By Greg Clark, December 3, 1938
“What the dickens,” inquired Jimmie Frise, looking up from a list he was writing, “can a father give a daughter of 20?”
“Why ask me?” I retorted. “What can a father give a daughter of seven?”
“For you it’s easy,” said Jim. “Wait until your kids grow up.”
“The older they are, the more sensible they are,” I pointed out. “You can give a young man of 20 something not very spectacular, but full of value. But with young children, you have to make a splash.”
“You have to make a splash with a daughter of 20,” assured Jim.
“Give her a wrist watch,” I submitted.
“She’s got a wrist watch,” countered Jim.
“Give her a diamond-studded wrist watch,” I offered.
“Oh, yeah?” retorted Jim. “Listen, I’ve got a family.”
“Isn’t it the dickens,” I sympathized. “Jim, there ought to be a sort of upper-class social service bureau for Christmas advice. You ought to be able to send for a woman to come into your home, a trained Christmas expert, the same as a trained social service worker. She’d come and live right in your house for a day, studying the children, examining everything they possess and figuring out what they don’t possess and what they need or what they want. And then she’d draw up your Christmas list for each member of the family.”
“Both what they give,” said Jim, “and what they get.”
“That’s it,” I enthused. “It’s a real idea. Maybe we could sell the idea to the big stores. A Christmas advice bureau, with a staff of young women to come and sit in with the family for a day, and then give expert advice.”
“Most Christmas gifts,” said Jim, “are so silly. We think only in terms of Christmas. Of winter. Of December. Now, I’ve wanted a new shooting coat for the past five years. I never can afford one in October, because I’ve spent all my money during the summer. Yet my family usually spends $12 on me, and you can get a swell shooting coat for $12.”
“I’ll bet the total of a man’s Christmas presents,” I declared, “comes to far more than that. I’ve wanted a new canoe for the cottage for years. But who would give me a canoe for Christmas? There’s the fact that it couldn’t be used for six months. There’s the problem of storing it somewhere. There’s the fact that they couldn’t hang it on the Christmas tree. So they don’t get me a canoe. They get me ties and socks and a new pipe and books, and tins of hundreds of cigarettes, and a whole raft of stuff, all of which would equal the cost of a new canoe.”
“For instance,” interrupted Jim, “my wife has been pining for a Persian rug for years. Every time we pass a store with rugs in the window, she just stops and stands paralyzed. She only wants one around $67.50 or something like that. Yet would I consider giving her a Persian rug for Christmas?”
“Why not?” I demanded.
“Because it’s for the house,” mocked Jim. “It’s something for the house, therefore it’s barred from being a Christmas present. Christmas presents have got to be personal.”
To Reorganize Christmas
“Oh, no, they don’t,” I countered, “That’s just a habit of mind a lot of us have got into. I know plenty of people who give new radios for Christmas.”
“Yes,” said Jim. “Childless couples. They can give each other things of mutual interest and value. But the mother of a family deserves something personal. Years ago, she gave up all thought of herself. In fact, the day her first baby was born, she thought her last personal thought. From then on, she has worked and schemed and planned and thought her whole life for others. Christmas is about the only time of year you can sort of square accounts with a mother.”
“You’re right, Jim,” I agreed. “In fact, there’s a thought there. Why not have a Christmas day for giving gifts only to mothers? Nobody but mothers get any gifts. The pleasure everybody else gets is in giving to mothers.”
“That would be a good idea,” said Jim, “only it forgets mothers. Because one of the greatest thrills in a mother’s whole year is the giving at Christmas. Giving for the children, giving the children a whale of a day, giving them a feast… Why, when you come to think of it, Christmas is really mother’s day, because it is the mother’s most giving day in her whole year of giving.”
“Well,” I submitted, “Christmas ought to be different, somehow. It is too seasonable. Too Christmassy. If it is going to be commercialized, and it sure is, then it ought to be reorganized on a better commercial basis. If a woman wants a Persian rug, Christmas ought to give it to her. You can give her something that will make her happy on Christmas, or you can give her something that will make her happy in June and September and all the rest of the year as well.”
