A Present From My Dad: Stories From Higley Hill


My Dad’s Christmas gifts arrived two days after the holiday. He had obviously recycled the manila envelope they came in. My address was written on a yellow Post-it note taped over the previous address.

My eighty-four year old father is concerned by the fact I receive my mail at a post office box. He’s never lived in a rural area and every time he sends me something he asks, “So you still have that post office box?” Then he calls back, “What’s the number again?”  This time he also wrote the box number along the right hand margin. At the top he wrote FRAGILE in capital letters.

Inside were gifts for my daughters, too. We all received a red envelope with our names on it. Two small packages were wrapped in Christmas paper. There was also an unwrapped whistle and a hand-written note.

Dear Sheila,

The package contains the Christmas money in checks and a little gift (not meant to be funny but probably will be) for you and your two girls. Years ago British bobbies did not carry guns, just a billy club and a whistle for protection. Remember I gave my 3 girls pepper spray some time ago (probably  they don’t know what happened to it). It’s a dangerous world we live in. You always need to be alert and prepared.

Merry Christmas Happy New Year ~ Dad

P.S. The checks are inside the Christmas cards.

It was four o’clock when I left the post office. I decided to call while I was still driving through town and had phone service. Whenever he sends a check he worries about its whereabouts and will call a day or two later, and keep calling, until the money arrives safely. He spent his life teaching U.S. History and although during summer vacations he delivered mail, he no longer trusts the U.S. postal service. When my mother was alive she made him deliver the checks in person. This presented a problem when I lived in Florida.

My Dad no longer trusts anyone and with good reason. He is still not back in his condo. It’s been ten months since the fire. The entire affair has been a story of gross negligence, incompetence, insurance stonewalling, and local corruption. Over the past ten months my father has moved three times, lost my mother, and been diagnosed with bladder cancer. I have been in touch with a reporter at a local news station but my father keeps wavering over whether I should  or should not blow this story up. Last night when I called he was in rare form.

He started with an update on the status of the condo’s renovation. A fire inspector had come by and claimed the firewall had been installed improperly so the new sheetrock had to be torn down. Months ago my Dad had received a promised move-in date of January 10th. It looks like that isn’t going to happen.

“I told you I’d go to the news reporter again,” I said.

“Aaagh. I know, and we should, but I told Father Gagnon this is killing me and I’ll soon be joining your mother. I’m too old for this battle.”

“I told you I would handle it, Dad.”

He wasn’t listening. Instead, he was off and running. He moved on to politics. He’s a difficult man; impulsive, opinionated, critical. He is also the man who taught me about democracy and the constitution. If you want to know where a lot of my political opinions come from you need look no further than my Dad.

He started with Trump and went on from there. Not wanting to lose the connection, I pulled into the Valley Market where skiers with New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut license plates filled the parking lot. The sun had set, the night was dark. I sat and listened.

They’re killing the New Deal, you know. That Ryan wants to take away Medicare. They killed the unions years ago. It’s all about the rich. That Trump is an arrogant idiot. The Republicans stole that last Supreme Court justice, you know.  And those Catholic judges. It’s all about abortion with them. It’s none of their business. That’s between a woman, her doctor, and God. And these cabinet appointments!

He obviously had the evening news on in the background because he interrupted the monologue to give me some breaking news. Ah geez, Carrie Fisher died. You remember who her parents were?

“Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. But then he left her for Elizabeth Taylor,” I replied.

“Aaah, that bombshell.” Then he was back to the condo fiasco followed by more crazy news of people disrupting shopping malls across the country on the day after Christmas.

“See, I know you might think the whistle is a crazy gift to give someone but it is a dangerous world, and only getting worse. I bet you don’t remember that pepper spray I gave you years ago.”

“No, I do. I remember it. It’s a sweet thought, Dad. It is a dangerous world.”

“I bought them in an Army/Navy store somewhere. Can’t remember now where it was. I don’t think you can buy it anymore. They say you shouldn’t spray it in someone’s eyes but that is exactly where you should spray it. It doesn’t blind you, it washes out but that’s what you need to do to disable the guy.”

It was hard to end the conversation so I listened as he went back to politics and the threat of fake news, Fox, Sean Hannity and that pompous ass Bill O’Reilly. It’s not like I didn’t agree with every thing he said and I knew he was lonely in the tiny AirBnB rental he’s been staying in since the insurance money for temporary housing ran out after six months. When we finally said goodnight, I drove back up the hill, poured myself a Jameson, and turned on the news. I saw the tributes to Carrie Fisher and the throngs of people running panicked in shopping malls from Texas to New York. I shut the TV off.

I thought about the places my Dad took me when I was a kid. The Lincoln Memorial, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Dearborn Village, Appomattox, and Valley Forge. I thought about the future of democracy and I thought about my Dad, a man who received the GI bill to pay for his college education, who had a strong teachers’ union throughout his career, helped put his kids through college, retired with a pension. He’s watched it all slip away, get torn apart. He’s watched the rich get richer, and the middle class shrink. He’s also watched the folly of a misinformed public let the fox into the hen house.

Twice a year, he sends my siblings and I a check on Christmas and the Fourth of July. It’s not a large check but always arrives when it’s most needed and certainly helps. Tonight he admitted to me, “Sometimes I wouldn’t tell your mother I was sending the money. She grew up poor and you know she was in that orphanage for awhile. She was always worried about money. I’d tell her we were fine, we did good. Even if I died first she’d be okay. She never believed me. She was worried about being a bag lady. I don’t know what the world’s come to anymore. I’m getting tired. I’m too old for this fight.”

Sadness overcame me. A sadness for my Dad, for ideals like democracy and the Bill of Rights that he tried to teach, back when Civics was a subject still taught in public high schools, and for my daughters, his grandchildren, and the future they will live in. I’m turning sixty in 2017 and I’m tired too but I’m not too old to keep fighting. I should have told my Dad, “It’s okay. I’ll carry on. You can count on it.”

So much in life is fragile, even the gift of a whistle in a manila envelope that carries a wish for safe passage in a dangerous, fragile world.



JOIN ME. If you are reading this and you are a writer or a concerned citizen, I have a few ideas about what we can do in the days ahead. Please contact me at my email to the right of my blog page or comment below and I’ll be in touch. We can do more than whistle in the dark. #bebrave #speakup #nowmorethanever






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