I don’t think there’s anything to report about him other than that he is still a living organism. I say that while hearing his voice say it to me; that is the way that he talked. When his own mother died, he had reported to me from the viewing in Ohio that he and his siblings had sat in the first row, at least some of them choosing not to go up and look at the body. My recollection is that one of his sisters said, “Why should I? That’s not Mommy. It’s just a bag of skin and water.”
So. There was no further time to determine whether or not it was an “appropriate” story to tell, or whether I was “ready” to do it.
We were not a rich family when I was growing up. It was pretty unusual when a toy was purchased for me at a time other than Christmas or my birthday. I didn’t expect it to be otherwise. It happened occasionally — sometimes at my wheedling, and sometimes not. But at the time that I was four, in 1974, there was an Incredible Hulk action figure, and I really, really wanted him. Comic books were all I had had, and comic books were not enough. Having the actual physical Hulk. I wanted it more than anything.
Every trip to the mall required a walk-through of the Kay-Bee store, and I held that box a lot, and stared at it, and made it abundantly clear that I really, really wanted it, and maybe every time I did this I held out hope that this was the time that one of my parents would just take the box from my hands and walk to the counter to pay for it. It never was. In retrospect, I suppose I saw every trip to the mall as a fresh opportunity for that to happen, and I guess that means that in 1974, I was hopeful, and possibly even a self-renewing optimist.
I explained this much of the story to Tucker and the kids, who clearly had vivid expectations that this was going to end badly.
“So then,” I said, “It must have been near Christmastime, because my dad had to get a toy to put in the Toys for Tots bin at his work.”
“Oh no,” said Tucker.
Both of the kids looked frantic. They know what Toys for Tots is, but could not guess why this would be a turning point in the story, much less a troublesome one. But hey, so much for theory of mind deficit. Tuck saw it coming.
My dad had come home from work one day with a Kay-Bee bag, which was very exciting and unexpected. “No,” he said, “It’s nothing for you, I had to buy something to put in the bin at work –” at which point he opened the bag and showed me the boxed Incredible Hulk figure.
I was not a kid prone to displays of anger — which may very well have influenced, or have been influenced by, my love of Hulk, who I sort of saw as a giant, impotent green infant. But I freaked the fuck out. I had a honest-to-God four-year-old tantrum, because my dad had just brought home the toy I wanted most in the entire world, and told me it was for someone we didn’t even know.
Why he chose to bring in into the house and show me, I’ll never know, as he could just as easily kept it in his briefcase. Why he would go buy the one thing I wanted in the world, to contribute to the Toys for Tots bin in his office, is still as much of a mystery to me. For most of my life, and certainly in that moment, I saw it as intentionally baiting and mean.
I have tried, since understanding more about Asperger’s Syndrome, and recognizing later moments in my father’s life where he was genuinely surprised to find that the thing he had just done was considered hurtful — and seeing this happen to Tucker as well — to see this episode through that lens. Was it possible that my dad, who worked full time an hour away from our home as a registered nurse, had just finished his workday and popped into the toy store for this necessary errand and only recognized the Hulk figure as “a good toy”, not realizing (theory of mind deficit) how it would make me feel to know somebody else would get it?
To be honest, my father hated choosing things, and he had an absolute terror — terror with my father was generally expressed in exasperation and anger — of “getting it wrong”. It’s sad to think of this, because he did love to give gifts, but saw it more as a pass/fail task of retrieving the “right” thing than a chance to choose something. He had told me that this was a result of his own disappointment in gifts he had received as a kid, when he had asked for specific things but received something that was a weak approximation, and not “it”.
Into my adulthood, he persisted in seeing gift-giving as a test of his ability to identify the exact makes, models, and colors of items. He was frustrated during his dating years after his divorce from my mother, when he had girlfriends who would insist that all they wanted was for him to choose something that he thought they would like, rather than just having to tell him the bar code of the thing that was 100% sure to please them. For the few social events he would feel either forced to, or, mysteriously, want to attend, he would drive me utterly insane while he tried to puzzle out what was an appropriate thing to bring to a party. I would have to accompany him to stores in the Italian Market, choosing cookie trays or cheese and crackers and olives, insisting over and over and over that these were exactly the kinds of things I took to parties and they were the right things, but would invariably hear the morning after about how much was left on the tray and how he must have somehow made it wrong.
