Clair McFarland: The Best Gifts Make All Hell Break Loose

Clair McFarland writes: Money was tight in my early childhood years in rural Wyoming. My dad lost his truck-driving job the moment he finished building all the bookshelves for my preschool classroom.

Clair McFarland

December 30, 20225 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Much of American life is shaped by tacky materialism, but that doesn’t change the fact that some gifts are perfect and timely.  

Money was tight in my early childhood years in rural Wyoming. My dad lost his truck-driving job the moment he finished building all the bookshelves for my preschool classroom. He took a new job hauling sheetrock at a lumber yard, and my mom worked from home grooming dogs and decorating cakes –thankfully, not in the same room.  

We four kids (later five) rambled through barbed wire and conjured fun from dirt.  

When food is scarce, every taste is a miracle. When money is tight, certain gifts can shoot you into a cannon-arc of purpose.  

The earliest gift I can remember was Q-Tip. That’s a pink hippopotamus plush toy my grandparents gave me when I was about 3. She was the Hobbes to my Calvin, the receptacle of my bad-day tears.  

I still have her; she still smells of a book left open in a spring breeze.  

Next was a mechanical Tigger doll that talked and bounced. I was probably 7.   

I did not want that gift, but I thought I did. I begged and pleaded for that stupid Tigger, only to realize on Christmas Day that it wasn’t the toy I wanted: it was the way my mom had laughed at its idiotic bouncing while it still sat on a dusty Walmart shelf.  

You can’t buy moments like those, I realized, so you’ve got to savor them when they come along.  

At age 11, my Aunt Linda sent me a hardback copy of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” which is a novel about a pragmatic American family whose pranks terrify an old ghost while he’s trying to haunt an English manor.   

Wilde’s wit and eloquence ripped a window in my young mind. The story was an inversion, an irony. Fear itself was the butt of the joke.  

Wilde had taken the fear I struggled to shunt from my thoughts at night, and he’d grabbed it by the guts, turned it inside out and mopped the floor of my assumptions with its tattered remains.  

I decided then and there to drop my dream of becoming a country music singer (I can’t carry a tune in a bucket) and to try my hand at writing instead.  

By age 14, I had what doctors called a heart condition. But now I suspect it’s just a personal fainting tendency no more in need of treatment than my chocolate addiction.  

Doctors wanted me on pills. Dad wanted me to get off my butt and do something worth doing before I either died or fainted myself into a novel.  

I took up distance running.  

I can’t remember if it was a Christmas present or a just-because present, but Dad bought me a yellow running suit and visor that – I kid you not – advertised the Corona beer logo.  

It seemed perfectly normal to me. Dad was a beer enthusiast, and my favorite thing in the world was to pop one open for him so he’d sit down and talk about books with me.   

Some busybodies at school tattled on me for wearing alcohol branding, so I didn’t get to wear the suit at gym or at cross-country practice after that.  

But I wore it on weekend runs. My heart’s flutter deepened to a drum beat. I leaned into discomfort. Ideas galvanized in my foggy head.  

Nearly two decades later, I still wear the Corona visor on every run.  

Another dad gift: When I was 15, he bought me Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  

It’s a fantastic play but, that’s not the thrill. The thrill is knowing that a large man stitched together with engine grease walked into the local bookshop and asked for a comedy about fairies. Then he walked out, gingerly pinching the book between his two cleanest fingers. 

At age 21, The Husband gave me Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”  

It was startling.  

I had no idea that any author would dare to play with Satan’s aches and worries, his logic, his congress of minions in rational debate. And just as easily, Milton led those rational devils to their hellfire doom, while gently consoling fallen mankind.   

But my favorite part was realizing that the phrase my mom used to describe my driving was (though she didn’t know it) a Milton cliché:  

“Wherefore with thee came not all hell broke loose?”   

I’ve received a lot of great gifts over the years. I like to think I’ve given some great ones too.  

But it’s these five that are fused to my being. These five I’m writing here so that, if I ever forget who I am and how people nudged me into my niche, a few simple objects can remind me.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter