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Family ties Add to ...

The other day I was getting ready for work and went into my closet to get a tie.

This is not unusual except that I teach at a university where ties are often associated with senior administration or hegemonic capitalist oppression. Personally, I just like the way they go with my shirt and jacket.

Not surprisingly, few people wear jackets and ties any more, the usual faculty uniform being khakis and a polo shirt. In the spring, it becomes even more casual, with some people showing up in shorts, leather sandals and the odd Hawaiian shirt. Mercifully, few people teach through the summer, because the next logical level of casual would be flip-flops and a Speedo.

This particular morning I reached for a brown-, blue- and white-striped tie and I remembered that it was one of my father's. He died last year and shortly afterward my mother, who was almost 80, made the decision to sell the big house we all grew up in. It took her a while, but she finally tackled the job of cleaning out my father's closets.

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My father had a lot of ties - dozens and dozens and dozens of them. He would have had even more but over time, being a generous type, he had given many away to relatives and charity.

Still, there were a lot left and I remember the evening my mother called me and my brothers to "look over the ties." I walked into the house to find the entire surface of the dining-room table covered in neatly arranged ties, a wild, colourful mosaic of stripes and polka dots, paisley and prints. Ties hung on the backs of every chair and the couch was draped with even more ties, all lined up, style soldiers in an old sartorial army.

"Take the ones you like," my mother said. "There's so many of them."

So many. My father loved good clothes. He came by this affection both through nature and nurture. He was Italian, born in a small but prosperous town near Venice. His father, in the few photos that remain of him, was always beautifully dressed in handmade suits.

Like father, like son, it seemed, because I hardly have a memory of my dad when he wasn't in a suit. For many years he worked in sales and later in government, and every morning he put on a white shirt, a suit and a tie. We had five kids in the family and though we lived modestly, my dad's shirts went out to the cleaners and came back on the doorstep immaculately folded and stacked in a white paper box.

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He had all his suits tailored, often by a first cousin named Ferruccio, a gentle man who hand-cut and sewed the suits in his basement tailor shop. Many times, I would accompany my father when he went to have the suits fitted, and I would watch mutely as Ferruccio, pins held firmly between his lips, carefully measured the sleeves or adjusted the lapels. Then, with a piece of white tailor chalk in his hand, he would quickly and deftly make small marks on the cloth, his "notes" for small, subtle final changes.

Afterward, we would sit upstairs and the men would have an espresso. Later in the car on the way home, my father would say that a good tailor is really an artist.

The suits, as you might expect, were beautiful and my dad wore them everywhere. He'd wear a suit grocery shopping. He did not - not even once - put on a pair of blue jeans. But he was not a dandy. He didn't fuss over his clothes, or wear good suits as a costume. He wore his clothes naturally and I came to understand this more fully when I went to Italy a few years ago.

There, as my wife and I strolled along the cobbled side streets of Florence and Siena, we saw men beautifully dressed in elegantly tailored, slim, dark-blue suits with powder-blue shirts, their caramel-coloured shoes and tangerine silk ties the equivalent of a sartorial wink. Good wine, good food, good clothes - simply part of life.

And so, on this morning, I found myself knotting my father's tie, remembering how we stood in front of the mirror years ago, him teaching me how to get a half-Windsor just right. I smiled, knowing I might be the only person in the building that day with a tie on.

When I came down into the kitchen, I found my middle son, Matthew, leaning over the stove, holding a shoe over a small pot of boiling water. "What are you doing?" I asked.

"Just steaming my shoes," he said, holding up the brown suede loafers he insisted on buying with his own money earlier that year. "You were right," he said, "the steam really helps." It's an old trick to clean suede shoes and take out scuff marks.

He's 17. He carefully brushed the shoes and then slipped them on with his freshly washed jeans and a new, black T-shirt with a band's logo on it that he ordered online.

"This look okay?" he asked.

"Looks good," I said.

Like father, like son. Like grandfather.

Paul Benedetti lives in Hamilton.

Illustration by Keith Jones.

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