Not every present has to be new; it just has to have love and a special meaning attached to it.
Every year, as the temperature starts to drop and the leaves turn brassy gold, an old memory comes back to me. It dates back to my early childhood in Michigan, specifically the fall of 1957. The air was crisp and filled with the smell of pine burning in fireplaces and nutmeg. Leaves from the six oak trees that bordered our yard had already fallen and the squirrels had harvested all the acorns their little nests could hold. Winter was fast approaching –“softly,” as my grandmother would say, “like the whisper of little duck feet paddling through the grass on their way to water.” Dad was out in the garage putting the finishing touches on the converted house trailer that held the 22 foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser he had built.
“Son,” he called out, “come on, we’re going shopping. Get in the car.” To go shopping with my Dad was a big deal for me. I piled into his pink (yes I said pink) 56 Buick convertible and threw my arm up on the windowsill that, at nine years old, came just about level to the base of my earlobe. An awkward position I had put myself in, but it was semi-warm, Dad had the top down, and I looked cool.
Off we went until about ten miles later we stopped in our first antique store. “I’m looking for a special something for your mother for Christmas,” he said turning to me, “so you have to keep this trip a secret.” I swore I would, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what my mother would want from a store that sold old junk. Never mind, I was with my Dad. Three hours and four antique stores later, I was less enthused. I was tired and bored out of my nine-year old skull. I hadn’t learned the art of antique buying, nor for that matter – patience. Besides, there were toys I couldn’t play with, tools I couldn’t touch and God forbid if I stepped too close to a shelf full of antique cut glass. Dad however was in seventh heaven.
As I stood looking at a set of WWI medals and Meerschaum pipes sitting in a glass case, I heard Dad say, “That’s it!” As I turned, he was reaching for an old dingy, dirty and bent brass ships bell sitting on the floor this old store. Holding it in his hands, caressing it as if he were gazing upon the Holy Grail, he headed towards the counter where an old grey haired man and his wife sat; she crocheting while humming to herself and him, watching me out of the corner of his eye.
“How much for this old dirty bell,” my Dad asked. “$15” the old man said without hesitation. Remember – in 1957, you were “well off” if you made $5200.00 a year. $15.00 was a lot of money and a weeks worth of groceries. Dad put the bell down on the counter quickly stepping back as if it burned him. “It’s not made of gold is it?” he asked. The old man smiled but didn’t waver. “Here’s what I’ll do” Dad said, I’ll give you $7.00 for it.” The old man shook his head no. “Make it $10.00 and you have a deal,” he grunted. Dad shook his head and handed the bell to me. “Here son, go put this back. We’ll have to find something else for your mother for Christmas this year.” Then turning back to the old man he said, “Sorry old timer, all I have is $8.00 to spend and I still have to buy my boy dinner after we leave here.” Dad hung his head and motioned for me to hurry along. “Ok,” the old man said, “You can have it for $8.00 but you’re killing me.” His eyes were smiling as he and Dad shook hands. By this time, that old bell was getting heavy. “OK boy, carry it to the car,” Dad said as he paid the man. On the drive back, Dad pointed out that what he had done was called the art of negotiating. That was the first time I had ever heard that term. “We made of great deal,” he said as he carried a Cheshire cat grin with him all the way home.
Christmas day that year brought snow – lots of it. Early morning, after my brother and I opened our presents and Dad opened his striped tie we got him, Mom started to busy herself with cleaning up the discarded wrappings. Dad left the room and came back with all of our coats and scarfs, announcing, “I’ve got one more present but it’s outside.” Bundled up like refugees from a Siberian mining camp, we all traipsed outside, where Dad led us to the garage. He told my mother to close her eyes. As she did, he opened the garage door hiding the boat. There on the stern of his newly built boat just above the dark blue fiberglass waterline were the words “The Shirl J” in gold letters with a red outline. My mother’s name is Shirley. He had never told her what he was naming the boat. There was also a ladder leading up into the interior. After Mom hugged my Dad, with tears in her eyes, he led her to the ladder. She climbed up into the boat and there – just past the spot where the flying bridge windshield would eventually go, sat the newly polished – newly restored brass bell with the words “The Shirl J – 1957” engraved on the bell skirt. They kissed so long this time, we kids were told to go back into the house.
I learned two things that Christmas. The first was that not every present has to be brand new; it just has to have love and a special meaning attached to it. Secondly, antiques – like found treasures, are great for conveying that special meaning.