Gifts From My Father… And Mom Let Him Live.
When my wife and I first got married, I always bought her birthday presents that were clearly intended for her use alone… jewelry, fancy clothes, designer purses, perfumes… I don’t know… a new tennis racquet, a mountain bike, one year it was golf clubs… those sorts of things. Gifts that I had nothing to do with as far as future usage was concerned.
But over the two decades plus that we’ve been married, I’ve noticed a certain drift towards gifts that aren’t really just hers, but sort of ours… kind of. I’m not entirely certain, but it’s possible that one year for her birthday I may have bought her a new breakfast nook table & chairs set.
I shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing, right? That’s not the way to stay happily married, or even walking and breathing, depending on your spouse’s comfort level with firearms.
Maybe, since we could use a new air conditioning unit for the house, that’s what I should want for my birthday next year… and that would make us even for the birthday breakfast nook. Truth be told, I can’t even remember what I bought my wife last year for her birthday, and that’s not a good sign or feeling to walk around with… but at least I’m sure that it wasn’t our new 4-slice toaster, because I remember Santa Krupps bringing that for Christmas last holiday season.
Its occurred to me that I might just be turning into my father, perish the terrifying thought. He may have been a brilliant man in many ways… a Harvard grad, for 34 years he was a Professor of Water Chemistry & Environmental Health and the Associate Director of the Center for Environmental Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.
But as far as being one of those sensitive and emotionally intelligent people that put a lot of thought into their gift buying… well, let’s just say he was more the type of person from whom you hope to receive a Visa Gift Card.
When I was a young boy, maybe seven or eight years old, I remember my father asking me if I wanted to go with him to Sears one evening after dinner. I jumped at the opportunity of course, after all, a trip to Sears meant two things: A chance to sit on and pretend to drive several different riding lawnmowers… and a bag of hot cashews from the stand that sat in the middle of the store on the bottom level. Good times.
So, we get to Sears, Dad and me, and I head straight for the riding lawnmowers. Remember that part of Forrest Gump when even though he’s already a zillionaire, he goes back home and the City Fathers give him “a fine job,” and he’s riding a lawnmower around this field cutting the grass? Yeah, well I understood that part of the movie. I completely agreed… Forrest looked like he did have a fine job there, and one that I would like to have some day too.
Anyway… after a few minutes when my father had run out of patience with the lawnmower engine sounds I was making with my mouth, he said let’s go and we headed into the store. The smell of hot cashews used to hit you right as you walked in the door of the Sears where I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and both my father and I were huge fans of the toasty warm aromatic nuts.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning that when I was a kid, cashews were not for children. When we wanted something in the nuts family, we got peanuts exclusively. There were a few times a year when a can of mixed nuts would find its way onto the shelves of our kitchen cabinet, but that meant that my parents were about to have a party for grown-ups… or that my father was about to have his mostly professor friends over to play poker, which was something he did religiously every eight weeks throughout my childhood. He played on Thursday nights, but the game rotated to the homes of each of the players.
I remember two things about his poker playing habits clearly. 1. We used to refer to it as “Holy Thursday,” and… 2. Don’t even think about touching the mixed nuts in the cabinet.
So, that night at Sears, Dad got us a small bag of warm cashews before heading off for the guaranteed-to-be-boring part of the excursion, at least as far as I was concerned. The part when we’d have to actually shop for whatever it was he wanted to buy… the reason we were there, you might say.
He explained that we had come to buy my Mom a birthday present, and her birthday was the following day.
“Let’s get her a board game, Dad,” was the first thing that came to my young mind.
Well, why not… it was something I understood and knew I could get some utility from… and heck, she’d probably have liked it quite a bit too, especially if there was spelling involved. Mom loved to spell things, and she was darn good at it too.
But, Dad said no. He had something else in mind, as we headed on over to the department I dreaded above all others, the “Housewares” department.
“Housewares” was the section that had the most things I didn’t understand, and I braced myself and took a deep breath, just as I might have done were I about to be placed into solitary confinement while doing hard time on Alcatraz.
When we arrived, I did a 360 to take in my surroundings. Sure enough, I was absolutely surrounded by “Housewares,” and an older man who could have played Santa Claus at Christmas if you spotted him a fake beard and some hair, hiked up his pants by his belt and waddled towards us. He greeted my father offered his assistance while simultaneously doing a quick comb through of his thinning hair, and completely ignoring me, of course.
It was the 1960s, and I was still a member of the class of citizens that was to be seen, but not heard when out in public. Today, we treat our kids a little differently, and today’s salespeople know all about it. In fact, one year we let our 8 year old pick out the family car, which is how I ended up driving a Ford Windstar minivan for several years.
I heard my father say something about a chair of some kind… but after that it was pretty much just a blur. For a boy my age during The Wonder Years of the 1960s it was genetically impossible to stay attentive during conversations of such banality.
