Saturday, June 18, 2011

On Father's Day: It was 30 years ago today...

Up until my twentieth year, I let my mom do the heavy lifting when it came to giving gifts.  She would decide on an appropriate gift, buy the gift, purchase the accompanying card and hand them to me to wrap and sign.  She was, and is, a master at shopping.  Who was I to stand in the way of genius, especially as it was zooming to the mall?

One spring day in 1981, I was at the mall myself.  While at Waldenbooks, in the "Movies, Music & TV" section (looking at movie books), I saw a biography of Hank Williams called Your Cheatin' Heart by Chet Flippo.  I recognized Flippo's name from Rolling Stone magazine, to which I had been a faithful subscriber since high school.  I had always read Chet Flippo's articles, with interest, since he was slowly but persistently introducing country music into the usual rock/pop coverage.  Of course I recognized Hank Williams' name because country music reigned supreme with both my parents.

I wanted to buy the book because of Chet Flippo, but I didn't necessarily want to read about Hank Williams.  Plus, this was a hardcover book, which would eat up most of a ten dollar bill.  Then it hit me:  Mother's Day had just passed.  That meant that Father's Day was coming up soon.  I would get this book for my father, and we could both read it and discuss it!

Giddy with bookworm glee, I cast my mind into the near future, and imagined the beginnings of a father/daughter book group in which we sat in front of the fireplace and render earnest and insightful pronouncements about what we'd read together.  My father would wear his tweed sweater with the leather patches on the elbows and smoke his pipe.  The flickering fire would cast shadows on my face, making it look deep and intellectual.  Never mind that our military base housing didn't have a fireplace, my father favored western shirts with snap buttons, he was a cigarette kind of guy and Hollywood itself  would have struggled to make me look even remotely bright.  Never mind all of that.  This book contained possibilities.  I headed for the cash register.

A couple of weeks later, my mom told me what gifts she was going to buy for my father which would be from my brother and me.  "I've got it covered," I told her.  "Oh?" she said.  I showed her the book. "Oh...OK.  Don't forget the card."  I got a little snooty.  "Actually, I've got that covered as well."  I didn't.  I had forgotten the card.  Oh well, back to the mall.  No biggie.

I have a little confession here:  I got terribly impatient for Father's Day to arrive and started reading Your Cheatin' Heart.  I was being very careful to read in my room with the door closed and wash my hands before handling the book.  He'd never suspect it was a used book.  My rationalization was that as soon as Dad finished the book, we could get the discussion underway immediately.  I didn't really like how Flippo had fictionalized it up a bit, presuming that he knew Hank's thoughts, but he'd done his research well.  I never knew about Williams' substance problems stemmed chiefly from his lifelong struggle with pain from spina bifida.

Father's Day finally rolled around.  My father read the book.  Every evening I saw him reading a few pages.  Finally, he finished Your Cheatin' Heart, and we had kind of a non-conversation about it.  He seemed rather guarded and many of his sentences started like "Yeah, old Hank..." then he'd shake his head.  I talked about what I'd learned from the book.  Then  that was that.  I figured that I was some kind of insatiable freak, and there was no one in the world who wanted to babble on and on about books except me.  I'd never be completely happy, I supposed. 

A year went by and I was keeping an eye on the calendar, tenderly planning my next bookish gift for Dad.  Then my mom spoke up.  "Have you gotten your father his Father's Day gift yet?"

"No, not yet."

"Well, for God's sake, whatever you do, don't get him another book."

"Why not?  That was a good book.  It was about Hank Williams."

"I know!  He hated it.  He said that he'd rather be horsewhipped than have to sit and read another whole book.  Why don't you get him a western shirt?"

I got the shirt.  It was slightly too small, but he wore it anyway.  I never got him another book.  I was mortified that I had bombed with my present when I was so sure I had succeeded.  Then my mortification died down to a simmering resentment.  Why did my mom have to tell me that?  My father didn't really hate my book, did he?  Was my mother projecting her own dislike of receiving books for gifts?  Or did my father want that information passed along?

I'll never know, and it doesn't matter now.  What's important, I now realize, is that reader or not, he understood what forces were driving me.  He knew I was tickled to have found the 'perfect' gift and he was determined that I should savor that feeling in full.  On this Father's Day, I'd like thank my dad wherever he is.  Thanks for reading that book.


Nicole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicole said...

That's a great story. Thanks for posting. My dad is a non-reader (well, limited-reader) too. I imagine that's how it would have gone in our house.

When I was in 7th grade I did a book report on Your Cheatin' Heart (I don't think my mom knew what I was reading). It was one of those oral book reports where you had to "be" the person. I remember wearing a cowboy hat and playing "I Saw the Light" on my guitar and telling the class how Hank's mom used to stop hecklers with a roundhouse punch to the jaw. In retrospect, I was probably a weird kid.

Unruly Reader said...

What a beautiful dad story.

Carrie#K said...

My whole family is made up of bookworms so my Dad would have liked the book but probably not the reality of Hank's life!

I bet your Dad was tickled by the gift - if not the actually time spent reading it!

Father's Day was hard this year.