My father was terrible at gifts. Terrible at receiving them. You would break your back to find the most amazing, perfect gift ever, he would open it, pause, say, “Thank you!”, put it down, and never speak of it again. Over the years I bought him, among other things, a beautiful, strange coffee table book about Mexican churches, a silver wall hanging with a scroll of paper for note-taking, a wooden 3D puzzle in the shape of a gondola, a tiny statue of Molly Malone, which was the first song he’d learned and partly the inspiration for my name. The only gift I ever bought that I can confirm he used was a make-your-own-root beer kit. It was possibly the strongest root beer ever made.
As terrible as he was at receiving gifts, he was worse at giving them, which is a real shame, because he liked giving gifts. Every Christmas Eve he would decide last minute to buy tacky toys for all of the neighborhood children, which shamed my mother to no end, probably because she knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of his gifts.
One day years ago he called me and my brother into the kitchen, saying that he wanted our advice about something. We could tell there was going to be trouble when we saw the Sunday Parade section in his hand. In case your parents did not get delivery of the Sunday paper when you were a child, you should know that not only is it a useless faux-magazine with no real news or interesting information, but that you can also order horrible things from its pages: creepy, weighted, life-like baby dolls, much beloved by my grandmother, but also commemorative plates, coins, and other hideous tchotchkes, all payable in handy installments to a P.O. Box on a highway somewhere.
He said, with his customary optimism, that he thought he’d found a nice gift for our mother’s birthday, and what did we think? We looked on in horror as he pointed proudly to a necklace of thick silver braid, from which hung a Sacagawea half dollar, also surrounded by silver braid. We said absolutely not. It’s not that my mother has anything against Sacagawea, mind you, but rather that she is a small delicate woman, and her jewelry is generally the same.
Of course, the necklace arrived at our house several weeks later, and it has been buried in our mother’s jewelry box ever since.
Here is a brief annotated list of items I received from my father, tangible or otherwise:
- 50 dollars to spend at the mall in tenth grade, along with my brother, with the stipulation that we only had half an hour to complete our purchases. We ran around in a state of panic spending money. I bought a linen sweater on sale at The Gap, a paperback copy of The Basketball Diaries with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover, and a CD I can no longer recall.
- A navy blue L.L. Bean zippered cardigan that I lost, along with a pair of striped socks that now have holes in the heels that I will never throw away.
- An unpredictable temper.
- A greeting card on my breakfast plate with the offer to take me and my friend Maggie skiing for the day. I was 13 and I hated skiing and I thought he knew that. I’d certainly told him often enough, since he'd been the one who made me go the last time. I said no and immediately felt terrible and hoped I’d forget about it soon.
- The knowledge that there is no statute of limitations for feeling terrible.
- Unfortunate toes.
- A Monchichi. I loved it so hard that all the hair came off its head.
- A taste for unappetizing foods such as Spam, applesauce with butter beans mixed in, and
- A call from a florist my sophomore year of college for the purpose of arranging a delivery. There followed two hours of feverish anticipation as I ran through the list of crushes who could possibly be squiring me with flowers. As soon as I opened the door I knew that it was not to be. I put the small box in the fridge without opening it. Two days later, on Easter Sunday, I went to the Catholic church on campus wearing the goddamned corsage my father sent me.
- A visceral reaction to the song “Feliz Navidad." My father owned two CDs: one was by an experimental band of about 45 members that played solely instruments made from gourds, and the other was “Feliz Navidad." Three tracks, all “Feliz Navidad." All the same version. He liked to play it on repeat.
- A silver shamrock necklace when I returned from a year in Ireland. She can tell me otherwise all she likes, but I know that my mother picked it out and not him.
- A stuffed raccoon toy. I was just about to reach for it when my mother asked where he’d bought it. He said he hadn’t, he’d found it in the street.
- A deep, abiding love of the fireman’s carry, which is how I got upstairs at bedtime until I was eight.
- The ability to change a tire. He used to make me help him when I was a kid, from about 10 on. One night on a dark highway I had to change a tire by myself, while my Irish boyfriend who couldn’t even drive called all of his friends and told them what a badass I was. I have never been so proud of myself.
- A begrudging appreciation for One-Eyed Jacks the Western directed by and starring Marlon Brando. After years of raving that it was his favorite movie, I bought him the DVD to cheer him up when he was sick. He only watched it once, never having really understood the purpose of enjoying something multiple times.
- A copy of The Gift of the Magi, which he wanted me to read as some sort of Christmas project. Having built up a firm intolerance of O. Henry, I stoutly refused and gave it back to him.
- A pathological fear that one of my legs is longer than the other. One of his was. I cannot bring myself to measure mine. If I am right, my fears are confirmed. If I am wrong, I will just think I measured incorrectly and continue to worry.
- One letter for every year of college. The freshman year letter is the unintentionally hilarious saga of how numerous people agreed to be his roommate in school and then realized that they would prefer someone else. Junior year I was in London, so the letter was, predictably, about the importance of paying attention to the different traffic patterns.
- A Skipper doll. My mom and sister were away on a trip to Wales and he took me to Toys "R" Us and let me pick. I’m not positive, but I’m guessing my mom was not pleased upon her return. She’d purchased me a limited edition Sasha doll. Soon afterward I took off Skipper’s head and it wouldn’t go back on, so I had to squash a regular Barbie head on her neck, and it never did look right.
- The sense that caring about someone means telling them so. Even if it’s inconvenient or embarrassing.
- A fondness for that Abbott and Costello sketch about Niagara Falls.
- A book called Celluloid Skyline. It’s a coffee table book about old film noir movies shot in New York. I didn’t realize until a couple of years ago that he'd written “For Molly, Love Dad” in it. I look at that now and then and my insides separate into shards of glass.
- Knowing that “too late” is my least favorite phrase in the English language.
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Molly Pohlig lives in Brooklyn and works in publishing. She is currently tweeting her way through Proust, all seven volumes, at @poppycockltd.