“My Finances, in Brief,” an Essay by David Sedaris
The author always had a strange, difficult relationship with his father — in part because of money. We asked him if he’d go there in an essay. And, to our surprise, he really, really went there.
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Note: this essay has some adult moments — and it doesn’t take long to get to them. If you don’t care for adult moments, this may not be for you.
One of the things that alarmed me about my boyfriend, Hugh, when we first met — something I wasn’t sure I could overcome — was that he wore boxer shorts rather than briefs. Can I really do this? I wondered as he removed his trousers that first time and I tried not to let my face fall. I’d felt the same way ten years earlier when confronting my first uncircumcised penis. It was too late by that point to back out, so I had to play through, just as I did with Hugh.
Neither boxers nor foreskins are awful, necessarily. They just weren’t what I was used to. All the men in my family wore briefs, as did everyone I’d ever slept with. I tried to convert Hugh, but he wouldn’t budge. The fact was that he felt the same way I did — only in reverse. My briefs were something he had to overcome, just like my smoking, and my then-strict budget of seven dollars a day.
I used to buy my underpants anywhere. Then I started going on tour and discovered Hanro, a Swiss company that makes nightwear and undergarments for men and women. What I like about their briefs is that I can wash them in the sink of my hotel room, and they’ll be dry by morning due to the fabric they’re made from — some sort of lightweight cotton. They’re pricey, though, so when a pair gets a hole in it, I’ll send it to my old friend Dawn, who’s a whiz with a needle and thread. She’s also slightly passive-aggressive, and sly. This I remembered not long ago in the crowded changing room at my fitness centre, realizing too late that the briefs I was wearing had a circular brown patch in the rear. Right at the bullseye.
I wrote to Dawn and said, “Really? You didn’t have any fabric scraps that were white or had flowers on them?”
“My dad was the worst, most-thoughtless gift-giver I have ever known. Had he accepted this, we might have moved on.”
I usually buy my Hanro briefs and T-shirts at their store on Molton Street in London. The woman I deal with there is my age and blonde. Jan suffers from gallstones and has a compulsively neat son who’s a scaffolder. She put me on the store’s email list, so now I receive occasional messages regarding sales and new products. In June of this past year, I got one from the corporate office that read: Hi. We wanted to get in touch as we prepare for Father’s Day at Hanro. We understand this can be a sensitive time and that some may prefer not to be sent any Father’s Day-related newsletters. Therefore, we’d like to give you the opportunity to opt-out of receiving these particular emails by clicking the button below.
Pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world is embodied in this message. Who, I wondered, is it intended for? My dad had recently died, but I couldn’t go around expecting people not to mention a well-established holiday for fear of upsetting me. Will Hanro send similar emails on Mother’s Day? At Christmas? For Easter, I think their message should read, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!” Though I suppose it might offend customers with only one testicle.
My email from Hanro was actually the first time in my life that I was able to think of Father’s Day without dread or embarrassment.
My dad was the worst, most-thoughtless gift-giver I have ever known. Had he accepted this, we might have moved on, but, in his opinion, the presents he offered were right on target. The problem was never them. It was me. “Listen,” he said to me the summer before his last Christmas. “I’ve given it some thought and am buying you a drone.”
I said, “A what?”
“A drone. It’s perfect for a guy like you who’s interested in people.”
“Perfect how?” I asked.
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“It’s got a camera in it,” he said.
“I don’t care to take pictures,” I told him.
“Don’t give me that crap. You love to take pictures.”
This was my father all over. He never asked you what you thought or felt, rather he told you. “You love taking pictures of people through their second and third-story windows so you are going to love flying this drone.”
It was a pointless argument, as even if I’d agreed with him, he’d never have sent it. Especially if I agreed with him, actually. Telling him that I wanted something was the quickest way not to get it.
Shortly after my mother died, my father became uncharacteristically generous and started giving us $4,000 each for Christmas. It was part of a plan to distribute his estate without us having to pay any taxes on it. At the time of her death, I was working as an elf at Macy’s. “Personal assistant” was usually how I put it.
“To whom?” someone would ask.
And I’d have to say, “Um…Santa.”
A year later my first book sold. It wasn’t for much, but it was far more than I had ever seen. At my father’s suggestion, I invested it with the same woman who handled his money. Cindy, her name is. “I sent your Christmas check directly to her,” my father started telling me, “and she put it into your account.”
