This Saturday, my father turned 52 years old. I spent the past week searching for the ideal birthday gift — a gift that would say “I love you,” and “Thanks for paying bursar bills the size of Nigeria’s GDP” — all in one Scotch-taped and ribboned package.
I wanted Dad’s birthday present to be perfect. Would he like a fluted carafe from the Yale Bookstore’s Waterford Crystal collection, now available at a breath-taking 40 percent discount? What about a colorful and practical drawstring change purse woven by midwives in Ecuador, courtesy of Ten Thousand Villages?
Actually, I really wanted to buy him a lawn gnome. But in a twist of brutal irony, his birthday fell just before the grand opening of the new lawn gnome and leather pants store right here on Broadway. Life is cruel.
University Properties clearly does not have the middle-aged Midwestern father in mind while whoring out square footage to “student-friendly” merchants. I didn’t know where to turn.
The problem is that this birthday gift had to express the inexpressible. My dad — like dads everywhere — is lovably peculiar in a thousand ways that I can no longer honor with an art class ornament involving popsicle sticks, my school picture and lots of Elmer’s.
I’m pushing 20. As far as birthday gifts go, I’m at the uncomfortable stage between the oblivious, batteries-sold-separately fervor of youth and the $50 check simplicity of grandparenthood. I’m a grown up now, and grown-up presents must be paragons of thoughtfulness.
Sometimes I feel I should be genetically exempt from buying birthday gifts. No one in my family knows how to choose presents.
My grandmother labored for years under the delusion that I collect miniature china shoes. She gave me one every year for Christmas and wouldn’t let me open any other gifts until I made up a story about the fairy, dwarf or other small, disturbing creature who owned the shoe.
My therapist insists this charade was an outgrowth of her relationship with her mother.
Dad himself is responsible for a long line of “Christmas Present Greatest Hits,” ranging from my brother’s new light switch plate shaped like a wolf’s head to my double CD compilation of Eastern European marching band music. I considered sending him a plastic bunny mask from Rite Aid’s seasonal aisle and calling it just desserts.
About halfway through last week, as my deadline neared and the cost of Federal Express Overnight grew steadily higher, I sat down and tried to think. What makes this guy tick?
When I think of my father, I think of his Sunday afternoons spent frying bratwurst in oil on the stove (he calls them “grease dogs”) and settling onto the couch to watch “Full Metal Jacket” with my brother for the 30th time. I think of his awful, corny jokes, and his technique of bursting into my room with “Molly, listen to this joke I heard on the way to work — it’s the greatest joke you’ll ever hear” as a preface to some terrible punchline he obviously made up himself. No sane commuter would have turned to my dad on the train with a joke involving Lorena Bobbitt and nuns in an elevator.
I think of his endearing cluelessness. One evening during senior year of high school, I was sitting on my bed with my mother crying about college woes, boys or something when he poked his head in, wrinkled his forehead and asked solemnly, “Oh, has Molly started menstruating?”
Then there was the first and only time he ever tried to talk to me about boys at college:
“So, your mother tells me you have a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, sort of, Dad.”
(Prolonged silence.) “So — how tall is he?”
My dad is a screwball. He has been “writing a novel” for the past 10 years involving the Knights Templar, Sherlock Holmes and meditations on the Judeo-Christian ethic, only he hasn’t actually “written” a word yet, if you want to get technical.
But for all his quirks, sometimes my dad understands things no one else can. He’s the one who bought me Soviet propaganda posters for Christmas, igniting my interest in Russian culture. When some friends and I became obsessed with the board game Diplomacy last summer, my dad talked Silesia attack strategy with me on the phone and sent me his own favorite war tactics game, Origins of World War II. Most people would have figured I was a huge nerd; my dad just figured I was, after all, his daughter.
I ended up buying him the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry for his birthday — he’s been researching the Masonic influences in the rise of European banking for his novel, you see. And since he insists the publication of this book is going to finance my college education, I thought I’d contribute.
But who am I kidding? There is no birthday present on earth that could do justice to my father. As my dad himself once told us on a family road trip to Kentucky, when we complained about him blasting Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”: “The guy is a little crazy, but if you’d shut up and listen, you’d love him. He’s brilliant.”
Happy birthday, Pops.
Molly Worthen is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Her columns appear on alternate Mondays.