I’ve recently had occasion to think a lot about my father in law. Some people have problems with their mothers in law. I’ve never had have too many problems with her because she’s been dead for most of my marriage. My problems were largely with my father in law, and mostly they had to do with his being alive. The reason I’ve been thinking about him a lot is because now he’s dead. If you’re one of those people who thinks that everything is funny but death, and death absolves people of all sin and we should just remember dead people as perfect and saintly, maybe navigate away now, because I’m about to get snarky about a dead guy.
My father in law was generally a good person, I’ll put that
out there now. He didn’t cheat or steal or set fire to orphanages. But hoo boy
did he lie. Maybe “lie” is harsh. He exaggerated. Except when you exaggerate,
you expand on a story that’s true, and kind of tart it up, make it more
interesting. And in retrospect, that’s not really what he did. He just made
shit up. So I guess he was actually lying. But they were such patently obvious
lies that they were funny.
Oh, how bad could it be? Well, let’s see—did you know he was
responsible for the development of the integrated circuit? He was. He told us a lot of his stories before
the advent of the Smart Phone, and he’d tell us shit like this over dinner, so we’d
just have to smile and nod and think, “What utter bullshit” instead of whipping
out an iPhone and saying, “Let me Google that” and finding out the truth. Which
in this case was that the integrated circuit was developed at Texas Instruments
during a time when he was in Germany in the Army. So, you know, what utter
And then there was Babe Ruth’s Bat. This story was told to
his girlfriend (partner, whatever) while my husband and I were in the room. My
husband and I keep looking at each other, rolling our eyes in disbelief and
incredulity. Because she was hanging on every word, convinced that this was the
absolute verbatim truth.
It seems that at some point in the…1940s? I don’t know, the
timing wasn’t clear, because my father in law was born in 1939 and Babe Ruth
played baseball in the 20s, but clearly this sort of detail was glossed over in
the telling of this story because, you know, details. Anyway, sometime in the 1940s, when he was a kid, his dad
somehow got hold of a bat that had belonged to Babe Ruth. Where his father
found a 20 year old bat belonging to one of the greatest baseball players of
all time near their home in Western Massachusetts, and how he was so sure of
its provenance, was never clearly explained. Because, you know, details. Anyhoo, his dad brought this
bat home, but it was broken. His father fixed it and gave it to my father in
law to play with. My father in law, being a kid—8 or 10 or whatever—and not
really understanding the significance, played with this bat, but just didn’t get what he’d been given. I think maybe
the moral of the story was supposed to be that Kids Just Don’t Appreciate These
But our eyerolling was based on the obvious: Babe Ruth’s
bat? Come on. It was broken? And his
dad repaired it? And in the 1940s there was a fixative strong enough to repair
it so it could be used again? I’m no structural engineer, but even I know that
a broken wooden bat can’t be repaired in a way to make it usable again. My
brother in law is a structural
engineer, and he confirmed that the integrity of the wood would be compromised
sufficiently to render it as useful for either kindling or to fix tippy tables
at a restaurant, your choice. And in the 1940s there was no such thing as
Liquid Nails or Gorilla Glue or whatever, not that those would even work. And
yet, his girlfriend believed every word of this preposterous horseshit.
Let me also add that always his
lies were harmless. He never lied about anyone’s character, or actions, or
motives (well, other than his own). He was never attacking an individual. It
was just infuriating because they were so obviously lies, and while you could call him on them, they were always petty
and stupid enough that to do so would make you appear…petty and stupid. And yet
it was tiresome and sort of insulting to sit there knowing you were being lied
Like the Fourth of July Parade
We live in a really small town
that every year has a big old fashioned Fourth of July parade. Any group is
welcome to march—the Rotary, the Boy Scouts, the roller hockey team, the local
animal shelter, the LGBT support group, local businesses—the organic butcher,
the organic baker, the organic candle stick maker. Anyone who wants to can
march if they get permission from the parade committee. The joke around here is
that half the town watches the parade, and the other half is in it. Ha ha.
Last year he and I attended the
parade, while my husband and kids marched in it with my husband’s company. As
we sat there, waiting for the parade to start, I told him this pathetic little
tidbit of humor. He nodded for a minute, and then said, “You know, there’s this
town where they have a Fourth of July parade, and one half of it watches it,
and the other half is the parade. And then when it’s over, the ones who were
watching get up and march, and the other half watch.” So, seriously?
You took the stupid one-liner I just delivered, and basically repeated it back
to me as a “true story”? Seriously?
What most of his lies had in
common was that they were delusions. Either they were things that he’d claim to
have done, or facts that he “invented” that he then presented to his companions
as unarguable truths. In a way it was sort of pathetic, because most of his
stories were intended to make him appear brilliant and successful, or at least
wickedly clever, in ways that he never really was. The saddest part is, I think he really believed every story he told. In fact I’m not sure he
wasn’t completely out of his fucking mind. This suspicion deepened when we went
and saw his house.
We took the kids to see
“grandpa’s house.” He had moved from where my husband and his brother grew up
to a different state in New England, to a house none of us had ever seen (he
had always come to visit us, instead of us going to him). I wasn’t sure it was
going to be terribly meaningful to the children, but we needed to get a feel
for what was in the house, because of
course it would have to be cleaned out and sold.
