bathing trunks clad Russell 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 Bermuda shorts of some sort. Weejuns…maybe. High and tight haircut, trad glasses and understated leather watch strap. That was my dad.
Russell lived for a couple of decades after my dad died. His wife, one of the gals sitting on the beach while dad and Russell strolled, still lives around the corner from my mom. She does smocking on little girl’s dresses. She did this one for my daughter, Lily.
My earliest memories of my dad involve these heavy wingtip 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 wingtips and at least for me, having that shoe drop on the floor upon release. That shoe 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 shoes at that age.
I remember my dad in two outfits…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 considered 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 his currency.
Here’s a grainy old photograph of me and my dad. I’m clutching a ball in one hand and a dollar bill in the other. My dad’s ever present cigarette’s been switched to his left hand as he tentatively dangles a fish. One thing’s for certain, some of the farm help caught the fish on behalf of my dad, 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. Sixteen year old boys, who have their 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 really miss my dad for the next fifteen years. Or at least I didn’t think I did. 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 were a few 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 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.
My father never saw me do anything, never attended anything, and never once threw me a ball. Another 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 best buddy John and his retired Navy diesel sub officer, CIA operative dad can sit on the porch drinking 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, unhappy 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 heavy ass wingtip shoes 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 booze 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.
And 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.
And yes. I was the one who threw 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 caught 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.
· What an amazing and heartfelt story. I lost my dad when I was 19 and I identify with a lot of what you wrote.
· Thank you so much for this story, 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 story reminds me to value each moment because you never know when things will change.
· Great story. I mean it. Really touching, and heartfelt, and focused. Excellent and thoughtful writing.
· A wonderful story. 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.
· I've never commented on a story before but this is the best I've ever read. Simply beautiful, thank you.
· Your lovely story 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.
· Just lovely... I lost my dad three years ago, and still regret not learning all from him that I could have.
· 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.
· 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.
· I'm crying at work over this. Beautifully written.
· 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.
· This was tough to read. Can only imagine the struggle to write it. Filled with so much "if-only". Beautiful piece.
· 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.
· Outstanding and powerful. This story bored deep into the collective soul of all of us men...as evidenced by the comments above. I am inspired.
· 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. Your daughter is blessed to have you.
· 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.
· There are few people writing for pleasure, not money, that are as good as you - this cements my thesis.
· 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. You remind me through 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.
· I'm obviously late coming to this but I add my praise for your prose. My old man is still around and we get along better now than we ever have; 'twas not always thus & this story, like all good writing, allows one to recognize what has passed and bear witness to the present. Thanks for the great story.
· 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 story.
· 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.
· 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.
· You amaze me...and inspire me. I've thought for some time about writing a story about 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.
Quite some time has gone by since I first read this story. 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.