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Daddy’s Drawer: What I learned from my father’s nightstand.

One of my twin daughters, Chloe, who is almost two, came into the kitchen the other week carrying a bronzed paperweight shaped like a penis. It’s actually shaped like my penis, because I had a mold of my penis made one year to make the paperweight as a gift for my girlfriend at the time. When we broke up, she returned it – a fact that has always wounded me because of the very literal nature of the rejection.

I wasn’t surprised to see Chloe wielding the paperweight; she and her sister, Isabella, have recently discovered that they can work together and negotiate furniture around a room to gain access to higher places, such as the shelf where the paperweight rests – I mean, I am a good parent; I don’t just leave penis paperweights sitting around at kid height.

Or at least I thought I was a good parent until Isabella came trailing in the kitchen after Chloe, pulling apart a pack of rolling papers. I panicked – climbing on furniture to reach heavy, blunt objects is one thing, but Isabella had gotten into my nightstand drawers.

Fortunately, a child under the age of two doesn’t know what rolling papers are, so after I gathered them up (along with the paperweight) and found another distraction for the twins, I went back to my bedroom to consider what I regard as a very sacred, private place: my drawers.

Every father has one or two drawers in which he keeps his most valuable possessions. I know this because when I was in seventh grade my friend Chris brought a condom to school that he’d found in his dad’s nightstand drawer.

“There’s a whole box of them,” he said as he displayed the plain Trojan in its crinkly blue wrapper to a group of us who’d gathered around first base on the softball field. “I think my parents might even use them.”

This got me thinking what might be lurking in my own father’s bedside drawers, what adult enterprises lie in the darkness, awaiting discovery. As soon as I got home I headed straight for his nightstand, a two-drawer mahogany affair that matched my mother’s on her side of the bed.

The top drawer yielded little: a check book, some spare keys, an extra wallet with my dad’s initials on it, and an old cigar box filled with bits of paper. The bottom drawer, however, was a revelation.

How is it I’d never thought to crack open this treasure trove? Inside lay the things that had started to dominate my mind over the past year: magazines full of naked women. Oh, it was glorious! There were at least a dozen, mostly Playboy, but there was at least one issue of Penthouse. With trembling hands, I took an issue and retreated to my room.

I visited my father’s drawer a lot over the next few weeks, and learned a painful lesson about the law of diminishing returns. After a while, my fantasies of the women inside grew wearisome, but I’d just had a taste of the thrill of discovering the hidden world of my father – I wanted to know more; he was an enigma. My whole life he’d seemed a prudish man, reluctant even to tell a mildly off-color joke. And here, right under my nose, was evidence that he was not the man I thought he was – he was filled with desire just like I was.

After exhausting my interest in the magazines, I returned to the top drawer – his checkbook confirmed my suspicions that we had slightly more money than he let on. (But that was to my twelve-year-old brain – in retrospect I realize we were only one minor disaster away from destitution, a fact which helps explain my father’s tired look in those days.) I found a few photos of his brother and sister in the old wallet, but nothing else. Then I opened the cigar box to examine the papers.

Most of the contents were of no interest to me then – little notes to or from people, mainly my mother. But what chilled me completely was finding the eulogy my father had written for his father.

At that time my grandfather would have been in his mid-sixties, though he looked younger – he still had enough hair to slick back with Vaseline, and he was barrel chested with muscular arms. He wasn’t remotely close to dying in my estimation, but here was the proof that in my father’s eyes it was necessary to be prepared.

I sat on the floor and leaned back against my parents’ bed and read my dad’s summary of my grandfather’s life. What chilled me completely was finding the eulogy my father had written for his father. It was what you might expect to be said about a man of that generation: he had answered his country’s call during World War II, he’d come home and humbly resumed his life in the textile mill, raising his family on minimum wage, but they never wanted for anything.

The whole thing was quite moving, but it was the ending that got me. It was an anecdote about how my grandparents never told each other goodbye, but rather so long because the word goodbye seemed so final. And that was how my dad concluded his eulogy, which the touching dramatic flourish, “And so today we do not say ‘goodbye’ to Clyde Keck, but rather, so long, dad.”

Sure, it’s overly sentimental, but at the time that sentiment was a great thunderbolt of grief. I’d not yet lost anyone close to me at that point in life, and so death was caricature that showed up in television movies, but little else. Suddenly I’d been slapped in the face with the real misery of life: the people we love get taken from us, and the only choice we have is to try and be ready when it happens.

My father’s drawer was the vault of adulthood. All the things a parent wants to protect his or her child from for as long as possible – the loss of sexual innocence, bills, death – it was all there in his drawers, a sort of Pandora’s Box that he’d stashed in plain view that revealed what he loved and feared.

As it turned out, when my grandfather died some twenty years after I’d discovered the eulogy (and yes, my father used that very eulogy with only minor additions), I had occasion to open his nightstand drawer: inside was a Bible, a flashlight, and a gun. My grandfather was a very practical man.

There’s no porn in my nightstand drawer – why would there be? The internet has made the necessity of hiding it a moot point. But if my children were older, what veil would they pull back when they opened my drawers? If my children were older, what veil would they pull back when they opened my drawers? Certainly they’d learn that dad likes his weed sticky – my top drawer is a fragrant, resin-coated collection of ashtrays and various dope-fiend devices. That would be a drag to explain, and after Isabella showered the hallway with rolling papers like rose petals, I moved my stash to a more secure father fortress: my workshop.

But in the bottom drawer they would strike the real gold: a plastic rosary I keep, even though I dismiss organized religion; my grandfather’s flashlight, though they wouldn’t know by looking that it was his; a piece of one of Morrissey’s shirts that he tossed into a concert crowd in Atlanta; a few literary magazines in which my first poems appeared; my father’s 1968 Minolta 35mm camera; and under all that, two letters – one to each daughter that I wrote sitting in a hospital hallway outside the intensive care nursery the night they were born. If they cared to open them, they would find out a great deal about the me they never knew. But what I really wanted to tell them on their first night of life on the outside was that I was going to be a good dad and try to protect them as best I could, but that they should forgive me when I fail, as I ultimately will – I’m their father, but I’m also just one man trying to fend off the dark forces of the world.

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