On the surface, it was very, very
tidy. The living room looked fairly normal. His girlfriend had moved some of
her things out and taken them to the townhouse in Maine she was moving to, so
there were some bare spots, but it was neat and uncluttered. The kitchen was
also neat and organized. The basement had lots of metal shelving with big
plastic bins on it. Actually, I should say that everything was very neat and
organized. What was notable was what you found when you started opening
Although we’re not anywhere near
done, I can offer some preliminary observations.
We are now the owners of five
digital cameras (one brand new in the box, most of them simply removed from the
box, but never used), plus two MP3 players (again, one brand new in the box).
We have three laptops, none of which are new, but none of which is more than
maybe 5 years old. We left two there. And that was just the beginning of the
Festival of Electronics that was in store for us. Wireless mice. Old keyboards.
A couple of old printers. Three cordless phone sets. Miles of various kinds of
cable. Four or five webcams. Twenty two power strips, all at least fifteen
years old. I have no idea what one retired person planned to do with all of
this, but he’d always fancied himself “technical,” and at one point in the 90s he
had bought ten or twelve Macs, proclaiming that he would cobble them together
in such a way that he claimed they would anticipate Apple’s future offerings by
ten years (see: “delusions, comma, lies,” above) so I wasn’t as surprised as I
might have been to find that stuff.
I was looking around on a desk in
the basement, and it struck me there were six pairs of scissors in my field of
vision. I started opening drawers, and started finding staplers. Seven total.
Then those little bitey staple puller things. Nine of those. Another drawer
held three boxes of 24 pencils, all unsharpened, and four sets of colored pencils.
There were thirty six highlighters. There were five (five) Cross pen and pencil sets, all with the logo of a company at
which he last worked twenty five years ago, plus a bunch of other pens in
presentation boxes. A little more digging unearthed eighteen pocket knives (we
later found one more in his car). And that was just one of his two desks.
As I was investigating all of
this, my husband came downstairs and said, “Holy shit.” I wheeled around in the
desk chair into which I had collapsed as I was counting highlighters and said,
“What?” He pointed wordlessly at a set of heavy duty aluminum shelving that was
behind me that I hadn’t noticed. On a set of shelves approximately five feet
wide, seven feet high, and two feet deep, stacked on four shelves, from top to
bottom, were boxes and boxes of train sets. Hundreds of cars, miles of HO gauge
track. All purchased from eBay, I presume with the intention that he would
build a huge train set in his basement, and his grandchildren would beg to be
allowed to visit him to play with the amazing Train Set of Wonder and Delight.
Holy shit, indeed.
I couldn’t imagine anything could
top the trains. I was wrong. So very wrong.
In his office, I found a fairly
good sized travel bag of prescription medication. Because he was in poor health
and took a shit ton of various medications and vitamins every day (to no avail,
clearly), I wasn’t surprised to find it (and, spoiler, it wasn’t Class 1
narcotics or anything). My brother in law advocated for tossing it, but we
decided that since we weren’t sure what all it was, it should go to a pharmacy
to be properly disposed of. I volunteered to take it, and grabbed a couple of
those S-M-T-W-Th-F-S pill boxes with stuff in them off the table to add them to
the pile. Someone suggested I’d better make sure they didn’t belong to his
girlfriend. She said, no, they weren’t hers, but told me that there was another
bag in the garage that I should take too. I went out to find it.
What I found was a bag, like the
kind of bag they’d give you at Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Sheets ‘n’ Shit if you
bought a king sized comforter, or one of those “bed in a bag” things. A big
fucking bag, is where I’m going with this. This big fucking bag was, I shit you
not, half full of medicine bottles.
Let me repeat that, half fucking full of
medicine bottles. Which all had pills in them. We’re
not talking about a bunch of empty bottles, these all had shit in them. A lot of them were vitamins, but that only
makes it worse. That means that he’d gone out and bought a bottle of vitamin E,
and then two weeks later, had—I don’t know, forgotten he bought it, or was
afraid he’d run out, or whatever the fuck he was thinking—and went out and
bought another bottle of vitamin E, then did it again. And again. And again. Since I have little need for 34
pounds of vitamin E, it all got turned in to be disposed of.
It’s bad enough that he still has
cassette tapes of Laura Branigan albums, and notebooks from classes he took in
which the handouts were run off on a mimeograph
machine, but he also has dozens of CDs for software that was probably five
years out of date when he bought it or got it (AOL install disks with 100 free
hours, anyone?), enough pairs of prescription glasses that he could have worn a
new pair every week for a year with no repeats, and forty SD cards that may or
may not have anything on them.
My brother in law and I started
talking about what someone would think if they started cleaning out our stuff.
Anyone doing it for me would shake their heads over the number of blank
notebooks I had, or the fifteen three ring binders full of recipes. They would
look at the big basket of nail polish and say, “How many nails did she think
she had?” I think we all have a slight hoarding instinct, whether that
manifests itself in the form of family pictures, coffee mugs, or washers and
screws. But somehow I think having thirty colors of nail polish doesn’t quite
put one into the category of “hoarder” the way having a box of 85 keys to
nothing, 6 sets of brand new gardening gloves, 5 disposable charcoal grills, and
36 light switch plates of various configuration does. Holy shit.