I’m a married kid in my early twenties. Christmas is coming like a freight train and I’m scrambling to think of a present I could get for my father-in-law. In my mind, he’s 60-something, but if I do the math, he’s only 49. What does a wet-behind-the-ears son-in-law get the old guy for Christmas?
Buying gifts for the adult that now holds responsibility for his daughter over your head is hard. If he was a toddler, I’d get him a tub toy. But he’s an Accountant. He likes order. Things that are practical and useful. He was also born in 1930, which means that he can pinch a copper Lincoln until it cries for mercy. So, nothing extravagant.
I don’t have the resources for extravagant, anyway.
So, I’m looking through the JC Penny catalogue.
“Honey? What do you think I should get your dad for Christmas?”
She is dumbfounded. “You think I know what he wants?”
“You spent most of your life under his roof.” I’m trying logic. “I just met the man a few years ago.”
“He collects Civil War stuff. Why don’t you get him something to go with that?”
“I don’t see Stonewall Jackson in the JC Penny catalogue.”
You see, grown kids don’t have a clue what their parents want for Christmas. Once you go away from home, you’re not around to hear them say something like, “Boy, I would really like one of those.”
I try different approach.
“What kind of stuff did you get him for Christmas?”
“Socks,” she shouts from the kitchen.
“Socks?” I roll my eyes. “That’s what I used to buy for Bigdaddy, and he’s like 80-something. I don’t want to make your dad think that I think he’s got one foot in the grave.”
“How ‘bout a pair of house slippers? He wears the kind that look like loafers but have all the fuzzy stuff on the inside.”
“What size does he wear?”
“I’d have to ask Mama.”
“Does he like corduroy or leather?”
“Never mind. The leather ones on page 143 are too rich for our blood.”
This debate goes on for days at our house. I thumb through every page of the JC Penny and the Sears and Roebuck catalogues. I walk around the Kmart in Johnson City long enough to visit the men’s room three times and still leave empty handed.
I’ll tell you why old folks are so hard to buy for. They are just old enough to finally have a little bit of money on the side, and when they want something or need something, they buy it. They suck the Christmas gift well dry long before Christmas ever gets here.
Beth said it about my parents, and I said about hers. What do you buy for somebody who doesn’t really need anything?
I’m down in the cellar of our house a couple of weeks before Christmas. The old house is heated by a coal fired furnace. The furnace door is open and I’m pitching in a few shovels full of coal to feed the beast. In the glow of the fire, I’m mumbling to myself about what to buy for the father of my wife.
You’d have to know Pop to appreciate this. He was serious as a heart attack most of the time, but he had a sarcastic streak of humor that showed up fairly regularly. He liked to poke fun, as they say. The hard part was learning to tell the difference between when he was serious and when he was joking.
His long-standing poke at me was simply for being the son-in-law. I took his little girl. Beth’s mom adored me. I was working my way into the family. He would remind me that I was walking a thin line in his house.
“Around here, I’m the king,” he’d say.
Beth and her sisters would vouch for that.
But when the time was right, I’d take a poke at him. Nothing risky. Just trying to catch him off his game. He’d point his finger at me and poke right back.
“Look here, boy,” he’d say. “Don’t mess with me. It’s not all that unusual for a son-in-law to disappear in the Alabama River. You got that?”
He’d stare me down for a few seconds, but finally the corners of his mouth would turn up and he’d sit back in his recliner satisfied with himself.
“You mess with me, and you’ll get a lump of coal for Christmas.”
So, here’s where being down in the cellar feeding the coal furnace gave me an idea for the perfect Christmas gift.
“You’re not going to do that.” Beth is earnestly protesting.
“I am, too.”
“No. What if he thinks you’re serious?”
“Well, I guess you can call the rescue squad to drag the river for my body.”
There was snow on the ground in Tennessee when we headed to Selma for Christmas. We pulled up into the side yard at the house. We toted in bags and presents. Beth’s mama gave me a big red lipstick kiss on the cheek and tried to wipe it off with her thumb.
After supper that night, we sat down to open presents. Pop was in a good mood.
“I hope y’all got me exactly what I want for Christmas,” he said.
I poked first. “That depends on whether you’ve been naughty or nice.”
He pointed and gave me the look.
We’re all gathered around the living room. The tree by the front window. Pop is pulling presents and reading off the names. The floor is beginning to fill up with boxes and shredded wrapping paper.
He picks up my gift. I didn’t put my name on it for reasons of plausible deniability.
“This one feels funny. It rattles an awful lot.” He studies it and makes a face. I’m thinking this could go really well. Or not.
The first thing out of the box is a bundle of switches. Just some sticks I had gathered up out of the yard. Beth jabbed an elbow in my ribs.
A harsh whisper. “I didn’t know you were going to do that!”
“Alright! Who’s the wise cracker?”
He’s looking around the room. Beth is pointing at me. I’m doing my best ‘not me’ impression.
“Boy!” He’s pointing right at me. He always pointed when he talked.
I’m trying to keep it together. “There’s more Pop. The sticks were just a joke.”
He digs a little deeper. He looks in his hand while it’s still below the lid of the box. His head drops, and slowly a big old grin takes over his face. He raises up a lump of coal in his hand where everyone can see it. There is hissing. Cackling. More finger pointing.
Beth is posturing. “I tried to tell him not to do it, Daddy.”
After things settled a bit, I spoke. “Pop, there’s one more in there.”
“It better not be another lump of coal.”
He pulled out a folding pocketknife. Old Timer. Bone handle.
“How’d you know?” he asked.
I didn’t know.
“I lost mine a few days ago. This is just what I needed.”