Soon they had focused in on a particular chair. It was metal with yellow vinyl, sort of a highchair with steps that slid out from underneath, a feature my father was saying would be highly valued by Mom, who was only 5’3” and apparently couldn’t reach certain things without a step ladder. I hadn’t known about her shortcomings before that day, as she was plenty tall to reach everything I ever needed her to reach.
It was probably only a few minutes later, although it seemed a good hour or two to me, and we were paying with Dad’s Sears charge card, and then heading back to our station wagon, a 1963 Plymouth, in a sickly hospital green color that my father said he liked, although I didn’t see how that could be possible.
We pulled around to the “Pick-Up” window and there was that aging rotund and balding salesman, this time carrying a decent size box, inside which, I assumed, would be the chair even though the box didn’t seem large enough to hold the chair.
As the box went into the back of the wagon, the man told my father that there would be, “some assembly required,” to which my father replied, “Sure, no problem,” Dad actually seemed happy to hear of it.
My Dad owned a small grey metal Craftsman toolbox that he kept in the front hall closet and it was strictly off limits as far as I was concerned. He’d pull it out any time those words were spoken, “some assembly required,” or whenever there was some other sort of kid-made disaster.
Dad faced each job with an air of confidence that said clearly that he was unquestionably capable of handling any job that was thrown his way and he would do so with whatever was in his small grey metal toolbox. It was a toolbox akin to Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, if you remember the movie with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It was as if he was expecting to be able to reach in and pull out a belt sander and a table saw, if either was needed to fix whatever was broken.
The problem invariably was that whatever he needed he didn’t have, and whatever he thought he could do, he really couldn’t… at least not in the time he had thought that he could. And if I made the mistake of hanging around too long or standing too close, he’d end up blaming me for whatever wasn’t in his toolbox, growing more frustrated by the minute until he got the job done, which sometimes became a two or three day affair.
After the first couple of hours, there was no talking to him, and when the project had finally been completed he’d sit in front of the fireplace or television and sip what I later learned was Jack Daniels, but what he used to call Dry Sherry.
My father was, after all, a Harvard man. And you can tell a Harvard man… but you can’t tell him much.
As a child of above average intelligence, as soon as we walked in our front door, I shot upstairs to my room, claiming homework or a bath was calling, the sort of tasks that I knew would trump helping Dad assemble the chair, or anything else he had in mind… so he went to work in the basement assembling Mom’s big birthday surprise.
Yes, my brilliant, PhD, Harvard, college professor father had just thrown down maybe $29 on a metal stepstool/chair in yellow vinyl from Sears. And he was so proud the next evening when, finally assembled after maybe six or seven hours of hard work, he presented it to her after we had finished dinner.
Mom had made cupcakes, as she was prone to do on such occasions, and she started to light the little candles, one in each cupcake, except for the one that was for my little sister, Karen, who wasn’t even 2 years old at the time, and to my way of thinking, clearly didn’t qualify as any sort of human member of our family… certainly not one who was deserving of a cupcake all her own.
Mom struck the match but it failed to light and that was all the chances Mom got on things like lighting matches. Dad reached out and took them into his much more capable hands. He struck the match… nothing. Mom smiled and looked away, for some reason all of a sudden pleased at that moment. The next match was the pressure match and lucky for Dad it was a winner and the candles soon flickered as we sang…
Happy birthday to you… Happy birthday to you… Happy birthday dear Mommy… Happy birthday to you!
I grunted as Mom gave Karen her own cupcake, sans candle. “She can’t eat that, she doesn’t even have teeth or know what it is,” I said with the sort of superiority only a six year-old older brother can muster.
“She can lick it,” Mom said smiling at the useless drooling infant that had Zwieback toast crumbs all over her face and in her hair.
I looked at the thing they called my sister thinking, “Enjoy that, you little parasite, because later, when no one is looking, I’ll drag you down the stairs by your hair,” or at least the six year-old version of that sentence.
Karen grabbed the cupcake, squished it a little, mashed it icing side down onto her highchair… and promptly threw it straight onto the floor. Yeah, she may have been unable to verbalize much, but I knew she had done that just to torment me.
“Mommmm,” I yelled out as I jumped for the cupcake, hoping against hope that my mother would take leave of her senses and let me to eat it off the floor.
No such luck. “Hand it to me,” she said in that voice. And I did… resistance I knew darn well, was futile.
With the festivities now over, we went into the kitchen to examine Mom’s birthday gift and there it was… that glorious yellow vinyl and metal, half highchair, half stepstool… sitting poised for action… right in front of the sink. Dad had staged the presentation to add drama to the moment.
You see, as I was about to learn, Mom had been complaining that she was always standing over the sink washing dishes, and so my father caught the hint and figured out that the ideal birthday gift would be a chair high enough so that she could sit while washing the dishes, the step-stool functionality being an unanticipated bonus.
Of course, my Mom, being a mom of the mid-1960s, was at all times gracious. It was as if she liked everything. Like, she would have said thank you if someone served her a bowl of dirt.
