Family Ties

I love to be there when my kids have a big day. I love when my kids do things that evoke memories of my own life.  I am reminded, regularly, of how our lives are evolving in circles. Maybe the reason that I want to spend so much time remembering my kids’ lives is because it heightens whatever memory I have left of childhood. I hope that those feelings are not slipping away. I know that I will never remember elementary school so readily, though.

Today is John’s last day of school. He has had such a good year at E.K. Powe. Mr. Dodyk made John work. He made him stay on task. He managed to differentiate, even if it meant no reading groups after April 1st for John and lots of time at centers. The private Montessori school did not work out, but the resource-challenged urban public school did.

Mr. Dodyk's 1st Grade class. E.K. Powe Elementary. June 2010.

E.K. Powe emphasized reading, and to a lesser extent the school wanted to spend time on math. John’s homework included a mandate that he spend read out loud to us for twenty minutes, four nights a week. I feel like I have watched him learn to use books as tools. I see him picking out books for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes, it is favorite author. Sometimes, it is because he has an appetite for a subject. Sometimes, he seems to be trying to read about something that he is scared about or that makes him worried. I can’t remember all of them, but here are a few:

  • Encyclopedia Brown
  • Skeletons!
  • Cam Jansen
  • DK Biography: Helen Keller
  • Frog and Toad
  • Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman
  • Ricky Ricotta
  • Star Wars: Clone Wars
  • A Visit to Wales
  • Chess Endings
  • A Children’s Bible
  • Guiness Book of World Records: Dangerous Creature Records
  • Babe Ruth: Legend of the Game
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • The Technology of World War One
  • Martin’s Big Words
  • Runaway Ralph
  • Extreme Rocks and Minerals!

It is a bittersweet day, though. John is leaving Powe and the friends that he has made there. Mr. Dodyk is leaving for a new teaching position in Florida.

For me, the best part was when John asked me to help him put on a tie. John has had a thing for ties for a while now. He often wears them with his polyester blue suit. Lately, he has been using a brown-and-blue item. I’m not sure that it is actually a tie, since it is very thin and both ends of the fabric are flat. It might be some kind of sash.

“John,” I tell him, “that is really not an adequate tie. You need something better. Not one that is too long, of course, but one that will fit you.”

“Yeah,” he says, “one of your ties. Dad, I’d like a really good one.”

“Well, ok.” I’m not sure that I have a tie that I’d like to sacrifice to the last day of school. It is my understanding that they are having a party. We are bringing Doritos. That is enough of a warning, because we fall on the Whole Foods side of the neighborhood, where popsicles are made with real lime juice and are without any inappropriate sweeteners. If we’re bringing Doritos, then the rest of the class is probably on board for the sugar party of the century. I’m imagining that some people will have canned artificial whipped cream. Some will be bringing soda. Maybe even in two-liter bottles. Oh yeah, this is uncharted territory.

In fact, I don’t really have any throwaway ties. Maybe I have already thrown them away. My best candidate is a tired red paisely tie. It is all silk. I know that I am looking at it for the last time. Goodbye, friend.

“John, this is the one for you. Brooks Brothers. I hope you understand the significance of that. This is your granddad’s favorite kind of tie. No other brand was acceptable. Now I am passing it along to you.”

It is going to be long. My solution is the full Windsor, generously proportioned, and with an incredibly generous knot. I take a knee, and settle the knot underneath the collar. It looks great.

“John, you are going to knock them dead.  Mr. Dodyk is going to be impressed. Maybe you can give him some tips. Looking good!”

– – –

As a child, my dad spent a lot of time with me discussing how to wear a tie. It was an important thing to know. A properly tied know was “basic.” An improperly tied knot was “like the other guys.” There was no way that anyone wanted to be “like the other guys,” that was like putting ketchup on ribs or driving an automatic. No way. Since I had to wear a tie to school every day, I got plenty of practice. Inevitably, our morning ritual included a moment where we both worked on our ties side by side. My dad had a full length mirror next to his closet. I remember how it would go:  My dad would be in there alone, since mom woke up earlier and dawdled less. He would be looking in the mirror, then looking down at his tie. He would run his forefinger up and down his tie, making sure that the thin end never poked out from the wide end. Satisfied, he would bring his thumb up to his chin and then run the forefinger up and down across his mustache. Sometimes he would rock up and down from his heels. My dad loved to wear a nice tie.

John and Rosie, on the morning of John's last day of 1st grade: June 10, 2010.

“Let me see that tie,” he would say, as if my intent in coming in to his bedroom was actually a poor attempt at trying to escape inspection. I would stand in front of him.  I remember that it was quiet, except for the sound of the clock radio playing WOR’s  Rambling with Gambling. The room would have smelled of Speedstick, or of shoe polish, or perhaps both. I could see his jaw flex behind his pursed lips.

