On gift giving

My father was a lover of things. Marie Kondo would have been appalled at his habit of lining the bookshelves with knick-knacks, like his collection of pocket knives, and littering his bedside table with pens and half-read newspaper sections.

While he wasn’t a devotee of de-cluttering, my father’s love of the tangible meant he was an excellent giver of gifts, and books – both the newest titles and special editions of beloved classics – were always on his list. If a new work by someone’s favorite author caught his eye, he’d buy a copy, the reason for giving unimportant. Birthdays and Christmas were a heightened occasion for him to unleash his generosity.

He died last year of an aggressive brain cancer. People say the holidays are difficult when you’ve lost someone, and I see why, although I find the mundane moments, when I might have called to chat, or sent him an amusing picture of my children, the most challenging.

But I have also realized, over the first holiday season without him, and looking forward to the coming one, that there is something easier about his not being around for the holidays. I felt aghast at myself for thinking it, but it was an indisputable fact, presented last December as I stared giddily at the staff recommendations and new fiction at one of my favorite bookshops: these beauties were all up for grabs this Christmas. There was a job vacancy in the “giver of books” category and the best candidate to fill the role was me.

I picked up a volume of Ta-Nehisi Coates essays for my politically-minded brother, and the novel “Sing. Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward for my fiction-loving mom. I eyed meditation books for my mindfulness-conscious husband and the book, “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” for my daughter.

I, like my dad, am a lover of books, and standing there, thinking about providing all this glorious storytelling to the people I loved, I swooned with possibility.

Despite my feelings on the afterlife being solidly in the “unsure” camp, I struck up a silent conversation with my father, marked by ribbing but with undertones of affection. It was how we’d often talked: “I get to buy ALL of these. Me.” The year prior, I thought, as I carried my armful to the cashier, I’d never have made such a purchase; my dad would have beaten me to the punch.  

Strangely, so surprisingly, this realization didn’t make me sad. I walked outside, surrounded by other shoppers. I thought about why, after months of unpredictable emotions, I felt…content.

I reflected, and rephrased the feelings that should have been melancholy, but instead were buoying on that winter morning.

It wasn’t that my father’s loss provided an opportunity.

It was that his living inspired me to take it.

One paragraph about November 12, 2018

There was no school for the older two due to Veteran’s Day, so we had “brunch,” not to be fancy but because everyone was hungry mid-morning. We went to Atticus, a restaurant and bookstore we like to frequent in downtown New Haven, where I once proclaimed, “If you ever want a book, I will always buy you a book,” and have sort of regretted that statement ever since because they want one every time. Gabe ordered French toast and was dismayed to find, upon its arrival, that it had “fruits” in it, the result of this particular French toast being made from one of the delicious breads baked from scratch at this restaurant, and the delicious bread in question was a sourdough dried fruit and nut bread. He proceeded to accuse me of “not telling him about the bread” and my responding that I thought he had read it on the menu because “you are a seven-year-old who can read” and them him crying a few actual tears because of this injustice. I was ready to get angry and call this whole morning - this whole day - off, but he was so adorable with a new haircut, sitting there, actually crying real tears and realized that he was just very hungry and truly, totally dismayed that what he’d ordered hadn’t turned out the way he’d so excitedly planned, and that he simply didn’t want “stuff” in his otherwise excellent French toast. Later I told J that I so badly wanted to give up, explain why he couldn’t act that way, get out of there. But I summoned the tiniest bit of energy, enough to get up and move to the chair next to him, where I joked with him about his out-of-proportion reaction to something so minor as a raisin. We found some good bites that were unmarred and I fed him a couple, like he was a toddler again. It was fun. Fun enough to save us.