Dad's Favorite Christmas Present

My mother held up a package wrapped in white butcher paper that she had just taken out of a brown paper grocery bag. “What is this?” she asked.

I had arrived home from school only a couple of minutes ago. My father had gone to town to grind feed this afternoon, and as she often did, Mom asked him to pick up a few things at the store while he was in town.

Three or four trucks must have been ahead of Dad at the feed mill because he came home as I was walking up the hill after getting off the school bus. My father preferred to be home earlier than this so he could start chores at the normal time. Either he was going to have hurry while he was feeding the cows, or else supper was going to be late.

Dad glanced at the wrapped package my mother held.

“What is it? That’s my Christmas present,” he replied, as he reached for his chore cap. As usual, Dad was dressed in blue overalls and a blue chambray work shirt. Even during the winter, his face never lost the tan that he acquired from driving the tractor all summer long.

“Your Christmas present?” I asked.

Christmas was still a few weeks away, but upstairs two presents for Dad were hidden in my dresser drawer. I knew that my sister, Loretta, had already wrapped a couple of packages for him, too.

“Nobody else will buy it for me,” Dad continued, “so I figured I’d get it for myself.”

Mom quickly dropped the parcel onto the cupboard, as if it had burned her fingers. “That’s not what I think it is — is it?”

Dad grinned. “I don’t know,” he said. “What do you think it is?”

My curiosity got the better of me. First Dad bought himself a Christmas present and now Mom wore the same look on her face as she did after discovering she had forgotten about a container of leftovers that had been pushed to the back of the refrigerator a month ago.

The white package, I noticed, was just about the same size as the packages of hamburger which came from the meat locker in town. “What is it, Daddy?” I asked.

My father picked up the parcel in one work-roughened hand and reached for the refrigerator door with the other. “You’ll find out later,” he said.

My mother grasped the kitchen counter more tightly and drew herself up straight to her full five feet and seven inches. Her blue eyes became steely.

“Hold it right there, mister. You are NOT putting that in MY refrigerator.”

“I’m not?” Dad asked. He turned toward her.

“No — absolutely not.” Standing with her knees locked tightly, she grasped the edge of the cupboard door and leaned down to retrieve a clean empty coffee can from beneath the kitchen sink.

Mom didn’t believe in throwing away perfectly good coffee cans. We used them to make berry picking pails in the summer. Dad also used them to sprinkle lime on the barn floor and as watering cans for the garden after he had punched holes in the bottom. Sometimes he pinched one side together to form a spout and then he used the can to pour oil or hydraulic fluid into the tractor.

Mom held the coffee can toward Dad. “Here. You can keep it in this.”

My father looked at the container. “But why do I have to keep it in a coffee can?”

“Because,” Mom said. “You do.”

Dad sighed. He put the package inside the can and replaced the cover. Once again he reached for the refrigerator door.

“Tut-tut!” Mom exclaimed.

“Now what’s the matter?”

“You are not keeping that up here,” she declared.

“I’m not? Not even in a coffee can? With the cover on tight?”

“Nope,” Mom replied.

“Then where am I supposed to keep it?”

“In the basement,” she said.

I looked back and forth between the two of them. Mom and Loretta used all kinds of secret hiding places for Christmas presents, but no present had ever been put in the basement.

“How come Daddy has to keep his present in the basement?”

Neither one of them answered my question, although my father looked like a man who knew he had lost the battle.

“Okay, Ma. You win.”

I followed Dad downstairs where he set the can on a shelf.

“But — what is it Daddy?”

“The best thing in the world,” he replied. “And right after milking, I’m gonna make a sandwich.”

“Is it sandwich meat then?”

“Better. It’s cheese.”

Cheese? Now why in the world would Mom make Dad keep cheese in the basement? We didn’t keep other kinds of cheese in the basement, even though the basement always stayed cool. Mom said the little square space in the sandstone wall was a ‘refrigerator’ of sorts, and that when she was a girl, they used to keep their milk and butter there. The basement walls were constructed of sandstone blocks that my great-grandfather had quarried from the hill behind our barn.