“Come on, where’s your gig line?”

It was a hopeless to imagine that I could ever put a tie on correctly the first time.

“You can’ go out there looking like that,” he would offer. “‘Second-rate.’ That’s what they’ll say, they’ll take one look and they’ll say ‘this guy’s a real sophomore.'”

I’d try to plump up my knot, but really, the cause was lost by now.  My favorite tie back then was maroon. I often wore it with a blue striped shirt and a blue blazer. It had a problem, though. The tie was fashioned with a square end. It was a common style back in the 80s. Alex Keaton made them famous.

They did not appeal to my dad. He had discovered his preferred style in the 60s. It was called “the 40s.” He liked 45 degree angle Repp ties. He was willing to wear paisley, but it was not ideal.  If nothing else can be said, he did have a timeless look. In fact, the ties he wore then are still on sale today.

“Those ties..you are the limit.  The limit.  You like that popular tie, huh? You like…those…” he would pause, as if he was searching for a word to adequately describe the utter badness of such a tie, but he could not find it.

“The limit.”

I knew that there would be one more admonition.

“I want you to look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

He said that, and in doing so, he was narrating the trajectory of his own life.  Fauntleroy was the gold standard for his mother, and a symbol that he struggled with and ultimately rejected. The Faunterloy look goes back to the 19th century, but it reached its apex in the late 1930s, when it became an element of middle class virtue and an expression of Scottish pride. My grandmother loved all things Scottish. I can imagine her laughing at Mike Myers’ father in So I Married An Ax Murderer.  “If it’s not Scottish…” My dad didn’t love all things Scottish. He loved things that refuted those standards, like Ernest Hemingway or auto racing. He also hated swimming, but I can’ pinpoint quite why that was a problem. Understand, then, that if Jack London had a thing against Little Lord Fauntleroy, that my dad did, too. So, in telling us that he wanted us to wear a tie like Little Lord Fauntleroy, he was communicating something else that was of far greater importance. Except that he couldn’t quite say it directly. My dad spent most of his life saying words that were not meant to be taken literally. It could be confusing, unless you understood him well enough, and then you would realize that he was always saying far more. My dad was dry, but he didn’t hold back. He meant to say that even if wearing a tie was fun, don’t get caught up in being a pompous dandy.

Having said all of that, we’d head down the stairs together, ready to start a new day.

– –

One of the things I love about having kids is how they can remind you of your own past. Ties are an important thing in the Rust family. We like to imagine that we wear the right tie, even if we ignore that we’re wearing a tie with a loose bit of lining or a mismatched belt. Sure, but that is not where we are focused. We are focused on the tie. My dad wasn’t unique in his sense of the symbolic power of the neck tie. In middle school, we had contests for the tackiest tie. Measuring the “most tacky” should have been hard, but we had found a quantitative means for identifying it. It turns out that there are stripes on the lining inside ties. By our reasoning, more stripes meant more tacky. Our contest consisted of a bunch of kids pulling apart their ties and shouting “I’ve got six stripes! Hey! Six!”

My dad was right, too. I like dressing up, but doing so has never matched with the life that I have led. When the dean of the Journalism school invited new grad students to a barbecue in her Missouri backyard, the only reason I didn’t wear a suit is because one of my friends was sure that no one there would even have a suit, let alone wear one. “If they won an award, then sure, they’d have a suit. Otherwise, no.” He was right. Journalists don’t spend much money on ties. Most photographers have one tie. They wear it for weddings and for Christmas. Even today, I often feel like I need to wear a suit, even though people around me are wearing jeans and athletic shirts. It is the same thing with people involved in social justice. I once wore a pinstriped suit to a conference of collaborators seeking racial justice. We decided to boycott the hotel where we were staying, because they were using non-union housekeepers. Until we could be sure that our attendance was not reinforcing the social fabric that oppressed people of color, then we we couldn’t eat. In our small group organizing sessions, I felt somewhat complicit with the oppressors. That was a problem.

I know that John didn’t decide to put on a tie this morning to make me happy. He just loves it. I’m sure that he has picked up on my own feelings, of course, but by now, he has internalized it. It is a silly thing, but when he goes on and on about “a good tie,” it brings me joy. This year, I have felt that often. When John and I throw a ball, I have to pinch myself. I can’t believe that I am so lucky to have a boy like him. I can’t believe that I have a child that will throw a ball for an hour, sprinting to pick up any missed grounder, and only act let down when the game has to stop for darkness and baths. When Rosie packs her bags for Salisbury and two-thirds of her luggage is just books, I feel the same way. Have a wonderful day at school.

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