At the top of my digital inbox is a six-month-old e-mail from my father Ben. On the subject line, the heading reads: Anyone Want A —–. The body of the e-mail itself is only two sentences long, but those two lines have haunted me now for almost 200 days. Every morning when I log on to the computer, I see it there, waiting for me to formulate an appropriate reply. Even though the content of the message repulses me in so many ways, I cannot bear to press the delete button and end this unfulfilled exchange. Maybe it’s because imbedded in the language is some deeper understanding of my father’s nature and unfortunately mine as well. A Da Vinci code for the Wilders if you will. I won’t be coy. The message says: “Due to the law of diminishing remains, I have a practically new Hydro Floss water pic available for shipping. The lottery starts now!!!” Oh, the horror.
Last year, my father had some serious dental work done where most of his teeth were replaced by bridges and plates. Therefore, because his mouth was now filled with terms you usually find on roads and in kitchens, he could not utilize the aforementioned oral irrigator even though it offered actual magnetohydrodynamics (whatever that is). My father is a product of The Depression, and he simply cannot throw anything away that has even the least bit of tread left on it. It doesn’t matter if you need the item or not. This includes all types of foodstuffs (which grosses my wife out), underwear, plastic containers from my childhood, and sheets and towels that you can read an eye chart through. I never realized until I received my dad’s e-mail that his cheeseparing philosophy extended to objects one puts in one’s mouth. Maybe it’s because I spent a few years in the advertising business before I went into teaching but the term “practically new” just didn’t sit right with me next to an item that reallyreally needs to be fresh out of the box before you use it. I thought about all the things that could be labeled “practically new” that wouldn’t necessarily bother me: cars, dvds, living room furniture, even pets from the animal shelter but a Water Pic? No thanks, Parsimonious Papa.
I know my father was trying to be generous by the offer that no one leapt at even with the tease of a lottery followed by three exclamation points; after all he did say he’d pay for shipping but sadly, not for sterilization. It obviously freaked my three brothers out also because no one responded to his request even after the kind of follow up reminder you’d get from a real dentist’s office.
Shortly after my father made his fateful proffer, I arrived at our home in Santa Fe and was preparing to cook dinner just as my father did when I grew up in Connecticut. My dad was always the cook and chief bottle washer at our house, creating a full meal right after he stepped off the 6:30 train from Manhattan where he worked for 35 years as a banker. I have the same cooking responsibilities now except I ride in an old Honda Accord instead of a train car after a day of teaching teenagers about The Great Gatsby instead of advising adults about the stock market. My son London is a fairly finicky eater so I was going to heat up some chicken nuggets for him instead of the vegetable enchiladas I was building for my wife Lala and daughter Poppy. In the depths of my freezer, I spotted a frosty green bottle given to me two years before by a friend who was young and single enough to handle the hangover this type of hooch provides. This specific bottle had survived two refrigerators, dozens of parties, and more bags of nuggets and Tater Tots than I could ever wish to remember. Oh, and a dozen requests from my wife Lala to pour the contents down the drain and recycle the fancy glassware. I couldn’t do it though. Every time she’d say to me, “Why don’t you throw that out? No one will ever drink that,” I imagined numerous scenarios usually involving a horde of young folks who had crashed one of our parties and would laugh at our bottled wine, vowing only to leave after a quick shot of booze the color of emeralds with the aroma of black licorice. Lala thought I was dipping into the hard stuff to fantasize like that, but the truth is that I know how much a bottle like that actually costs and pouring the contents down the drain would be like burning a handful of ten-dollar bills. It’s my dad’s legacy (and curse), whether I like it or not.
So maybe that’s why I can’t delete the old man’s e-mail just yet. Sending bits of digital info into the trash bin may not be like pouring good liquor down the drain or throwing away a pair of pants that suffer from an ink stain (occupational hazard for teachers), but those few lines from my dad may still have some value left for me. If I leave it there long enough it might turn into a warning, sparing Poppy and London the gift of my combs and hairbrushes if I ever, god forbid, lose my hair.