“What have you in mind, besides canoes?” asked Jim.
“Well, my wife,” I said, “is always going into trances in front of antique shops. She just loves old wood. Old walnut most of all. She loves chests and highboys and even whatnots. She loves old chairs and petit point and tables, all darkly gleaming.”
“Don’t you buy her any?” asked Jim.
“No, she’s of Scottish descent,” I explained, “and she always remembers the children. Children mar and smash and batter furniture. So we are saving antiques for when our children are all grown up.”
“I love that antique stuff, too,” confessed Jim. “When I think of the kind of furniture we have to live with, all because our kids are noisy and rambunctious.”
“It’s the radio,” I explained. “You can’t imagine a radio playing swing or giving us a new chapter in the daily career of Tough Burke, the boy detective, in a living room furnished in old walnut and lady chairs, such as our grandparents lived in.”
“The dignity of life,” sighed Jimmie, “is vanishing. Our lives have now to be furnished and equipped for sudden wild leaps of boys and sudden outbursts of dancing, and tommy guns firing from behind a barricade of chesterfield cushions piled on the floor, and parties springing up from nowhere, on account of the rapid transit of motor cars, with stains on the table and sandwiches crumbling and cigarette burns on the edges of the mantel.”
“It’s a heck of an age,” I admitted, thoughtfully. “But do you know, I have a hunch that what I’ll give my wife this Christmas will be her first nice little piece of antique walnut? A gateleg table or a chest of drawers.”
“Start in a small way,” agreed Jim. “And the older your children get, the more lovely old stuff you can acquire, so that by the time the kids are grown up you will be furnished throughout with stuff that is dignified and old and graceful and lovely.”
“Yes, sir,” I mused, and I think that instead of a canoe I’ll start dropping hints around about that pair of early American squirrel guns that I showed you. Remember?”
“They’re probably gone by now,” said Jim.
“No, sir,” I said, “I was in looking at them only the other day. Two genuine Kentucky squirrel rifles. Can you imagine how swell they would look, suspended over the fireplace in my den?”
“Fifty dollars, weren’t they?” asked Jim, doubtfully.
“Only forty-five,” I corrected. “And anyway, if I give my wife a walnut colonial table worth $50, shouldn’t she go out of her way a little in regard to my present? Anyway, I’ve worked pretty hard this year, and I’ve given a lot of thought to my children, even if I haven’t been with them much.”
“I saw some rugs in that shop, didn’t I?” asked Jim.
“Yes, you did,” I recollected. “I noticed a big pile of them the last time I was in looking at those Kentucky rifles.”
“Let’s drop over there at lunch,” suggested Jim.
Which we did. And I am unhappy to inform you that the Kentucky squirrel rifles, once in the collection of the famous Charles Noe Daly, were gone. The dealer had disposed of them to a man in exchange for a genuine Sheffield tray and $10.
“Why,” I told him, “I was prepared to go as high as $50 for them.”
“It’s too bad,” said the dealer. “But he took them and sold them to a collector in Chicago. I hear he got $150 for them.”
“Mm, m’m,” I retired.
As I started for the door, Jim hailed me.
“Here’s rugs,” he said. And I wandered back and watched him haul and lay rugs, many of them pretty seedy looking, the good ones being all around $675.
“Come along,” I muttered.
“You go and look at colonial walnut tables and things,” urged Jim, “while I go through these.”
“I think I’ll give my wife something more personal,” I replied. “Lingerie or a house coat or something.”
But Jim went on exploring in the pile of rugs and I wandered amidst the scattered treasures, looking at them without interest. They were the usual old, plain chests, wardrobes, tables, of all sizes; antique chairs, very uncomfortable looking.
Jim joined me.
“I didn’t see anything I liked there,” he said, “at any price I could afford. Do you see anything you like?”
“Those guns,” I muttered. “Did you ever hear of such rotten luck? Imagine the guy selling them for a sheffield tray and $10.”
“Look here,” said Jim, suddenly excited. “Look at that bed!”
It was a battered, dull, knobbly little old bed.
