Many years ago when I was visiting my father and stepmother from college, my father, in an uncharacteristically sentimental mood, handed me a small blue mottled vase with milky glass throughout it. He had collected antiques for years, but he had never given me one before. “Here, take this with you,” he said, putting the vase in my hands. “Thanks, Dad,” I told him, delighted because he wasn’t one to ever give me a gift.
I was also delighted because it was Christmas, a painful holiday each year because my stepmother was always sure to give her own children piles of gifts — a half dozen boxes of beautiful sweaters and dresses — while giving my siblings and me one small token gift. Just a few years before this Christmas, my stepsister got a car and I got a blowdryer. This year, I got pastel bath salts.
I packed the vase in my suitcase, and the night before I left, when I finished packing, I noticed it was gone. Sure enough, my stepmother went through my things and slipped it out but didn’t put it back in the living room where I could have reclaimed it. I asked her about it, explaining Dad had given it to me, but she just shrugged and walked away.
Years passed, and eventually, when I visited my dad and stepmother, I noticed the vase back on a shelf in the living room of their new house. I looked at it longingly, but let it go.
In January of 2003, just after my own cancer-related hysterectomy, Ken and I visited my father, who had been in a coma for 10 days after his months of living with advanced pancreatic cancer. By all accounts from doctors and websites, he should have died within three or four days of no food or water, but he hung on. Yet just 20 minutes after I arrived, he died with only my stepmother and me, both of us telling him that we loved him and he could let go. Afterwards, I sat in the living room with my sister, Lauren, who arrived within hours of his death, and we both glanced at the vase on a nearby shelf. “I can put it in my purse right now,” she said, reaching for it. “No,” I told her, sensing that wasn’t the thing to do.
I knew my stepmother wouldn’t give me any of his possessions, even a trinket. Yet I also knew that I would find a similar vase one day, buy it for myself, and that would be my talisman of dad, a gift from him despite my finding it because it was what he intended. For years, I’ve looked for a vase similar to the one that Dad gave me, but no dice. I searched antique malls and tiny hovel stores wherever I traveled, gift shops and art galleries too.
On December 23, in my hometown, I was walking with my son Daniel past a local gallery, and there was the vase. It was about the same height, color and shape with milky veins of glass, and it stood at the bottom of a window display for a local gallery. I walked in and asked a friend who worked here how much it was. “Probably $70-something,” she said as my heart sank. Too much money, and yet when she gingerly lifted it out over the other glass bowls and platters, she told it was $47. “That’s, strange. It’s probably one of the older designs,” she told me.
I carried it around the store, feeling its weight and smoothness, cradling it in my hands. It was still beyond our worn-out budget. I tried to call Ken to see if he thought I should buy it, but I couldn’t reach him. I thought of calling a dozen friends to ask them if I should buy it, but I figured all would encourage me. After all, I had said that whenever I found the vase, I would simply buy it. So I did: $50.23 with tax.
At home, holding the small bag with the bubble-wrapped vase, I wanted to tell Ken the whole story right away, but he first wanted to read a holiday letter, so I opened the other mail. To my surprise, there was a check for some poetry published. Now if you’re a poet, you know already how bizarre it is to ever get paid for poetry, and if paid, to get more than, say, $10. The check was for $50.
When I told Ken the story, he smiled and said he knew my father was perfectly capable of making all of this happen. “Remember how, right before we went to see him when he was dying, I heard his voice say to me, ‘Don’t worry. You have enough time.’” I had remembered that Ken heard, “You know why I’m still here? I’m waiting for Caryn,” and I was happy to hear he also said not to worry, we had enough time.
Turns out we had enough time for his gift to come back to me, paid for by surprise and art, and now sitting on a shelf in my bedroom. As I begin the next 50 years of my life, and as we approach Christmas, my one true (material) holiday gift from my father is mine again. Thanks, Dad.
Photos include the vase with shots of the Great Christmas Blizzard of 2009 and Dad holding Forest in 1995.