My dad loved the advent of the Amazon wish list. It solved all his gifting problems. For the first few years that my sister and our partners had lists available, my dad chose items from those lists for our birthdays and Christmas, reminding me repeatedly, at least, that it was me who had put the things on the lists, and therefore they must be right. Right?
At Christmastime, these items came in gift bags, because my dad did not know how to wrap presents, and after my mother had moved out, he was not going to learn.
The first year he told us to give the bags back so he could use them the following year, we thought he was joking. He wasn’t. We got the same Hallmark paper gift bags for perhaps three years in a row, with items from our Amazon wish lists in them.
Sometime during those years, having to choose items from our wish lists became trap for him. How did he know which were the items that we wanted more than the others? So he just started buying our entire lists. At this point, he had also given up the idea of gift bags, and gave us our Christmas gifts in Acme market brown shopping bags. He asked for those back too.
In this respect, I think it is entirely possible that my father did not see my reaction coming, when he brought that Hulk doll home in 1974. He may have just chosen a toy he knew somebody liked. It’s likely that having to do it in the first place was taxing, and likely that he did not expect to come home to a shrieking four-year-old (because honestly, it may have been the first, and only, time he ever did).
I was really mad that the Hulk was in the house, in a box, and was not mine. And I let it be known that I was angry. I was four.
My dad told me that my reaction to this situation had been so unreasonable, that not only was this Hulk not mine — my punishment for my outburst was that I could never, ever have a Hulk action figure.
It’s interesting to me now to realize that if my dad was buying for Toys for Tots, it was obviously near Christmastime. Not for a single second did I hold out the hope that Santa Claus would have a different outlook than my father on this situation. And I believed in Santa Claus. I just knew that if my dad said I wasn’t getting that Hulk, ever, that I really wasn’t. And that was all there was to it.
I told Tucker and the kids this story. Béla, as he is wont to do, said nothing, and put his hand over my hand.
“I am so glad that you did not make your parents my grandparents,” said Claudia.
“1974?” asked Tucker.
I realized that he was on his phone, and he held it up so I could see an image. “This one?” he said. There he was, the Seventies Hulk of my childhood.
“There,” said Tucker. “I got the twenty-two dollar one. Was that okay?” (Supported decision making in action — there was a time that I believed that if you gave Tucker a thousand dollars, he might just go purchase a thousand milkshakes. He’s gotten way better at money, but he still checks in, particularly when he’s spending it on other people, because his generosity tends to get the better of him.)
There had been a two hundred dollar version available for sale still in the box, but Tuck figured that was too much. He was disappointed, after purchasing the figure, to realize that the listing said it was missing part of an arm — he had not noticed that. He asked if he should look for another one. I said definitely not. After 42 years, I see no reason that the Hulk, or anything, would make it to me in one piece, certainly not in defiance of my father.
The box came today, on my dad’s birthday. I got to spend time with it before the kids got home, but they were also very excited to see it here. Béla went and got his larger, more articulated, fancier Hulk as well, and the Hulks interacted. Oddly, Béla’s Hulk was “Dad”. Tucker pointed out that my smaller Hulk was still obviously the older one. Nobody cared.
I don’t think it would ever have been possible for my dad to see the way he treated buying gifts and treats for people as a “need for approval”. That need certainly did not carry over to other aspects of his life. My dad was way too abrasive and disinterested in the approbation of others to have a sugar-coated legacy.
But I can say now, that seeing the sugar-coating start to come off of other dead people, in flakes and chunks, takes its toll. Certainly on the people who have had to expend energy in keeping it there, or kicking the fallen-off shards out of sight. I see now what happens to the people who get stuck with that job; it’s a long one. If nothing else, my dad has spared me that. I’m sure he always knew I’d never have done it for him. In other ways, I did the best that I could.