by Todd Walton, December 24, 2013
“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” — William Shakespeare
My father was extremely neurotic. A psychiatrist by profession, one of his more pronounced neuroses was the inability to complete anything, which made psychiatry the perfect profession for him. Our house and yard were minefields of my father’s unfinished projects, some of which became entangled with other unfinished projects, so that large areas of the domestic terrain were rendered useless except as depositories for the stuff of projects he would never complete.
When I was twelve, my father gave me the task of clearing away a great mass of blackberry brambles that was smothering our one and only apricot tree and made accessing the delectable fruit impossible. After many hours of hacking and cutting and carrying loads of brambles to the burn pile, I discovered that my father had pruned the apricot tree some years before, left the pruned branches lying around the tree, and in a subsequent year positioned a wooden ladder amidst the pruned branches in order to prune the tree again, left the newly pruned branches atop the older pruned branches, and then left the ladder surrounded by those multiple layers of pruned branches. Blackberry bushes then sprouted in the fertile soil and employed the framework of dead branches and wooden ladder as armature for their rampant growth.
When I was sixteen, my father and I attended an auction of government property, ostensibly to find a cheap filing cabinet for my mother, but really because my father loved hunting for old junky things to bring home. Among the items to be auctioned were several three-wheeled postal vans, their engines on the verge of dysfunction, their aging bodies pockmarked and rusty.
“I will buy one,” declared my father, “paint it a pleasing color, and use it to go to and from my office. Think of the money I’ll save on gas.”
My father did, indeed, make the highest bid on one of those vans, drove the cute little thing home, and parked it about ten feet to the left of my beloved basketball hoop and backboard, thereby rendering the court no good for basketball games until my pals and I pushed the little van some twenty feet from the hoop. And there that wreckage sat and rotted for thirty years until, as a gift to my mother, I had the heap hauled away.
“An overflow of good converts to bad.” — William Shakespeare
Another of my father’s manias was book buying, and his favorite bookstore was Kepler’s in Menlo Park, both a fantastic bookstore and a groovy Bohemian hangout. I remember many an evening when my mother called Kepler’s, as other women might call the pub, to inquire if her husband was there. “He is?” my mother would say, exasperated. “Would you please tell him to come home? Immediately. He was supposed to be home two hours ago.”
Thus our house was not only a museum of myriad unfinished projects, but we lived in an ever growing topography of stacks of books — the dozens of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jammed with thousands of books — and piles of magazines and newspapers and junk mail, all of which my father was adamant my mother not throw away because, “I’m going through them this weekend,” which never happened once in fifty years.
“It’s true, Christmas can feel like a lot of work, particularly for mothers. But when you look back on all the Christmases in your life, you’ll find you’ve created family traditions and lasting memories. Those memories, good and bad, are really what help to keep a family together over the long haul.” Caroline Kennedy
When Marcia and I got married, I explained to her that Christmas was highly problematic for me due to the emotional scars I carried from my parents’ various neuroses coming to a boil, so to speak, in and around the holiday season. Never mind that my mother was Jewish, but had been raised to hide any connection to Judaism (which was one of the reasons she married my non-Jewish father.) Never mind that my father always put off buying a Christmas tree until the day before Christmas and then would get staggering drunk before he put the lights on the tree, after which he couldn’t remember where he’d put the really tall ladder he needed to get the ornament box down from the half-finished platform he had affixed to the rafters of our high-ceilinged house with twine and duct tape in lieu of the screws he would use when he got around to finishing the platform, which he never did.
No, what made Christmas such an unhappy time was the terrible tension resulting from my father having bought hundreds of books and things we didn’t want, and all those books and things had to be wrapped by our unhappy parents and put under the tree so we would have lots of presents to open on Christmas morning — the quantity of gifts being very important to my father, who always waited until Christmas Eve to start wrapping things, and as he wrapped he drank and my mother would lament, “You’ve had enough already,” and we would hang our stockings and go to bed and…joy to the world.
“And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.” — William Shakespeare
When I was nine, my siblings and I gathered in the living room on Christmas morning, our parents having stayed up until the wee hours wrapping presents and stuffing our stockings with tangerines and candy and decks of cards (not again!) to keep us busy until they finally crawled out of bed some hours later to have their coffee and oversee the opening of the gifts. We noted the hundreds of presents under the precariously tilting tree, and my little brother gave voice to our collective fear, “I think it’s mostly books.”
That was the year my father gave me a seven-hundred-page (small print) biography of Thomas Jefferson and a book entitled How To Make Home Movies. Coincidentally, Santa gave my mother a home movie camera, which she promptly handed to my father, and my sister Wendy got a film editing and splicing contraption, my father expressing surprise and delight that Santa had given us these things that he, my father, had always wanted and would be happy to share with us. Yes! For a person who could never finish anything, a movie camera in those pre-digital days was the perfect thing for making huge messes and never completing anything. You go, Dad!
But the camera and associated film stuff was just the beginning of that year’s surprises. I received an electric soldering iron my father was quick to point out would be just the thing for assembling the Heathkit stereo tuner kit Santa brought my four-year-old brother, as well as the unassembled stereo speakers Santa brought my sister Kathy that would go perfectly with the Heathkit stereo tuner — none of which would ever be fully assembled but would reside partially assembled for many years under piles of useless junk on a large table in the room that eventually became my mother’s office after the defunct Heathkit project was finally added to the horror show known as our garage.
“I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” — Charles Darwin
As an adult, I returned to the old homestead every Christmas to visit my parents, and I frequently found the presents I’d given my father the previous year gathering dust on the floor not far from where he opened them. And it finally dawned on me that the best gifts for my father were bottles of wine he would drink that very day, though I needn’t buy good wine because my father, who was the world’s authority on everything, loved to remind me that “it has been scientifically proven there is absolutely no difference between cheap and expensive wine, except the price.”
Until he died at eighty-four, our father continued to give us books for Christmas that he thought we ought to want, and as he became less energetic, he took to buying all his children the same books from palettes of bestsellers at Costco. Three years in a row he gave me the same massive and impenetrable tome about Shakespeare by a famous Harvard professor, and each year he would ask me as I unwrapped the gnarly opus, “Have you heard of this book? Supposed to be fantastic.”
Then I would return to wherever I was living, and when sufficiently recovered from my Christmas ordeal, I would take the books my father had given me to a good used bookstore, get cash for them, and go to a café for coffee and cheesecake, both of which I really wanted. I would sip my coffee and savor the tangy cake and raise my cup in honor of my father, the great lover of books.
Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com