Not long ago, I went to my cousin’s wedding in Colorado with my dad. It was the first I’d traveled anywhere with him since 1986, when we drove through a blizzard from Michigan to D.C. and he yelled, over a Don Henley song, “Semis! Goddamn semis! Aieee!”
My dad has five college degrees and is a former Lutheran minister, even though he has a terrible stutter. He combats the problem by modifying his speech patterns and using lines from his favorite books and movies to get his points across more speedily. For example, when he’s asked a question he doesn’t want to answer, he’ll just say, “And the tar baby, he don’t say nothin’.”
He’s also been a lumberjack, a New York taxi driver, a herpetologist, and, most recently, a data-entry clerk—jobs which, when combined with his natural shyness, have left him pretty much a recluse, someone who pops up in my life every now and then on email to give my brothers and me unsolicited updates on Bob Dylan.
One thing is constant: he has always been the worst gift-giver. He once came to a wedding bearing an unwrapped zucchini from his garden, plunking it down on the table and telling the happy couple he had given them “the fruit of the earth.” He once gave my mother a Snickers bar for Christmas. It was the only present he gave her that year. Another year he gave her a mood ring. They have long been divorced.
When he picked me up at the Denver airport, he leaned out of the rental car window and said, too loudly, “Here he be!” He was wearing a sweatshirt depicting a large image of a bald eagle. A familiar nasally whine emanated from the tape deck. I knew my dad was going to embarrass me at the wedding, but how? Would he suddenly start clipping his toenails the way he did at my Little League games? The hundreds of possibilities diminished once we stopped in Leadville.
Leadville, Colorado, is a town that claims to be the highest incorporated city in the world. While I went for a coffee, my dad entered a faux trading post. He emerged holding a tiny bag.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked him.
“Gifts,” he said.
I made the international sign for “let me look inside your bag.” The contents: a plaster rendering of a shark’s tooth. He pulled it out and said, “Jawshhh.” He had learned that slurring words helped him not to stutter.
I did not ask him why my cousin, a Texan who used to work at Enron, would have any interest in a fake shark’s tooth bought in a town 10,430 feet above sea level. I did laugh, however. But that wasn’t all. Underneath the tooth was a fake gold nugget. I asked my dad how much he’d spent for the two gifts. “Eight dollars,” he said. “Actually, seven ninety-five.”
The next day we hit the wedding. At the church, we were greeted by my uncle the decorous lawyer. My dad, obviously unfamiliar with wedding customs, brandished his offering. “Where shall I put it?” he asked.
I will always remember the look of playful incredulity on my uncle’s face as he looked down at the small brown bag my dad was holding and drawled, “Just hold on to it until the reception, Mark.”
Not surprisingly for Colorado, the reception took place on top of a mountain. During the interminable ski-lift climb, my dad kept saying, “Gooah! Gooah!”; the three total strangers huddled across from us laughed nervously. Up in the lodge, my dad finally placed the paper sack on the gift table next to a large box, adorned with a pink polka-dot bow, that just screamed, “Saucepan!” I dropped my gift on the table and flagged down the nearest waiter, asking for a tray of alcohol.
But at dinner, as we sat at a table with grinning Texans and distant relatives, a surprising thing happened: nothing. My dad didn’t clip his nails. He never once bellowed, “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!” as he is wont to do. When the waiter asked him if he wanted coffee, he didn’t mention the tar baby.
From time to time I’d eye the paper bag among the other gifts. I’d think about my cousin and his wife opening their brand-new tooth and nugget set and wince. But as he was chatting calmly near the dance floor with my aunt, looking—what’s the word?—normal, I realized that maybe my dad was on to something. I mean, it’s quite likely that his gift won’t soon be forgotten, and of course that means that he won’t soon be forgotten. I, on the other hand, gave a set of steak knives. Or cash. Or a blender. I honestly don’t remember. I guarantee they don’t, either.