He wasn’t a reader, my dad, but he naturally assumed that my book would be a flop. The first one did pretty well, and when the second made the Times bestseller list and I called to give him the news, he told me to have a nice life and hung up on me.
“Well, alright then,” I said, knowing this wasn’t the end. We could talk on the phone and visit, even. I’d just have to keep quiet regarding any success I was having.
As time passed, the penalty-free gift rate was raised. From $3,000 to $10,000. From $10,000 to $14,000. Every Christmas, I’d write my father a thank-you letter, saying how struck I was by his generosity. Four years before his death, I mentioned to Cindy that I planned to spend my Dad money on some plane tickets to Hawaii, and she said, “What Dad money?”
“My annual check,” I said.
“Your father’s never put a dime into your account,” she told me.
When I confronted him, he said, “You don’t need any more money.”
“But all those years I sent you thank-you letters. No one else in the family did that. Why couldn’t you have at least told me I was wasting all those stamps?”
It says a lot that I was almost sixty before I caught on. I’m pretty sure my bank sends me statements or something, but I’ve never opened them. Neither do I know how to look at my accounts online. I guess I’m too busy washing underpants in the sink.
My birthday is the day after Christmas, and for forty years I’ve kept a list of all the crap my father sent me. Just awful stuff. Clothes I wouldn’t be caught dead in, postcards crammed into cheap picture frames, calendars that would expire in five days. I’d write him thank-you letters for those as well.
“Well, I knew you’d like that belt,” he’d say of something he bought on sale at the country club’s pro shop, something that was kelly green and had golf tees embroidered onto it. “I know your style, such as it is.”
While I was gracious, he was the exact opposite. Nothing I gave him was ever good enough. When my mother died, my father started cooking for himself. That was the story anyway, though he mainly ate free samples from his local fancy food stores. “What I do,” he’d say, “is broil myself a chicken breast, then eat it with lentils I dress with a little E.V.O.O.” That, he explained, was chef talk for extra-virgin olive oil.
One year when I was living in Paris, I went to a specialty store in my neighbourhood and brought him a selection of olive oils from different countries. They were all in beautiful bottles that I worried might leak in my suitcase on the flight home to North Carolina, so I wrapped them doubly and triply in plastic bags. “Are you out of your mind,” he said after I presented them to him. “The French don’t know anything about olive oil. Neither do the damned Spanish.”
He admitted that the Italians had a knack for it but insisted that the Greek kind was the only kind worth having. My father never uncorked any of the six bottles I brought him. Neither did he open the vodkas I carried back from Poland and Iceland. “What are you saying, I’m a damned alcoholic?”
“Well, you did drink an entire bottle of Grey Goose over the two days we were all at the beach.”
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One year for Christmas, I donated money in his name to the Greek Orthodox Church he was a member of. He called after getting the card I sent informing him of it and asked if he could write the gift off on his taxes.
“I don’t think it works that way,” I told him.
“Then why the hell did you do it in my name?”
The bottom line is that if it came from me, it wasn’t worth having. And so, I took to going in on his gifts with my sister Amy, who could do no wrong in his eyes. Had she sent him a bra along with a note reading, “After seeing you in a T-shirt last month, I realized you could use this to put your horrible fur-covered titties in,” he would have been delighted, and would have worn it. Likewise, my brother, Paul, could have given him anything, or either of my other sisters. It was just me for some reason.
When I graduated from college — a college I put myself through with no help whatsoever from him — he gave me an IRA.
I said, “What’s that?”
“An individual retirement account,” he told me.
“But I’m broke and in debt,“ I reminded him. “Can’t I just have the money instead?”
“No, you cannot,” he said. “You’d just go out and spend it. This, though, is going to grow day by day — is going to go through the roof if I have anything to say about it. You’ll see. When you’re my age, you’re going to thank me.”
For years I heard about my IRA. While cleaning apartments and working for a moving company, lugging furniture up five flights of stairs I would imagine it, my nest egg, multiplying. Then he died, and I learned that he’d never set it up. Of course, he hadn’t. Neither had he included me in his will.
Hanro’s email brought it all back: the rejection, and the countless humiliations. But then I thought, He’s dead. And I don’t have to go through that anymore — not on Father’s Day or at Christmas. I don’t ever have to call or write to him again. I’m free! And with that I bought myself a spanking-white new pair of underpants.
David Sedaris is the author of “Happy Go Lucky,” “Holidays on Ice,” “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” and many other fine books.
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