My father, like most fathers, absolutely became burned out at the prospect of receiving gifts on Christmas. That is why, every year when we pretended to want to know what he wanted, his response was a sharp, “Don’t get me anything!”
He humored my sister and I when we were children with an accommodating embrace of our creative endeavors. I have this vision of him scrambling to pull our early artisanal efforts from his bottom desk drawer—every cracked clay hand print, the Crayon house with cotton ball snow rooftop and a cluster of pipe cleaner sculptures affixed with googly eyes—each time we visited his office. I wonder if his clients ever thought about what the handful of dried macaroni shells were doing next to his stacks of files, or if they, as parents, simply understood.
Unfortunately for my Dad, the homemade Christmas presents were about as good as it would get.
Realizing a father’s job on Christmas is to make sure everyone—starting with the Mom and working down the demand chain—is happy if not pleasantly surprised, I decided the man deserved his day and saved for an actual gift for him my junior year of high school.
It was going to be a re-mastered (whatever that means) Paul Simon box set. From his early days with Art Garfunkel billed as Tom & Jerry to his latest solo release, The Rhythm of the Saints, the nine-disc special edition with full-color booklet was going to set me back about $150. What joy my Dad would have going through his musical idol’s entire playlist at will. Blinded by the sheer number of B-sides, I never stopped to ponder whether he’d be just as content to put Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes on repeat. Which he would have.
I traveled to Berkeley’s Amoeba Music with a couple buddies to make my purchase. A hundred and fifty bones (my entire Target paycheck) plus a few extra dollars for a slice at Blondie’s jangling in my pocket.
Two hours later, I surfaced from the record store with the Smells like Teen Spirit single (UK import) $35, a Pearl Jam EP (Japanese import) $38, a book called The Smiths: All Men Have Secrets ($12), VHS copies of Basic Instinct (unrated director’s cut), Meatballs and the Indiana Jones trilogy ($62). For good measure, I threw in a used copy of Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits for my Dad ($7.98) which, sadly for him, did not have Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.
And then I had to bum money for pizza and bridge toll.
Instead of vowing to redeem myself in the years that followed, I kept inching the gift bar ever lower. One year his Sports Illustrated subscription accidentally ended up being delivered to my house. The only time he mentioned it was the week the swimsuit issue came out. I asked him if he wanted me to bring it by and he said, “I don’t want to see it after you’ve gotten your…hands on it.”
A written IOU: One Father-Son Giants Game only materialized when he ponied up for the tickets—though I distinctly remember bringing garlic fries back from a bathroom run and wishing him Merry Christmas.
One summer, I offered to buy him a round of golf to make up for “all the Christmases” I’d swung and missed. That also happened to be the same purchase to take my MBNA Visa, the one which came with a free Warriors beach towel, beyond its $500 maximum. So he picked up the tab on that one as well.
In alternating years, he would maybe get a card I’d stolen from my Mom’s stack with a personalized greeting from me inside, and, well, that seemed to do the trick—till the year before last.
“Why don’t you ski with me on Christmas?” was his simple request.
Though we were usually on the hill at the same time Christmas Day, skiing together hadn’t been an option since I was about 15. Skiing his style was about the people.
In fact, you’ve probably skied with my Dad a time or two, or at least run into him on the mountain. He’s the one having a 20-minute conversation with the ticket window lady about the weather that day, the week prior, the week to come. The conditions on the hill: What got groomed today? What’s getting groomed tonight? The ticket prices: How he remembers when his whole family could ski for $40. About his senior discount/whether she needs to card him: You don’t? Are you sure? Has she seen any bears near the Dumpsters? Because he saw a whole family over there in ‘91.
He’s the chatterbox next to you on the lift whose life story you know by the time you see the signs to put your tips up. Go ahead, ask him his social security number, he’ll probably give it to you.
The obstacle stopped in the middle of the groomer taking in a bird in a tree or the view of the lake? That’s my Dad.
That guy kicking it on the deck well after lunch, jacket unbuttoned all the way, head tilted to the sun, boots up on the railing, fanny pack splayed on the table, chin dripping over the lip of his turtleneck as he mouths the words to Hey Nineteen barely audible through the loudspeaker? You guessed it.
I mulled over his Christmas-ski request like Steve Martin does the price of a postcard in exchange for free room and board in the back of Jackie Mason’s gas station. Almost four decades of shitty or no presents and all he wanted was to hang out with his son on Christmas Day. And I still didn’t want to oblige.
But then I thought about it a little more and decided the Christmas ski is the one time every jerkface is on the hill so I might as well suck it up for a couple laps with the old man then go do my own thing.
So, we skied together Christmas Day. I listened to him talk to people. I watched him stop and take pictures. I lingered behind him and snickered as he eased into his backseat turns. And to my surprise, it was already noon. And then it was two. And then we were in the lodge.
“Can I buy you a beer?” he asked.
We sat there for about 20 minutes and no fewer than a half-dozen people passed by and said, “Hey Craig, Merry Christmas.” They were: The ticket window lady. The young Mom from the first lift. The couple he stopped midway down the run to take a picture of. The guy who bussed our tray at lunch and the head of the ski school who took last chair with us.
That was the last time I got to ski my father. Three months later, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Last year on Christmas, I sat next to him as he lay in bed. He complained there was no snow. “Maybe next year,” he said. “We can ski together again. I don’t want anything, except that.”
“Sure Dad. Me too.”
Earlier this month when Robin asked me what I wanted, I said without thinking, “Don’t get me anything!” It is my first year, after all, of being a Dad. And that’s what Dad’s say. Since then, I’ve changed my tune a little. In the years that come, I’ll ask my son that he ski with me on Christmas Day.
It’s the only gift I could ever want, and at the same time, the one thing I can never give again.