Agnes Volland

16 November 2023
Wedged between my dad’s high school yearbook and a coffee table book on the Miles Davis Quintet is a photo album with a velvet cover, rural nostalgia spilling from the yellowing pages. On a Sunday morning, you slather maple syrup on a stack of griddle pancakes and listen to 96.1 with your feet propped up on the radiator, and think about Papa wearing a sweater vest, jeans, and saddle shoes, his hair slick back like Elvis. There he is. Second right in the black and white photo: a group of middle school boys with their arms around one another in unison.

“Always take pride in your appearance,” Papa would advise, as a freshly ironed shirt could make or break a job interview, a first date, or even someone you wind up sitting next to at Aunt Sally’s wedding.

If the DeLorean takes you back to 1962, take the I-80 east until you hit cowboy territory, where style translates to boots snagged from a Boot Barn outlet and an ill-faded flannel fished out of a Goodwill bin. Grand Forks is a community pool with no lifeguard on duty and hollow storefronts with eviction notices taped to the rusted wood-framed windows. You’ll find my great grandpa at the Hub Pub, sipping Jack Daniel’s on the rocks if he’s not hiding behind a cloud of cigarette smoke or drawing a line from Bismarck to Minneapolis with a pickaxe in hand. You’ll find my great grandma at church, flipping through a battered copy of the Bible, decoding the Lord’s Prayer over stale blueberry muffins. And then there’s Papa, a decade shy of marrying Nanny and selling a string quartet out of the trunk of his Thunderbird.

If I had a dollar for every time he hummed the tune of a Frank Sinatra song or read the morning paper with a Starbucks to-go cup in hand, I’d be rich enough to pay for the Rolex he eyed on shopping trips to the River Park Square mall. In nineteen years of knowing Papa, his interests were fixed: drip coffee with half-and-half and a packet of Splenda, the music column of The New York Times, Klondike ice cream sandwiches, sipping an Old Fashioned in a dim-lit jazz club. But in 1962, he was the dapper dresser amongst khaki pants and plaid shirts, counting his quarters to buy a sleeve of milk duds or a ticket to the newest Dean Martin movie. Sometimes the apple falls next to the railroad tracks, ready to sweat away another afternoon under the midwest sun, as his father did, and his father before him. Other times it rolls down Route 2, cutting through prairie land until it hits the west coast. Instead of sinking in a Roger Miller record that spun like a wagon wheel, or taking swigs from a bottle of Irish whiskey on the city hall steps, Papa refused to surrender to working-class rednecks and picked up a job dusting shelves at a music store upon turning eighteen.

Papa sought refuge in his record collection, which was dominated by Frank Sinatra vinyl: “Come Fly with Me” and “My Way” and “Nice ‘n’ Easy.” You can predict the tune of a 1960s pop song like you could predict Papa’s style.  A salmon-colored button-up was always paired with Levi’s jeans, and a gray pullover sweater was always paired with J. Crew chinos. A popular song becomes immortal like a fashion trend becomes timeless. A photo dated 1948 reveals Sinatra styling a plaid suit and tilted fedora as he lights a cigarette, and from his pale blue eyes and dimples, I could mistake him for Papa.

Similar to Papa, Sinatra’s classic wardrobe largely consisted of suits, sports coats, and knitwear. While Papa never starred in a cult classic, drove a ‘58 Cadillac, or walked a red carpet, his charisma and class mirror that of Sinatra. Even in his late years—when he lived in a retirement home, with its distinct scent of aged beer and library books, the heater always shy of eighty degrees—Papa would still wear a freshly ironed button-up to dinner or a pale blue cardigan to watch TV. He continued to sift through music catalogs and tap his foot to smooth jazz until his death in September.
I relish the memorabilia I have—the faded Bay City Rockers t-shirt, the Frank Sinatra: Greatest Hits CD, the sterling silver money clip. And when the Christmas lights flicker on at the River Park Square Mall, or a businessman orders bourbon on the rocks at a hotel bar, or a vagabond pops the hood of a mint green Thunderbird off the I-15, I can hear “The Way You Look Tonight” and think about Papa in a sweater vest, jeans, and saddle shoes, his hair slick back like Elvis. Because in North Dakota, the land of Steely Dan cover bands and pitchfork steak, was a thirteen-year-old boy dressed like he belonged in the Golden Age of Hollywood, in Frank Sinatra’s hand-me-downs.