Sartorially speaking, I am not a flashy guy.
In my work life, I tend toward basic base colors, with a bit of colorful flair thrown in – usually in the form of a jazzy tie, or sometimes a pastel shirt just for flavor.
Sweaters are a special favorite, especially Mr. Rogers-like cardigans. I like classic suits. Nothing too form fitting (even though my recently-slimmer frame could probably carry those tighter suits well these days).
On cooler spring and fall days, I prefer jeans and sweatshirts that let me take long walks in comfort.
In the summer heat you’ll find me sporting dirt-stained, sweat-dripping shorts and t-shirts – filthy and stinky sure, but proud badges of a day spent digging in the garden and beautifying our little corner of the world. I feel no compunction to impress the worms, birds and bunnies much less the neighbors.
And I’ve been wearing ties since 8th grade. Even on “casual” dress days. Not because I had to, but rather because I decided long ago that they told people (most especially the adults in my life) who I was and intended to be.
So, when my dad passed away 22 years ago next month, I asked my mom for three things of his:
- the new snowblower he’d just bought a month before passing (I was the only one of his three sons who had his own house at the time and need for a snowblower);
- one of his watches; and
- his collection of Christmas ties, which I have proudly modeled every day of the last two weeks before Christmas since 1998.
A veteran “old school” police officer, my dad could terrify the most hardened criminal – not to mention his three sons – into sincere confessions for crimes they didn’t even commit just by cocking his right eyebrow.
But that was just Will County Deputy (and later, Detective and Sergeant, and finally U.S. Marshall) Hernandez. When he wasn’t dealing with criminals or his kids, relatives, and the occasional neighborhood ruffian, my dad was just Tony. Or, to his family, Paulie.
He was a natural-born entertainer — clever, quick-witted, hysterically funny, a practical joke master and clown. He loved making people smile and laugh.
Hence, me claiming his Christmas ties.
Perhaps it’s silly. It’s certainly sentimental — something I keep saying that I am not, but apparently must be. Yet they continue to remind me of him in unique ways.
Some are fairly-staid – basic red and green and blue, maybe a few silver snowflakes. Others are more adventurous, rocking candy canes, snowmen, etc. Some (still, after all these years!) chirp tinny Christmas songs. One has the entire twelve days of Christmas displayed top to bottom.
However, my favorite — the one I always save until the last day of work before winter break – is actually cut into the shape of a Christmas tree. Talk about a conversation starter! People love that tie.
Which is part of the reason I continue to hold on to them more than 20 years after his death.
Those ties literally, spiritually and symbolically bind me to my dad. What’s more, they give me a convenient (if slightly sneaky) excuse to talk about him. Every time someone comments on one of them, I tell their story and by extension, our story — his and mine.
Through the magic trick of using words to illustrate what’s in my head and on my heart, he lives again, for as long as the tale and ensuing laughter lasts.
This cloth connection is important because I really have nothing else that would identify me as the son of the man who raised me.
He adopted me and my middle brother when he married my newly-divorced mom when I was about two years old.
I don’t share his blood. I don’t bear a resemblance (except for the occasional deep summer tan that mimics his brown complexion.)
I don’t speak Spanish to the confusion of many who see my last name and just assume.
Politically, he was as conservative as I am liberal. I know — because I saw it and he bragged unashamedly about doing it — that he violated many a suspect’s civil rights in his work to protect the community. In that day, that’s just how police work was done.
And he despised, loathed and detested the media 35 years before the current Oval Office occupant started screaming “fake news” every time the media do not crown him king.
Of course, because God has a wicked sense of humor, I have made my living as a communications professional – first a newspaper reporter, then a columnist, now in school public relations. So, you know, there was the occasional friction…
Despite all this, I miss my dad. I think of him every day. I wonder sometimes how things might have been different in our lives had he lived past his 51st birthday.
I chuckle a tad ruefully, knowing how much he adored the four grandchildren he had when he passed, and would have loved the 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren he’d have now.
Sometimes I am tempted to be regretful, forlorn, even angry about his dying so young. Thinking about what he missed in the last 21 years. And more importantly (and, I admit, selfishly), what we have missed not having him here.
I am tempted, truly and sorely.
Then I remind myself that while my grief is real, it will not put him back at our Christmas dinner table.
This may seem like a small thing (and, I admit, easier said than done).
However, as I inch closer to being measured for a pine box I realize more and more that the “small things” really are the “big things.”
My dad was a flawed human being, but ultimately proved to be a good and decent person. So, instead of grieving his loss, I choose to remember the countless good things about my father.
His love for family. His integrity. His commitment to what he believed to be right (even when it wasn’t.) His gift for finding – or making — humor in just about everything.
I do my best to model myself after the father (and now grandfather) he was, and the man I think he intended to be.
I keep him alive through stories to my own daughters who were still babies when he passed, and now my own granddaughter, who will only know him through us and our extended Hernandez family.
And then, right around the middle of December each year, I put on one of his Christmas ties.