My dad turns 80 tomorrow, and the question he has posed to my mother is whether he is too old to wear a gold necklace. My two younger sisters and I knew about the new suits he'd like for his birthday. But a gold necklace?
Mom said he has been joking lately about the surprise party he's going to get. "I guess the people will be coming in," she quoted him as saying. "If there is any surprise going on here, it will be not only hurricanes and tornadoes, but volcanoes, too."
The gold necklace, on the other hand, cannot be taken so lightly.
Long before my birth in 1951, which made him, at age 26, Courtland Sr., Pops had a reputation for being a sharp dresser.
"He was what we called 'hep' back then," Mom recalled. "He wore zoot suits and always looked good in a shirt and tie. He also wore horn-rimmed glasses, which were in style, even though his eyes were not that bad."
Trust me, that's not the Brooks Brothers man I grew up with.
In 1947, when Mom was a secretary in the business department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, she spotted him through her office window walking across the campus. A co-worker told her the name of the young commercial industries major, and Mom declared, without having met him, "I'm going to marry that man."
At the wedding, he wore blue suede shoes.
There is a photograph of Dad, taken in '48, when he was editor of Tuskegee's student newspaper, the Campus Digest. He is sitting at a desk, in a suit and tie, sharp as a tack -- except for the shoes, of course, which could not possibly hold a shine in the dust of Alabama's red clay.
Other photographs from my parents' high school and college days are of African American men and women similarly dressed. Some who had gone to college in raggedy farm clothes graduated dressed to the nines -- in white shirts, slacks, Stetson hats and even spats.
The change in clothes was symbolic of a deeper transformation brought on by perseverance and a tremendous work ethic. In the ongoing journey from slavery to freedom, that generation of African Americans would make a social, political and economic quantum leap: They were born into a world where three-fourths of black Americans were poor, and they literally gave birth to a population that is close to three-fourths middle class.
And all this despite economic recessions, the savagery of lynching and the racial degradation of Jim Crow.
The transition has not always been easy for Dad. I remember when he used to think that the Afro hairdo was a scheme cooked up by Buckwheat to make black people look bad. But he ended up growing a rather substantial one, complete with Shaft-style sideburns.
"He likes to be up with the times," Mom said.
Of course, if that only meant being fashionable, it is unlikely that the two of them would be preparing to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary next week. Mom does not like airheads.
To know what keeping up with the times really means, you have to check out Milloy's Photo Graphics in Shreveport, La., the business he started in 1966.
The computerized equipment that he uses today was unimaginable back then. And listening to his high-tech talk about the digital age makes me feel like my 80th birthday ought to be tomorrow instead of his.
Dad was 24 and Mom was 22 when she took him to meet her parents on the family farm in Johnston, S.C. He wore a suit and tie and carried those horn-rimmed glasses. The adult, sophisticated look caught his future mother-in-law's eye, and she cautioned her daughter, "You know that man is 40," Mom recalled.
Now, 56 years after looking 40 at 24, Dad may use fashion to adjust the clock once again, reversing it this time with jewelry popularized by twentysomething rap music artists.
Is that cool or what?
(PS: Happy birthday to Mom's brother, Uncle Firpo Hurley, a veterinarian in Oveta, Fla., who turned 80 on Sept. 1. Not only does he have a gold necklace, but he's also got a gold bracelet to go with it.)