“Oh, look at that,” she almost exclaimed.
Now, even at six years old I was sensing something in her voice that felt like danger had just entered the room. It felt like the temperature fell by 10 degrees… all of a sudden you could see your breath in our kitchen.
Dad, however, was oblivious, explaining every single one of the chair’s highly valued features and functions. “And, I bought it at Sears,” he explained as part of his wrap-up. “So, if anything goes wrong, we can return it and they’ll give us a new one.”
Dad absolutely adored that about Sears. He even bought his sport jackets at Sears when they would go on sale, of course, and I grew up assuming it was for the same reason… Sears’ famous return anything anytime policy.
“Isn’t that something,” Mom said. She had decided that moment was a good one to start sharpening a large kitchen knife, but then apparently thought better of it and set it down gingerly.
“Well, thank you Julian,” she said in a voice that I would one day learn to call sarcastic. “That was very considerate of you.”
And that was it… Mom’s birthday was over for another year. I knew not to ask her how old she was. I ‘d learned the hard way the year before that a young man doesn’t ask a lady that question. So, I just gave her a kiss on her cheek, said Happy Birthday Mom, and ran up to my room to see if I could sneak in a few minutes of black & white T.V. before they yelled up… “Turn off the T.V. please,” after which I’d drift off to sleep dreaming of eating cashews while on a riding lawnmower.
Less than a week passed until one day after school, I heard the doorbell, and ran to see who had rang it. A large truck was parked right in front of our house, on the side it read, “Sears Appliances,” or something very close.
“Mommmmm,” I called out. It’s a man in a truck from Sears.”
My Mother came out in her apron, admonishing me for yelling for her to come in front of an adult, and then in her adult voice sweet as pie said, “Oh, hello, yes please, come in,” to the man in the Sears uniform.
And two hours later our kitchen had a brand new dishwasher installed in it… a Kenmore, of course.
I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but inexplicably Mom made cupcakes again that night. It was highly unusual as it wasn’t anyone’s birthday, and this time she let me have the bowl of icing to lick and scrape, on top of it all. She was unusually happy and I was in a sugar-induced nirvana.
After desert, we all walked into the kitchen and Mom started explaining all of the features and functionality of the new Kenmore dishwasher.
Dad listened, his smiles were strained, and then as I was sensing his patience was running thin he said abruptly, and right in the middle of Mom’s Kenmore demonstration that I was more than happy to watch, “Okay, are you finished? I’ve got some work to do.” And with that he turned, left the kitchen and headed towards the stairs, climbing them two at a time to the second floor where he entered his study… his safe room, if you will.
Mom, however, was undaunted. She kept going on about the Kenmore, transitioning into a singing voice that got louder as Dad started up the stairs. Mom sang as if she were Judy Garland playing the role of a housewife in a movie, and I thought I recognized the melody… it was reminiscent of “Home on the Range,” sort of…
“And because it’s from Sears…
We should all have no fears…
If it breaks, it can sure be returned.
‘Cause it does not compare…
To a step-stool or chair…
That’s a fact that I think we’ve all learned.
Home, home it can change.
Some things have become quite passé…
If you’re tired of a chore, then go get a Kenmore,
And you’ll have a much better birthday.
Seconds later we heard the door to Dad’s study close, and it seemed a little harder than usual. Mom walked back into the kitchen humming, on her way to loading the new dishwasher, and without saying a word, she set a second cupcake topped with icing right in front of me. And somehow I knew as I stared at the icing on my cupcake, there was no reason to ask any questions.
It would be many years before I had any real appreciation for what had gone on that year. It was the year my Mom had two birthdays. And it was the year my father had stared death in the face… and lived.
Yes, he was the Harvard man, the brilliant college professor… the breadwinner of our family… the owner of the tools who never shirked his duty when “some assembly was required”… the one who always sat behind the wheel and got us to our destination… who lit our matches when we failed to do so… our very own patriarch who kept our family safe from harm and checked us into Howard Johnson’s when we needed to sleep…
But, make no mistake about it… that evening back in the late 60’s… Mom let him live.
She let him off with a song about a Kenmore dishwasher from Sears… a song that sounded a lot like “Home on the Range,” but said something entirely different. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think Mom’s lyrics said something that moms all over America had been thinking for some time.
Now that I’m all grown up and married myself for 23 years, I realize that for my father, a blow to the back of the head with a shovel would have been much less painful… and healed a heck of a lot faster. My Dad was a really smart guy, but my Mom was a really good teacher too.
And I can’t quite remember when I noticed it, but that yellow vinyl and metal chair/step-stool from Sears remained in our basement for the next 30 years. Dad passed away last year, leaving Mom alone in that big old house after more than 50 years of marriage, but for all I know that chair is still down in our basement today.
Mom was never one to throw important things like that away.
# # #
Dad’s gone now. But I’m still learning from him all the time.