Dad's Hawaiian shirts

Giving away the clothes didn't mean letting go of the memories they held.

Mark Thomson
Aloha: A row of colorful Hawaiian shirts hangs in a closet.

My dad, Russell Robbins, was one fun guy. Along with his compassion, intelligence, and thoughtfulness toward others, he had a fantastic sense of humor. He found joy in so many aspects of life. One thing he loved was his Hawaiian shirts. We lived in Hawaii for a year when I was young, and my dad was very happy there. As a lawyer, he enjoyed the relaxed dress code where he could show up to court in khaki pants and a Hawaiian button-down shirt.

Even after we moved back to California, my dad continued to collect Hawaiian shirts. He observed the Hawaiian tradition of casual Fridays, referred to on the islands as "Aloha Friday." His shirts weren't tacky, either. They were colorful and fun but also tasteful. My personal favorite was his red shirt with sailboats on it, especially since sailing was another of his passions.

My dad passed on during the fall of my sophomore year in high school. That January, I flew to another state to visit a family for whom I had baby-sat since junior high. I had watched the two boys grow up, and I was very close to their mom, Sarah. I had also spent time with their dad, Carl, through my weekly baby-sitting and by spending a few weeks each summer with them at their cabin at Lake Tahoe.

It had been a rough couple of months for me since losing my dad. It was nice to visit their family and feel at home with them. Before I left, Carl pulled me aside. He told me that if I ever needed anything, I should never hesitate to call him. I was touched by his offer and felt strengthened knowing there was someone else supporting me.

That next summer, I again spent two weeks with them at Lake Tahoe. The boys and I passed the days swimming and playing on the beach. While I was there, my mom drove up to visit. As I helped unpack the car for her, I noticed a box with my dad's Hawaiian shirts.

In complete shock, I asked my mom what she was planning on doing with them. I wasn't ready for her to clean out my dad's side of the closet yet, and to me, items like his Hawaiian shirts held too many memories. My mom explained that Carl had mentioned he would love to have the Hawaiian shirts and she had decided to give them to him. To me, it was like giving away a part of my dad, and I couldn't believe she would even consider doing such a thing.

It took me a while to calm down. But once I did, I could see that it made sense. I told her it was OK, and Carl graciously accepted them. He's worn them during my other visits, but the frequency doesn't matter to me.

Over the years, I have had a growing appreciation for what I was learning at the time. I missed my dad terribly at the beginning and still think about him every day, but holding onto his possessions wasn't the way to hold on to him. If anyone deserved something that expressed my dad's sense of love and spontaneity, it was Carl. His own love for others only made him an obvious recipient of those wonderful shirts.

Since that time, I have come to have a better understanding of Father's Day. Instead of sadly missing my father and feeling a hole in my life, I find it is a time to celebrate the fathers I see around me – those who bring joy, security, and love to their children, families, and friends.

I do believe that my dad truly remains the best father ever. But there are other dads out there – like Carl – who are doing a great job, too. And to celebrate them is to celebrate my own dad.

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