Work In Progress

For the first seven or eight years of my young life, in addition to birthday presents from all the usual suspects—mom and grandma, aunts and uncles—every January the mailman would deliver some odd gift in a plain brown wrapper. Each annual parcel was addressed in the same fussy manner: “To Master H.W. McGruther, Esq.” When I asked mom who these gifts were from, she simply said, “Your father.” You mean the man who hardly knew me? I wanted to think differently about him, but dad’s quirky birthday gifts always left me with more questions than answers.

“I hate football—what am I supposed to do with a Jets helmet?”

“A toy medicine kit—who does he expect me to play ‘doctor’ with?”

“An ant farm? Does dad think I’m retarded?”

Every time I ridiculed the man who wasn’t there about the gift I didn’t like, mom would go into some threadbare diatribe about the spirit of giving, then close with a line straight out of an ABC After-School Special. “He’s your father and he loves you very much—and nothing else matters.” Mom’s effective if not exactly original guilt trips worked every time. My greed and self-importance plunged dramatically, dad’s perceived value on the Love and Caring Index held steady and Mom’s Wisdom Quotient shot through the roof. To regain her faith, I would play with whatever dumb thing dad had sent until Valentine’s Day, then banish it to the back of my closet. On my birthday, Mom would smile confidently as I tore into all the fantastic gifts friends and family had given me. Slotcar sets. G.I. Joe with kung fu grip. A Dynamo label maker. Matching towels and bedsheets.

“Now this is a birthday gift—thanks mom!” I’d exclaim.

“I’m glad you like it. Now stop putting your name on everything so we can write your dad a thank-you letter. I’m sure he’ll love hearing from you.” And don’t forget to thank him for the baseball mitt. Don’t mention you’re left-handed—it’ll only embarass him.”

Although I wrote those thank-you letters as mom instructed, the plain brown packages eventually stopped coming. Was it something I said? Did my appreciation for the previous year’s Mr. Potato Head seem less than sincere? We moved recently—perhaps dad didn’t have our new address. Whatever the reason, it didn’t really matter. Pretending to care for either the man or for the strange tokens of his affection was tiresome. Mom’s zeal to dignify dad’s memory had also begun to wane. Ten years is a long time to remember anything. Especially someone you never knew. For Harold Sr., I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

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