A comical story of a son trying to reach his emotionally distant father
|Oil and vinegar – when combined and lathered on a piece of bread, they make a delicious treat. But no matter how much you mix them up, they still remain separate entities. Their resolve is absolute. Even when the oil is forced to devolve into hundreds of tiny purple globs, it keeps its identity independent of its long time rival: vinegar.|
If I was oil, my father was most definitely my vinegar. We have never seen eye to eye. In fact, we’ve never really seen eye to anything. The last time I can remember agreeing with him on something was the day an ice cream truck careened out of control, running over our family dog, Daisy.
“That’s a damn shame,” he had said.
“Yup,” I agreed.
In fact, other than a few scraps over ‘appropriate Christmas gifts,’ those two short, bland sentences are the most we had exchanged in many years. This had never really bothered me until last month.
You see, I just turned 25. Anyone who’s reached this age knows what comes with it. At some point during the day, when you’re all alone, you come to the realization that you are, in fact, a quarter of a century old. It might happen when you’re laying in bed, getting dressed, taking a shower or sitting on the toilet.
“My God,” you think. “I’m the same age as the actors that play high school kids on television!” Then a deeper realization sets in – you’re not immortal, and you aren’t going to be young forever.
I’d like to take a moment here to clarify that I don’t consider myself a conceited or shallow person. Though I don’t suppose I’d be a suitable judge. Sure, I think of myself before others, but if I don’t watch out for number one, who’s going to do it for me?
Back to my story – I had just come to the realization that I was getting (gasp) older. The world was no longer mine to grab by the unmentionables and stuff down into my pocket.
Things started snapping into place in my head that had never quite fit before. It had been important to pay attention in school! My credit score did matter! My body needed more upkeep now than it had when I was 18. (In fact, the plump layer of encumbrance about my waist had, until that very moment, somehow evaded my detection.) The road was not a race track! So this was why car insurance suddenly drops when you hit 25!
The more that ideas, values and morals took hold in my head, the more I realized one key ingredient that had been missing through my whole life: An idea that was of utmost importance when understanding my father. My father was a person, just like me. He wasn’t a god, or a devil, he was just a man trying to make it in the world. A man just like me.
I wanted to pick up the phone and call him right then. I wanted to say, “Dad, I get it. I love you.” Unfortunately, years of repressed anger and a mutual resentment had left me unable to express such sentiments. And besides, what would those words really mean to him? Sure, what I had worked over in my head for the last 30 minutes boiled down to those two concise sentences, but how was I supposed to go through all that with him? As it was, I could barely get two words out.
What I needed was a peace offering; something to bridge the gap. I needed something that showed him I knew him, really knew him. Too bad I hadn’t been paying attention for the past 12 years.
This was going to require some hard core espionage. The target: my surprisingly sly and cunning mother.
“You want to know what?” asked my mother.
From the background sounds, I could tell that she was working in the garden. The concept of the cell phone was still fairly new to her. She was still apt to shout into the receiver or talk at the same time as the party on the other end. While speaking with her was an exercise in patience, it also reminded me of how foreign a cell phone had seemed to me at first, and the countless calls it took me to get accustomed to the awkward delay between speaking and receiving.
“I need to know what Dad loves. You know,” I searched for a way to explain the depth of the present I was looking for. “Something that really makes him happy.”
“We must be talking about different people. Your father hasn’t smiled in 34 years.”
This was a lie. My father routinely smiled, and even laughed when listening to Rush Limbaugh. I had caught him smiling several times at Thanksgiving. Once was directly after my uncle had gagged on a piece of the stuffing my grandmother had cooked.
I use the term ‘cooked’ loosely. Grandma didn’t have the best eyesight anymore, so eating her meals was akin to walking through a mine field. I had personally found one penny, two dimes, a tic tac and an earring in her cooking in the span of 5 meals.
“Come on, Mom. I want to bury the hatchet with dad, and I need something that suits an interest of his – hopefully a personal interest that will, you know, make it look like I care. I mean, I do care. It’s just that I didn’t, and now I have this…”
“Travis, please! The less I know about what goes on between you and your father, the better. You think I work in the garden because I like to?”
“Well, mom… yeah. I guess so. But what does that have to do with anything?”
“No woman enjoys working in a garden, “she continued. “You get down on your hands and knees in the dirt and you toil. Do you know what it means, to toil?”
I waited for a moment before I answered. “To… work… hard?”
“Close enough. My point is, us women use the garden as an escape from our husbands and children. It’s an age old tradition passed down…”
“Mom? Mom!” I had had enough. “Look, I appreciate the history lesson of secret feminism… Wait a minute - if you want an escape, why do you take your cell phone?”
