A Study in Compulsions

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 bullshit.

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 Things.

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 to.

Like the Fourth of July Parade lie.

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 drawers.

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.


Unknown said...

That.Was.Awesome. That might be the best thing I've ever read. WTF? Esp. love the "Festival of Electronics" and the train set of Wonder & Delight. I also love when you said something like - he had a shit load of stuff is where I'm going with this. And I love how you explained how you collapsed into the chair having been exhausted after counting the highlighters b/c I was thinking, "How did she know he had 36 highlighters?" I love the stuff still in boxes when he had 5 others. You should open up a mom & pop Office Max & sell all that stuff. Think of how rich you'll be!

Idk if you saw but my son lies all the time too - for no reason. They are innocent lies & my sister used to make up stories when we were kids & both of them have ADHD & I wonder if it's just an overactive imagination. It's like they have all these ideas in their heads & should be writing fiction instead of telling them as true stories.

Tracy said...

Thanks! Actually a lot of it is going to charitable organizations near his house. I have a bunch of places near me that I wish could benefit, but I can't justify shipping unsharpened pencils 3000 miles, when it would cost less to just buy them here.

In his case it was a sort of sad need to make himself appear successful and smart. He actually had a pretty major inferiority complex, because his own dad was pretty narcissistic. So he made stuff up that made him appear successful the way he defined "success." It was harmless, but annoying.

My kids tell obvious lies too--about how they fought off a robber, or were the best whatever player on whatever team, but those are different, since they're, you know, kids. And one could argue that I occasionally lie, because when one is writing this kind of essay, one takes liberties, and improves circumstances where it will improve a story, but everything has a foundation in truth. The shit he was slinging was wholly fictitious, with no basis whatsoever in fact.

Glad you enjoyed it!