All his adult life, my dad was a retail shopper. After he went bankrupt, he would sometimes pause in front of an Ermenegildo Zegna boutique and lose his train of thought. Once, after draining a few too many bottles of wine at lunch, he and my brother wandered into Hermès, and my dad (who was by then really broke, scary broke, broke as in "Now what do we do?") saw a salmon-colored tie printed with dozens of tiny, surprised-looking octopuses and simply refused to leave the store without it. He begged and pleaded and trotted in place; my furious but powerless brother -- who had already bought him the very same tie for Christmas and was saving it -- was cajoled into buying another one. "Please!" my dad begged. "It's the only thing I want!"
My brother told me the story last summer as we looked through my dad's ties a few days after he died. "That fucker," he said. "He was like a little kid." And it was true. He never could wait for anything.
When we were kids, buying clothes came with only one catch -- we had to display them on our parents' bed so that my dad could see them when he came home from work. Then we had a fashion show. If he liked the clothes, he'd be in a good mood all night. If he didn't, he'd wonder aloud why he ever had kids. "I really should have been a bachelor," he'd say. "Don't you think?"
All his adult life, my dad apologized with retail. He would knock on my door with the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog after fighting with me about the way I held my toast. "Pick anything you want," he would say, so I would pick the his-and-hers jets or the dude ranch and we would laugh at him together.
Of course bankruptcy eventually altered his spending habits. He had lived in Madrid, Spain, for more than 20 years and never once sampled the public transportation system. One day, he called me, ecstatic. "This metro system is fabulous!" he raved. "It's so clean! And you can literally go anywhere!"
I inherited my dad's love of clothes, along with a deep-seated fear of self-inflicted penury. When he stopped paying the bills, I started buying on sale -- so January is an emotional time.
He was diagnosed with terminal cancer last May. He was still living in Madrid and I was in San Francisco. After I booked my ticket, I called him at the hospital to tell him when I'd be arriving, and he asked me to bring him two dozen pairs of Jockey boxer shorts. Men's underwear, he believed, should always be American. When I walked into the hospital room a few days later -- he kept calling it the hotel by accident -- my dad was on the balcony, wearing his Ray Bans and complaining that the hospital stylist had given him a bad haircut.
Later, he laughed at my shoes.
"You're going to need some summer clothes," he said a few days into my stay. As long as the whole family was together, he thought, we might as well go to Marbella! He handed me his credit card and instructed me to go to Zara. "You wouldn't believe the prices!"
There have been times when the sight of a certain garment has made me want to cry. Not because I wanted it (which I sometimes did) or couldn't have it (which I usually couldn't), but because, now I realize, some things are so pretty they're unbearable.