Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Take and Give

Whenever I get the New Yorker magazine, the first thing I do is go through and read the cartoons, starting at the back and working my way to the front.  It’s my little ritual.  It’s my little treat, like starting with dessert, a little cup of chocolate mousse before the meat and potatoes.  And then I scan the articles and memoirs and stories for an entrĂ©e.   This is an actual luxury.  Having two kids and taking class at nights, there’s very little “me” time to be stolen for something as decadent as reading for pleasure, especially during the week.  I could do it at night, but I’d be out in seven paragraphs. (And, I’m really not a bathroom reader.)  So I read in chunks, a page here, a few cartoons there.  I take what I can get.
One afternoon, I was sitting on the sofa, chugging my way through a two-page essay, while my 3-year old son was at the dining room table in, drawing with colored pencils.  He brought in his first drawing for me to look upon, orange and brown circular scribbles, which after much spinning round and holding it near to my face and far, it was explained to me that it was a mountain vista.  (Then I saw it right off, of course.)  My son must have relished the ooohh-ing and ahhh-ing I gave his work because he began quite a prolific phase following the mountain landscape.  He was rushing back and dashing off scribbled masterpieces for my immediate perusal.  The problem was, I was starting to read the same paragraphs over and over.  I couldn’t even remember what I had just read. 
After the fourth piece, I said, “Why don’t you just make a pile and I’ll look at them all at once when you’re done.”  Holding the fifth out to me, he said, “I made it for you.”  And then he just stared up into my face.  Uncle.  “You win,” I said, and then I pulled in his newest piece for further scrutiny.         
I actually had to remind myself that he was seeing mountains, that he was proud, that he was doing the most important thing in the world at that moment.  More important than some magazine.  And the last thing he needed in the world was a brush-off from Dad.  He needed one hundred percent of me, living for him.  This is not always the easiest.  Sometimes, I have to be reminded, like the best of them.
There’s a passage in The Bible in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 10:24, where Paul commands, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.”  This passage is widely interpreted, yet the common denominator of those interpretations is simply this: Paul is clarifying that no man should seek his own gratification, especially at the expense of others.  To always be considerate of others is what is most important.  In short, live for others. 
When my father used to sell pianos and organs, sometimes he would have to drum up business by demonstrating instruments at festivals and shows, grabbing leads from passersby who showed a smidge of interest.  “I’ve always wanted to learn how to play,” they would say.  Or something like, “You mean it’s just that easy?”  And then my dad would attempt to reel them in.
On some of those Saturdays, my dad would take me along, often by default because there was no one home to watch over me.  My dad would hand me a fiver for a hotdog and a drink and to play some of the games designed to entertain children, ring toss, fishing with magnets, or maybe I’d get my face painted. 
It’s fair to say that, like so many young boys, I idolized my dad.  He was the bedrock of our family.  I even emulated him.  If he rolled up his sleeves, I rolled up my sleeves. If he picked up a walking stick in the woods, I picked up a miniature version.  And so when on one of those Saturdays at a craft show when I was looping around the circle of wares I found the perfect homage to what my dad meant to me, I didn’t think twice about handing over whatever paltry sum that paid the price for the monument I had found to my father.
At one of the craft tables, an elderly woman with light brown hair and white roots was selling her creations of walnut figures.  She had cleverly taken halved walnut shells as heads and fixed little twigs beneath them to resemble bodies and glued each on to tiny planks of painted wood.  And next to each, she had written words of inspiration, Hang in There, You’re the Best, Best Friend.  And then there was the “World’s Greatest” figurines, World’s Greatest Teacher, World’s Greatest Secretary, World’s Greatest Fisherman.  But they all melted from view when I spied the one that seemed to have been specifically made for my father—World’s Greatest Dad. 
After paying the proper coins, I scooped up the walnut-faced talisman and cradled it in my hands, as though I were holding a chalice; and I weaved my way back to my father.  “Dad, I got something for you,” I beamed. 
He stared into my outstretched hands and merely said, “Don’t spend your money like that.”   I didn’t know what he meant then, that he would rather I spend it on me.  Still, I was crestfallen.  Deflated.  I saw that he was genuinely disappointed, which made no sense to me.  I expected him to lose his breath, gather me up in a firm embrace, and we’d have one of those Lifesaver father-son moments we’d always remember.  Instead, he may as well have slapped the craft out of my tiny hands. 
But then his carriage changed, perhaps sensing my devastation.  He picked up the walnut man and began to study it, even remarking that he thought it looked a little like him.  He said it was a treasure.  I knew what he was doing, but I didn’t mind.  I wanted so badly for him to like it and to see that I was making a public, proud gesture about how I saw him.       
More often than not, what Paul asks in his letter to the Corinthians goes completely against our instincts, our own desires to feed our own selfishness.  Obviously, that is why Paul must make a direct plea to that point.  Even the most righteous must be reminded.  Even my dad had to remind himself.  And at the moment when he saw the crushed spirits of his boy, he endeavored to make it right. 
Over the next several years, I’d run into the little walnut man from time to time.  He was always there, but I hadn’t consciously focused in on him.  He had blended into the background, as would an old dime store lithograph or a yellowing bouquet of silk flowers.  But he was there.  My father saw to it.  I’d turn a corner and see the little statue on a shelf or on the back of a side table or on some ledge.  Because it was once important to me, it became all important to my dad to return my gesture with a small symbol of pride in what we meant to each other.   Across moves and room rearrangements, he lived quite a long life, that little guy; until only in recollection once I had become a man did I discover that he was actually gone. 
As none of us dads would, my father didn’t actually believe he was the “world’s greatest dad.”  But I did.  And so by just shutting up and accepting a little gift from me, he was allowing me to celebrate what he meant to me.  In his taking, he was giving.  Giving me the consideration I was hungering for.  Giving me everything I needed.   Living just for me.

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