If it weren't for driving and golfing, I swear most of our fathers would never have received a Christmas gift.
For years, these were the only two themes advertisers used for men, with booze running a close third only because nobody could really advocate a six-year-old giving her dad a case of Bud.
We would buy my dad holiday gift sets of English Leather or Hai Karate because the ads showed exotic men wearing these scents golfing, driving convertibles and being irresistible to women. The fact my father was a non-golfing German who drove a station wagon and wore Wild Root was lost on us. I'd have to check with my late mother about the irresistible part, but it must have been true at some point.
My father didn't golf, he didn't boat, he didn't smoke. He would dutifully switch out his key ring only when he got a new car, to proudly display the current AMC logo. The key rings we would buy him would end up marking the shed key, our bike keys or the spare house key. I think the only other one he ever used was one with his name on it, a gift from one of the grandkids. I used it as my own after he died 16 years ago, until it broke last year. I tucked the pieces in my drawer, and replaced it with the skeleton key to our original side door – the door to the garage.
I'm sure when we were kids, buying endless years of car-themed gifts made sense. We only saw my dad go to work, the cottage, dig in the garden, and drive. When a man's hobby is buying weird-looking medieval tools at flea markets, it stumps the children in his life pausing over Christmas ads for cashmere sweaters and fancy watches. So cars it was.
The problem of course, is that you can only own so many jumper cables, so many snow shovels. My mom would renew the auto club membership every year and dad's National Geographic subscription, which were really the perfect presents for him, but boring. We would buy him tool kits and chamois and tire protector, and he would thank us as profusely as he was able, and sit in his chair and read his National Geographic.
A casual remark about Armor All one summer would lead to bottles of the stuff under the tree come Christmas. Stumbling upon his stash the following summer, I'd ask if he didn't like it. On the contrary: he loved it, and was saving it. A childhood shaped by hard need would never truly be altered by later abundance.
A game show used to offer a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax as a prize; upon clearing the garage after my father's death, I now know that for many people, a lifetime supply is five tins. It could never have been considered a grand gesture of a prize if given to someone raised to waste nothing. I remember buying him a bag of shop cloths one year. I got The Look, because you don't buy rags, you make rags.
Steering wheel covers, buffers, washing mitts, creams. I should have just gotten dad a chit for an oil change, but I never thought of it. It was too ordinary, in a time before I realized how useful ordinary was. One year, a friend bought his father a ball of twine. I laughed at him, asking why. His father had gone through the Canadian Tire catalogue and circled things he wanted, much as we did as kids with the Sears and Eaton's toy sections. His father had circled a ball of twine, conscious of the budgets of children. I use more twine than car wax, and so did my father. I'm sure I've remembered the twine story for three decades for a reason.
Dad was difficult to buy gifts for not because he was picky, but because he wasn't. A man who preferred to make do was suspect of new, and it took years for me to realize when he said he didn't want anything, he really didn't. We'd show up bearing gifts for a focus-group father, stumped in our need to express our love in the easy years, our grudging respect in the hard ones. An imperfect family with imperfect gestures, I wish I'd realized sooner he really did just want us to give him the only thing he would ever run out of.