She paused and let out a little sigh. “Fine, Travis. What your father loves more than biscuits and gravy,” a phrase that had always confused me, “is poker. He plays once a week with his gambling buddies. Now that you have his Achilles’ heel, I need to go. I just came across a serpent of some sort, and I need to look up if it’s poisonous before I try to remove it.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear just in time to avoid the deafening ‘clap’ as my mother slapped the phone closed.
My father’s birthday happened several weeks after mine. I had some time, but not much. After a few trips to some local stores, I had come up with a pack of nude playing cards and a cigar. Gambling with anything other than candy while playing Go Fish was beyond me. In my desperation, I turned to the one thing that had been a constant in my life: the internet.
I looked up a few shops online, but nothing caught my eye. I even read up on the sport and addictive qualities at ngb.org.za. Eventually, I came across the site http://www.dead-money.biz. After seeing a couple shirts reading, “Big Slick,” and, “Chip Magnet,” I knew I had come to the right place. Upon further investigation, I found the perfect gift: A collector’s edition full 500 piece chip set and customized card deck complete with plexi-glass suitcase. It was beautiful.
A week later, the case arrived. I took a few moments to revel in my own thoughtfulness. I was just a few days away from finally breaking not the ice, but the glacier, standing between my father and myself.
Now, my father had never been big on birthday parties. We had tried in the past to throw him surprise dinners with friends of the family, which he had somehow managed to avoid, leaving us sitting around watching the food get cold. His idea of the perfect birthday evening includes dinner in front of the television followed by a cigar in the back yard.
I loaded up my car with the Trojan horse birthday present and started my trip over to my parents’ house. My head was full of happy notions. I was ready for the relationship with my father that I had never had – the one you see on television and in magazines.
As I drove over I thought about how I had longed to call my father and strike up a conversation out of the blue. I thought about how much I wanted to go to a baseball game with him, or share a beer at the old fishing hole.
Did I really just think that? I had no idea what a fishing hole was. My best guess was something along the lines of a well filled with fish. Even if I did know what a fishing hole was, I wouldn’t have the first idea of where to look for one.
As I was pondering the idea of a hole people fished in, my parents’ house came into view, and my mind snapped back to the task at hand.
I found my parents where they usually were at this time of day. My mother was in the kitchen and my father was plopped down in front of the television. When he saw me, he stood up to half heartedly shake my hand. He never saw it coming. I put down his giant gift and trapped him in my arms.
“Happy Birthday, Dad.” I gave him an extra squeeze.
Shaken, my father coughed and slid away from my grasp, sitting back down on the sofa. I sat down beside him.
“So, what are you watching, Dad?”
He gave me a quizzical look and answered, “They got some celebrities playin’ poker.” His attention returned to the television.
“Oh, yeah. Well, I know you love poker. Right, Dad?”
I wondered if he thought the next few minutes of silence were as awkward as I did. Thankfully, my mother interrupted the snappy one liners of the TV personality with a hearty, “Dinner’s ready!”
Dinner itself was rather uneventful. As my father was standing to retire back to the couch, I coughed up some food and said, in a breaking voice, “Wait! You have to open your present!”
I ran to his gift and brought it before him as he grumpily sat back down. A shiver shot up my spine as he unwrapped the gift.
Oh great, it opened upside down. Seconds seemed to drag like days, no years! Hurry up and turn the damned thing over, old man! Oh, how much more of this would I have to endure?
After what had seemed to be at least two years, my father turned over the poker chips set. I checked my face, certain I had grown a beard. I watched my father’s eyes slowly move across the presentation case. It was opened and examined. No word yet as to whether this was an acceptable present.
Even my mother seemed a bit on edge. I could tell she was twisting her napkin back and forth in her lap. Her unblinking eyes were fixed on my father’s face.
“Well I’ll be damned,” my father said. A smile slowly crept its way up the left side of his face. “The boys are sure going to get a kick out of this.”
My mother and I exchanged a quick look of relief and building excitement. I looked back to my father who was beginning to chuckle. “It says dead money. You know, that used to be my nick name in the marines.”
“Really? I never really heard much about your time in the service, Dad.”
“Well, it was a tough time. I felt like I was adrift and without a course in life...”
I pulled my seat closer to my father as he told me about his life as a young man. My mother sighed and got up to clear the table. As she passed me, she patted my shoulder.
The night drew on. My father and I talked late into the night. I couldn’t remember ever actually laughing with him before. How had I missed out on this?
My father and I never did make it to a fishing hole, and I only joined him at one of his poker nights. We still butt heads from time to time. But the oil and vinegar have finally ended their feud.