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Celebrating Father’s Day Without Dad

My father is gone, but his style lives on

“You barely remembered to call,” my mother tells me when I ask her about the kinds of gifts I gave my dad for Father’s Day, before he passed away unexpectedly almost three years ago. “I’d have to remind you.”

I’m not surprised. The holiday always seemed like one of the more artificial celebrations in the Hallmark pantheon. Men like my dad receive recognition of their value on a near-constant basis — from their jobs, their hobbies and, yes, from their family. Did we really need to take a day out of the patriarchy’s busy calendar to honor them?

I don’t think my dad cared about getting the perfect socks or tie from me, anyway. His selection of accessories was already plentiful, and his taste was specific. He preferred Italian brands that he would pick out himself on trips to Manhattan or at the small, independent clothing stores in our hometown, whose owners he knew from childhood. While my dad and I tried on jeans and blazers, my mom and sister would sit on benches outside the fitting rooms, bored. Shopping was a core shared interest, especially important since I had little interest in taking over the family business or learning to play golf, his chief social pursuit and hobby.

Our style informed each other’s back then, as his continues to influence mine today. My dad was a master of color — olive and emerald sweaters to make his hazel eyes look greener; oranges and pinks Ts to accentuate a summer tan; a black-and-yellow North Face ski coat and pants, a gloriously ’90s ensemble he was mercilessly teased for, but which made it so you could always pick him out on a crowded ski slope. He obsessively matched suits with dress shirts, ties, belts, shoes and socks, based on color theory I never had the opportunity to learn. Regardless, the items I’ve curated from his closets have become staples: a narrow, red-and-blue striped cotton Fendi tie; woven, Italian-made black leather dress shoes made by a New York brand that went out of business in the late ’90s; the tan-and-beige knit T-shirt with the tag ripped out of it I’m wearing as I write this.

“That’s exactly what daddy would’ve picked out,” my mom tells me the other day when I select a pale yellow polo to wear for an important work meeting. These days my mom and I shop together when she comes to L.A. to escape the cold and loneliness of Connecticut. During these trips, we do dad things for each other: I go on dinner dates with her; she helps me with my car; I take walks on the beach with her; she goes shopping with me. She does these things slowly, with hesitation, but ultimately with joy that she dredges up from the depths of her loss. She tells me that every morning she wakes up shaking, scared to begin again without my father. At night she goes to bed proud that she made it through another day.

Sometimes I can hear my mom talking to him under her breath. When I ask her what she tells him, she says, “Everything.” When we have dinner with other people, she’ll relate stories about dad or the ones he would’ve told. As we talk about him together — often while I’m wearing something of his — it can feel like Father’s Day whenever we want.

Then, out of nowhere, actual Father’s Day surfaces on my screens — a stream of baby-and-dad pics, instantly amassing likes and hearts. Even more unexpectedly (but appreciated), a few texts for me:

“This day must be tough for you.”

“Hope you’re okay.”

“Thinking of you.”

These messages poured in the first Father’s Day after my dad died, but even two years out, a few still trickled in. I remember thinking it was strange that suddenly Father’s Day had become personally significant (if only people knew how I had previously regarded it). It was odd how I had earned “thinking of you” texts on Father’s Day: not because I had become a father but because I had lost one. I try to feel joyful, not jealous, about the many living dads (with their own unique style) inserted into my feed, but usually, the feeling on Father’s Day is one of anxiety about the many decades of adulthood looming ahead of me without his wisdom to lean on. I wonder what kind of person I will be; how losing my dad at 26 may alter or diminish me, as opposed to my own dad, who lost his father at 50.

I remember how when my grandfather died, we didn’t get a chance to pull from his closet. My step-grandmother, in her own strange grief, immediately got rid of all the clothes. Our own process of distributing my dad’s things has been slower — as an extended family we took a pass together, trying the best stuff on and awarding sweaters and trousers based on fit. Then, a huge Goodwill run, and a trickle of (occasionally moth-nibbled) leftovers to friends and distant relatives and acquaintances that continues to this day since there was so much.

For a while, it was hard to understand that these items were finite — that there’d never be a new sweater or shirt of dad’s to borrow. (The lesson was learned the hard way after his brown leather bomber was stolen from me at a nightclub.) I’ve since come to think of wearing his clothes less as having to do with the objects themselves and more about channeling his influence. I’ve reordered undershirts to replace the ones from him I’ve worn out or lost. I’ve played dress up in the rough cotton blue polos with his company’s logo to feel more like a boss.

On Father’s Day, it’s hard not to be reminded of the many things my dad never got a chance to teach me. Getting dressed wasn’t one of them.

Zak Stone is MEL’s executive editor.

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