Saturday, February 13, 2010

Unwrapping History

I woke up this morning to an e-mail from my sister, asking me to call her when I woke up, because she had a question for me. It turned out that she was trying to get some family chronology straight. "Which birthday was it when Dad gave you Whitey? Were you four or five? Wasn't that the birthday in Michigan where you were so scared and hid and didn't want to open any of your presents?"

"Whitey wasn't a birthday present; I got him for Christmas. But I think the scary Michigan birthday was when I was five."

"Yeah, it must have been." The second wife was at that ill-fated party, and she and Dad hadn't met yet when I was four.

Whitey was the world's most wonderful teddy bear, made of pure white sheepskin (hence the name), huge and soft and comforting. Dad saw him in a shop window on Christmas Eve and bought him for me, first instructing the shopkeeper to put a bright red ribbon around his neck. Red was Dad's favorite color; mine,too. Whitey looked somewhat like the bear in the picture above, but bigger and better made. He had tan suede "pads" on his paws, and bright glass eyes, and his arms and legs moved.

Dad and his wife always had a huge party on Christmas Eve. The apartment filled with friends and family, and we spent hours -- or so it seemed to a child anxious to open presents -- at a fancy dinner we'dspent days preparing (I was put in charge of making place-cards), and at last it came time to distribute the mounds of packages under the tree. Almost as soon as she met me, my stepmother hit on an annual Christmas gift of a huge box of books for me, Dell YA paperbacks I'd devour over the coming weeks. She was generally in charge of buying gifts; Dad usually only got gifts for her, expensive boots or purses, which was one of the things that made Whitey special. Dad had gotten Whitey for me himself.

Whitey was special anyway, though. All the women at the party passed him around and hugged him, telling me they wanted to steal him. Around midnight, Dad put my sister and me into a cab to send us to New Jersey, where our mom lived (and where we lived with her most of the time, and went to school). She always waited up for us in her much smaller apartment. We'd come in to find the Yule log on the TV and our stuffed stockings casting tempting shadows in candlelight. Every year, we told my mother about our New York Christmas and then went to bed, waking up early to tackle the stockings and the wrapped gifts under Mom's small tree.

New York Christmas was fancier and shinier than New Jersey Christmas, but New Jersey Christmas was homier, cozier and safer. New York had squawking parakeets and increasingly loud and drunken festivities; New Jersey had purring cats and the muted, elegant brass of the Yule log carols.

The Whitey Christmas, all I could talk about was Whitey. Mom loved him as much as everybody in New York had, and I happily carried him off to bed with me and slept with my head cuddled against his right ear. I slept that way for years. Whitey's ear finally fell off, and at some point -- junior high? college? -- his head came off too, and he more or less disintegrated. I couldn't stand to throw him away, so I put his parts in a garbage bag and stowed him in my closet.

By the time Whitey fell apart, things in New York were also in a shambles. The era of large, loud parties was over. Dad was in horrible health and horrible debt, and had increasingly trouble getting and keeping legal work. In the years since Whitey, gifts from New York had grown more and more secondhand. They were always useful -- one year I got a very good typing chair that had been in the New York home office for years -- but Dad loved to crow about how he'd gotten them for nothing or for a real bargain, and since my mother was struggling to keep herself and her two daughters afloat on no child support, and my father occasionally went out and bought something like, oh, a large sailboat, the situation grated.

When I graduated from college, Dad sent me a gold chain, wrapped in Kleenex, he'd gotten from a pawn shop. One birthday much more recently, he sent me a small lamp he said he'd found in a thrift store, but which turned out to be an old lamp of Fran's. (She was happy I had it, and I love it; it's illuminating my study even as we speak.)

All of this was good stuff, useful stuff, thoughtful stuff. But I kept remembering Whitey, and wistfully wishing for something new, something no one else had ever owned, that Dad had picked out just for me. I knew he'd picked out the used stuff just for me, and he bought used stuff for himself, too: even his two sailboats -- owned consecutively, not at the same time -- were used, which explained why he could afford them and also why he then spent almost all of his time and money trying, often with extremely limited results, to get them into full working order.

Two or three summers ago, he came out for the visit that convinced him to move here. During that visit, as we listened to the radio in my very low-tech car, I casually mentioned that Gary and I were looking forward to having a CD player someday, in our next car.

Dad, who loved music, decided we should have one right away. We went to an electronics store and picked out a new radio and CD player for my car. The unit was pretty pricy in the first place, and the installation wound up being even more expensive, because we had to get a new faceplate for the unit, which involved more labor charges for the installation, yada yada. Since Dad by then was on very limited Social Security income, I kept asking if he wanted us to pay for it, or at least pay for half of it, but he brushed the idea aside. He had some money saved, and this was something we wanted and would use, and he wanted to get it for us.

I listen to that radio every day. When Dad was here, he listened to it too. My car's disintegrating around it now; one of the reasons I'm reluctant to replace the car is that I'd have to dispose of Dad's gift along with it.

When Dad was dying, I asked him if he remembered Whitey. He did, vaguely, although he couldn't tell me much about what he was thinking when he bought the bear: just that it was a nice toy and that I'd like it. He seemed happy that it had meant so much to me, though.

I'm not sure why all of this is coming up now, aside from my sister's question, or why I'm taking the time to type it all here. I guess Whitey and the car radio open up some of my best memories of my father, and I want to honor them. My sister and I are both in a newly intense period of rethinking our family history, and this is the piece I thought about today.


  1. That's a lovely story, Susan! I remember my best and favorite stuffed animals and gifts too, from parents and grandparents who fortunately stayed together.

    Maybe it's coming up because today is Valentine's Day. Have a happy one! Or perhaps it's in response to the recent loss of your step mom. Perhaps when we lose difficult people we want to think of better times and joys.

    I love this image of your family's method of collecting good things for not so much and how thoughtful their purchases were, representing love. It's a great example of how to put a time line in a story without detracting from any of the events too. Do you show this to your students?


  2. Anonymous5:05 AM

    Your lovely post brings up my own Dad memories. When I was 6 and just before we moved from Tacoma to Yerington, my folks let me pick out a stuffed animal at the local Pay -n- Save. I picked a pink and white, teddy bear-style cat that I hung onto for years. The special part part was that when the plastic nose eventually came off, my dad cut a little nose out of black electrician's tape and stuck it on. And every year or so after that until I moved away for college, whenever the tape nose had to be replaced, my dad did the job, despite the fact that I could have done it myself. Special dad-noses. I remeber.

  3. There are doll and teddy bear hospitals, if you've still got Whitey and all (or most) of his parts. It might be worth it to give an old friend a new lease on life!

  4. Anonymous11:04 AM

    It's possible to have the car stereo your Dad gave you removed and put in your next car, if you want. Any place that does car stereo installations should be able to do it for you. Let the car dealer worry about replacing the one in your current car, when the time comes.

    Jeff P.


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