I have a collection of books I received on Christmas nights through the years. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins, Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham’s Dove, and more. Of course, Christmas morning was filled with the normal toys, candy, clothes, sporting goods, one year a bike, a guitar another, a whirlybird which my Uncles commandeered for the day, and many more memorable gifts. Honest to God, we were very lucky; it was an awesome childhood.
But the books have a different history. While Mom and Dad collaborated in many things, like in most families my mother was Santa when it came to shopping, wrapping, hiding, and organizing the gifts. She went to great lengths to make sure she spent exactly the same amount on each of us. And while I really don’t think we were spoiled, mostly because our parents made sure we appreciated everything, I also don’t remember ever thinking there was something I was expecting but didn’t get; that is, I was never disappointed. Yes, Mom did well. On Christmas morning as we unwrapped our presents, we’d make sure to say, “Wow, thanks Mom!” even on gifts we saw coming. By the end of the morning, though, we’d make sure to also throw in “and Dad” to the thanks, but he didn’t mind when we didn’t, ever.
And like in most families we drifted into that quiet period after opening gifts when we were engaged in our new items, and Mom was getting breakfast ready as well as dinner for the company which inevitably filled the house. Dad would read the paper, and Christmas, which really started when we returned home from Midnight Mass, would do its magic.
But later in the day after everything settled down, Dad would emerge from some quiet place and have a stack of gifts for us, chosen, purchased, and wrapped by him alone.
Books. It was amazing how he seemed to know exactly which ones to choose, and I don’t remember him ever asking what we were interested in. He just observed and took it from there. He’d hand us each a book he had signed inside with a “Merry Christmas, Love, Dad” and the year. I don’t remember when the tradition started but it had to have been early since one that I received was The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone, which is the kids’ version of Dove. I wasn’t yet a teen.
As the years went by we came to anticipate the books earlier in the day, though he usually held out. There were some exceptions; like one year when he gave us each money. I bought Illusions by Richard Bach and asked Dad to sign “Merry Christmas, Love, Dad” in the book anyway. Another year he replaced the books with Broadway tickets to see Katherine Hepburn in “West Side Waltz.”
It became my favorite part of the day. It wasn’t just the books, though. While I cherish the memories of Christmas evenings on the couch or stretched out on the floor with our books, it was also a specific moment I got to share with my father and keep up on a shelf .
I have kept the tradition going since my son was born. Winnie the Pooh, Curious George, Hamlet, anything by Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, or Thor Heyerdahl, and more fill his shelves. We really do formulate our lives based upon what we’re exposed to growing up. Michael has the kindness of Pooh, the curiosity of George, Schultz’s sense of humor, and Heyerdahl’s sense of adventure. Go figure.
I try and wait until the end of the day, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Now I understand that Dad didn’t just give us books; he gave us his sense of understanding, of knowing, of remembering and anticipating. When I look at the books Dad gave me, they absolutely anticipate my life—music, adventure, the sea. What did he think was going to happen with a list like that? Actually, probably exactly what did happen.
As the years moved on and we all moved out, we started giving him books; he absolutely loved reading. We had to coordinate sometimes so we didn’t get him the same one, and I don’t think we ever did. He received volumes about Brooklyn, about baseball and golf, about history—one of his passions. The last book I bought him was a first edition copy of John Grisham’s first book, A Time to Kill. He loved Grisham’s work. That book is on my shelf now alongside the books he gave me.
I thought the book exchange between Dad and me would end, but they have not. I can’t give him books anymore, so I write them. When I started working on a book about Michael and me training across Siberia, I knew it was going to be framed as a series of letters to Dad from me about our trip. Several pieces have already been published but I have a long way to go. I want to get it right. I want it to be a book he would have bought for me, signed, wrapped, and given to me late in the day, just when I thought I was getting tired, when his gift would wake me up and send me on some adventure well into the night.
Merry Christmas Dad, Love, Robert