“Isn’t that a trundle bed?” cried Jim, excitedly. “Excuse me, mister.”
The dealer came lazily down the room, the way antique dealers do. Some of the timelessness of their wares seems to enter into the bones of antique dealers.
“Isn’t that a trundle bed?” cried Jimmie, pointing.
“That’s what we call a string bed,” said the dealer. “It is laced across with heavy cord for springs.”
“That’s it,” cried Jim. “At home we called it a trundle bed. See, there are little holes for threading the rope through.”
And holding up the pieces of the old walnut bed, Jimmie and the dealer explained the primitive method by which our great-grandfathers achieved a little comfort. The sturdy four posts of the bed were mortised for the inset of the four boards that comprised the sides and ends. Then a powerful cord or leather thong was laced through the holes in all four boards, back and forth, a few inches apart, making a sort of mesh of cord. Springs, in fact.
“On top of these cords,” explained Jim, enthusiastic and delighted, “you laid a thick feather tick. Boy, what a bed!”
“Did you ever sleep on one of them?” asked the dealer, very polite.
“We had one in the attic of the farm,” cried Jim, and it was my favorite bed. I slept my boyhood away on a bed like this. My, what memories it brings back. Isn’t it a tragedy that we have disposed of all this lovely old walnut stuff, for a lot of brass and cheap plyboard furniture… How much is this?”
“That one,” said the dealer, “not being in very good shape, I can let it go, just as it is, for $18.”
“Eighty?” said Jim.
“Eight-TEEN,” said the dealer, very honest.
The Trundle Bed
“I’ll take it,” said Jim, instantly. “I’ll take it. Of all the dear old things. Just look at it. Look at this old walnut…”
And I had to help him turn the various pieces this way and that and examine them up near the window, to see the lovely grain of the wood.
“Our great-grandfathers,” said Jim, “had no other furniture but this simple, stately, unpretentious colonial, perfect in its design, without ornamentation. Then came the late Victorian era, with everything stuffed and scrolly. They traded their old furniture for bird’s-eye maple and light oak. Then came fumed oak. And all this glorious old stuff was sent to the attic or the cellar or given away to our poor relations, while we went garish and light and ornamented and scrolly, and twisty and altogether ridiculous.”
“In other words, our great-grandfathers were right,” I submitted.
“Now we are paying fat prices to try and get back,” said Jim, “some of the stuff we threw away.”
So Jim paid his $18 for the trundle bed and arranged for it to be sent home. And we walked back to work, me thinking about old Kentucky squirrel rifles and peach-colored lingerie and new ski boots for growing boys and other seasonable thoughts.
After supper, Jimmie telephoned me. In a very low voice.
“Listen,” he muttered, “have you mentioned that bed I bought to anybody at your place? Anything about the price?”
“No,” I said, truly, for I hadn’t thought of it since.
“Well, I’m in a bit of a jam,” said Jim. “That bed I bought IS my bed. It’s been in our attic for about 20 years. My wife gave it away to some social service workers only a week ago.”
“Jim,” I said.
“She got tired of it being in the attic, so she gave it away with a lot of old baby carriages and stuff.” mumbled Jim. “So I told them I ran across it in an antique store and bought it for a dollar.”
“Jim,” I repeated.
“So you see, you’ve got to be pretty quiet about it,” he continued.
“But Jim,” I said, “it can’t be your very own bed.”
“It is,” said Jim. “These social service workers probably sold it to the antique dealer because no poor family would have a feather tick.”
“But it is probably just a coincidence,” I submitted. “There are likely dozens of them around.”
“No,” said Jim. “It has got my initials carved in it with another pair of initials set in a heart.”
“Oho!” I cried.
“Shhhh,” warned Jim, low. “Some boyhood love affair that I tried to carve into eternity. I don’t even remember who B.J. was.”
“What are you going to do with the bed?” I inquired.
“I was wondering.” asked Jim, “if you are still interested in giving your wife something antique for Christmas?”
“I was thinking I’d give her a Persian rug,” I replied.
“Okay,” whispered Jimmie, and hung up the receiver.
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise (1977)