That evening after milking, my father went downstairs to get his coffee can. Every evening after milking, he ate a snack. My father was five feet, ten inches tall, weighed one-hundred-and-fifty pounds, and was the strongest person I knew, next to my brother, Ingman. Dad was forty-four when I was born, and when he threw a sixty-pound bale of hay, it seemed to float through the air, almost as if he hadn’t expended any effort at all, and landed neatly in the exact spot where he had intended it to land.

When Dad arrived back in the kitchen, he set the coffee can on the kitchen counter and then reached into the bottom cupboard for an onion. He rummaged around in the utensil drawer until he found a paring knife, and then he began to remove the onion’s brittle orangish-yellow outer layer.

My mother was sitting at the table, paging through the newspaper. Her naturally curly hair was so dark brown that it looked more black than brown. Dad, Loretta and Ingman had dark hair too. I was only the blond-haired person in the family, although we all had blue eyes. One time I had asked Mom why I had blond hair, and she said it was the same color as her mother’s hair had been.

My mother stopped perusing the newspaper. “You’re going to have raw onion on it, too?” she asked, dark eyebrows arched high on her forehead.

Dad began slicing the onion. “Of course. Gotta have onion on my sandwich.”

“Well at least let me get out of the kitchen first before you start eating that,” Mom declared, reaching for her crutches.

Meanwhile, Dad opened the coffee can, pulled out the parcel and peeled back the white paper. My mother cast a single, worried look over her shoulder just before she disappeared into the living room. I leaned closer. I took yet another step closer as he began to cut a slice.

Suddenly, a horrible odor struck my nose. I hastily stepped back and pinched my nostrils shut. Before I had time to say anything, I heard my sister’s voice from upstairs. “What,” she said, “is that awful smell.”

The bedroom I shared with my sister was right above the kitchen at the top of the stairs. On any other day of the week, Loretta would have been staying at the apartment she rented in the city where she worked. Today was Friday, so she was home for the weekend.

“Dad,” I gasped, “what kind of cheese IS that?”

It sort of smelled like a mouse had crawled into the coffee can and died. A week ago. At least. Or maybe two. And I knew full well what dead mouse smelled like. One time a mouse had died in the little storage space under the stairway that Mom called the ‘pantry.’ As soon we could smell the odor, my mother had pulled everything out of the pantry, including the big pot she used for making jelly and the tall canister used for storing Christmas cookies, so she could dispose of the tiny carcass. Then she had scrubbed the pantry’s wooden floor and walls with pine cleaner.

A dead mouse in the pantry had not smelled quite as unappetizing as this. Or maybe it only seemed that way because the dead-mouse-in-the-pantry episode had happened a long time ago, but the smell of the cheese was in the kitchen right now.

“It’s called Limburger,” Dad explained happily, putting the onion on top of the cheese. He buttered another slice of bread to complete his sandwich, and then he bit into it. A blissful expression appeared on his face as he chewed and swallowed.

He paused before taking the next bite and held the sandwich toward me. “Want to taste it?”

I backed away, shaking my head. “Errrr — uh — no thanks, Daddy.”

I quickly joined Mom in the living room. But even from there, we could still smell the Limburger.

When Dad had finished his sandwich, Mom told me to go to the kitchen and pour some of the pine cleaner into the sink, hoping that it would cover up the odor.

The pine cleaner helped, but it was another ten minutes before we were reasonably sure we couldn’t smell the cheese anymore.

Every evening after that until the Limburger was gone, Dad made a sandwich. I never asked him why he liked Limburger so much. I figured it was just one of those strange things adults did that I would not understand anyway, although I remember him saying his Grandma Zinderman, a person he described as a small tough-as-nails German woman, liked Limburger too. Dad and some of his sisters had lived with their grandmother for a while when they were growing up.

As for me, at least the mystery was solved of why my mother insisted that Dad had to keep his ‘Christmas present’ in the basement.

And I no longer wondered, either, why he had to buy it for himself.

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