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Dad’s birthday was December 24. This meant he grew up accustomed to being overshadowed by another birth. It wouldn’t have mattered, really, if he’d been born the 25th instead of 24th. His day was going to be largely lost in the Season. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the quips and teases that would go with a Christmas Eve birthday. As a young child I was sure that dad’s birthday put him near the Lord God Almighty. Mother was quick to assure me this was not so. I think she may have picked that distinction for herself.
I was twelve when I realized the good fortune being the son of a Christmas Eve baby; timing that allowed combining dad’s birthday and Christmas presents into one. At that age I did not get an allowance from home and supported my free spending by collecting bottles for their refund. (Think of the generations knowing nothing of that nor of the difficulties refunding put on stores.) Saving for one present versus two was a big economic issue for a twelve year old. Anyway, it was the year we’d moved to Hermitage in Chicago that I had the brilliant idea of getting dad one present for both days. This needed to be something halfway nice that he’d like and would use. The answer came to me (as the commercial jungle said) like a ship out on the ocean: Old Spice. Dad loved the stuff and it was sold in small enough bottles to suit my preteen budget.
Dad got his combined Christmas-Birthday gift and I felt I had it made never again having to wonder what to give him. Into my late teens I gave the same gift. Dad was happy. I was satisfied. Neither of us had to think a deep thought about any of it, and what’s better at Christmas than to float along to the sound of maudlin tunes with plenty of Christmas cookies to fill in any idle space. Life was utterly predictable. Burl Ives sung a Holiday Cartoon, Mass was at midnight, and once we’d moved to Minnesota there was snow lots of on the ground to make the classic white and chilly Christmas.
Then something happened. My first year in college I realized the simple solution of a twelve year old was no longer suitable. I decided dad needed things he’d never purchase for himself and it was my elevated task to find and deliver them as (of course) combined C & B-day presents. The first of these Old Spice departures was a step away indeed. Dad unwrapped a present larger and heavier than any after shave marketed and looked bewildered. In University Freshman zeal I explained “It’s a mushroom.” It wasn’t really; but it was a sculpture awkward in size of an unpopular and utterly un Christmassy subject a shop had been sure (I’m willing to bet you) was glad to see go out the door under the arm of a grinning Freshman. Dad’s reaction set off immediate second thoughts, but too late to exchange giant mushroom for Old Spice. Stuck, I stuck to my gun. Dad was a mushroom hunter. He liked mushrooms. This was a good gift, and in any case we didn’t have a doorstop. We’d never needed one at home, but now thanks to me we had one if the need arose.
As with Old Spice I hung in on the mushroom theme for years of framed mushroom lithographs and mushroom identification books. The easy days of a useful present were over, but at least there was predictability. Dad knew his dithering son would produce something mushroom related. Our world at Christmas relaxed into a new normal with Old Spice replaced by mushroom lore. I thought it a step up, but then I was the same being who thought annual Old Spice was the ticket. Dad was fairly silent. The sculpture that began the series ended up in our basement on a shelf where it was cool and dark; perfect mushroom territory.
Then something changed. Well actually it was getting more difficult to find mushroom related gifts. I must have snagged the only mushroom sculpture available and the selection of books and pictures was limited; a situation you can confirm for yourself. The mushroom angle at an end, I turned to dad’s appearance. He really would wear the oddest combinations and go outside the house in them if not stopped before reaching the car keys. At the time he was improving his executive skills in the Toastmaster International Club. (These clubs still exist and are needed by those who ignore them most as did the man I saw give a funeral talk looking as if he’d just then tumbled from bed after a difficult night and next on his schedule was to go jogging.) Really, dad in one of his gray tweed, checkered pants, argyle hose, and bow tie specials was a unforgettable if not frightening sight.
He needed help. But as apples fall not far from their tree of origin the help I provided proved initially problematic. I thought (at least I think thought was involved) a very untraditional sport coat would keep dad from tweed with checks disasters. The first no mushroom gift in half a dozen years was a burgundy maroon dinner jacket. I picked it myself. The look in dad’s eye when he took it out told me I’d picked wrong. On the other hand, mother liked the jacket and said so more than warmly. I suspect she enjoyed seeing dad fume and looked forward to use of future ammunition in their ongoing battles broken by frequent cease fires where both sides shared Pall Malls lit together from a single lighter. Argument was their way of life and may explain dad’s real reason for going to Toastmaster’s.
It took several years, and a few matching shirt, tie C & B-day gifts before I saw dad in the maroon sport coat. I was wrong about it being able to curb his worse instincts, but the result was 100% dad. I hope the history of your gifts over time show as much love and understanding as I see looking back at gifts across time.