life with father

“Do you want a radio? How about a posthole digger? A watch? I got lots of watches.”

Visiting my dad is like going to a garage sale 10 minutes before it ends—you know, that moment when the seller realizes she isn’t going get $35 for her Beanie Baby collection and takes your lowest offer just so she won’t have to drag them back into the house. Only with my dad, you don’t even have to make an offer.

My husband and I usually politely decline. We don’t have any use for a transistor radio (does anyone anymore?), although the posthole digger was a yes. And I’d said no to the watches numerous times…that is until I actually got a glimpse at one.

“Hey, that’s MY watch,” I said.

There it was… the Winnie the Pooh watch I’d received as a birthday gift when I was in grade school. The Winnie the Pooh watch that had disappeared within weeks of my ripping off the wrapping paper and opening the box.

I say it “disappeared” rather than I lost it because I knew my dad had taken it—just as he had taken various toys, books, pairs of shoes and other odds and ends I had not “put away.”

Putting things away is a big deal for my dad. He believes there is a place for everything and that things have no business not being in their place. He believes this so fervently that his response to finding something out of place is to throw it away. Growing up, there were countless times I walked by the living room or bathroom trashcan and found a pair of my shoes sticking out.  I had carelessly kicked them off and walked away, my dad had found them and, because they didn’t belong by the TV or next to the tub, had thrown them away. More often than not I discovered the shoes (or watch or book) before it went curbside and sheepishly retrieved it. However there were plenty of occasions when after frantically searching for an hour or more I gave up assuming my father had thrown away whatever it was I was looking for. I’m sure this is why he assigned me the take-out-the-trash chore—figuring I’d see the item and rescue it before the garbage truck took it away forever. If so, he grossly misjudged the observational powers of a prepubescent girl.

My father used some unconventional methods to teach life lessons.

The funny thing is my dad always seemed puzzled when my mom told him she was taking me shoe shopping again or when I’d request a new watch for Christmas.

“Didn’t you just get a watch?” he’d ask grumpily.

I knew better than to say I couldn’t find it, so I’d mumble something incoherent or completely change the subject. My dad is easily distracted by food, so a “is that the ice cream truck bell?” usually did the trick.

Now, looking at that long-missing Winnie the Pooh watch, I knew exactly what had happened. I’d taken it off to take a shower (being responsible) and set it on the back of the sink or toilet. I had left the bathroom without it (not responsible) and my dad had snapped it up.

He meant no harm. A child of the Depression, he had learned to value what was given to him. He knew he could provide my brother and me with more than he ever dreamed of as a child. He didn’t want us to take that for granted; he wanted to teach us to appreciate what we had.

It was an important and valuable lesson. But mostly it just taught me to be terribly neurotic about my possessions.

But seeing that watch in his hand after all these years, it dawned on me that maybe he didn’t throw everything away. That maybe those shoes in the trashcan were just there for show. My dad is a very frugal man. Case in point: when buying me a new flute, he asked how much he’d get in trade for the old one. When told it was completely useless, he started a rant like an deranged auctioneer, “How about $10? No? No?! Well then $5, come on, $5, you can use it for parts. 50 cents? I’ll take 50 cents.” (Please, parents, never attempt this when your teenage daughter is standing next to you.) And when he couldn’t get even one cent for it he turned the “completely useless” flute into a lamp. Guess who had the last laugh there, Volkwein’s Music?

So with that in mind, why would he throw away anything he (or someone else) had paid good money for? Even to prove a point, that notion is the total antithesis of my dad. Could it be that he retrieved the items from the trash before the garbage truck arrived, and then he held onto them in hopes that I would admit I’d been irresponsible? That all I had to do was own up to my carelessness and I would have gotten everything back with no more than a stern look or a short lecture about valuing what you are blessed to have?

This morning, as I strapped on the Winnie the Pooh watch, I wondered if one day, when my dad is gone, I will find a dusty box in the back of his closet containing a treasure trove of everything I had ever lost as a child.

As cool as that would be, I realize that when that time comes I will have lost something more important than anything you could ever buy.

See, Dad, some lessons I did learn.