Somewhere around 1994, my dad got my mom a toilet seat for Christmas.
To be fair, it was a good one, made of oak. A designer toilet seat, if you will. But for the Hedenberg family, that was the gift heard round the world.
My father is generous and giving and always has been. Each time my wife and I visit, the dresser in the guest bedroom is overflowing with items for us to take home: beard trimmers, power tools, candy, and, on occasion, a firearm. Never one for any real physical or verbal affection (a trait I must have inherited from my mother), my dad has always chosen to show he cares through thoughtful gifts.
But he is at root a practical man and as such has never put much stock in what he identifies as frivolous things. Clothing, for one. Dad’s been a teacher now for 20 years, and every night before bed, my mom lays out his clothes for the next day. If she didn’t, I’m convinced he’d wear the same thing he does at home: a pair of Carhartts and a military surplus jacket. It’s not that he has some sort of social deficiency; he legitimately doesn’t care, in an honest, badass kind of way.
To him, the toilet seat was a logical present. I can understand the thinking: hey, we need a new toilet seat, it’s Christmas, slam dunk.
Needless to say, it went over like a fart in church.
I’m not going to pretend I understand the dynamics of what exactly went down. One, I was 10 years old, and two, even as an adult with a wife of my own, there’s nothing more skin-crawling than trying to dissect the romantic relationship of my parents. They’ve been married 42 years and have a good thing, so I think some doors are just better left unopened.
What I do know is that my mom was pissed.
Dad wised up after that year and, after consultation from some of his female colleagues at school, began a trend of giving tastefully elegant pieces of jewelry and clothing that continues to this day. I’ve already seen what he’s getting Mom this year, and she will be pleased.
My brother and I were likewise so affected by Toilet Seat Christmas that we both swore we’d learn from our father’s mistakes and never make such a holiday-ruining decision ourselves.
And then, 23 years later, I did anyway.
Ever since my wife and I started dating, we’ve made Christmas lists for each other. In classic 21st century fashion, these lists are emailed and complete with specific sizes and colors and attached photos and web links for convenient ordering.
Melinda pretty much asks for the same thing every year: a nutcracker, a bag from Vera Bradley, and a few new bangles from Alex & Ani. For the majority of our relationship, I have pretty much stuck to the list. But in the winter of 2017, I decided to go off book.
The decision to freestyle wasn’t made in haste; I legitimately just wanted to surprise her with something she would never buy for herself but would really enjoy. Additionally, it was the first Christmas we’d be spending together in our newly-purchased house, and I wanted it to be a memorable one.
And so, two weeks before Christmas, I plopped down $350 for a wife’s dream gift: a vacuum cleaner.
I mean, it wasn’t just any vacuum cleaner. It was a Roomba, one of those hockey-puck-shaped robots that roves the floor on its own volition, sucking crumbs from all the little crevices you can’t be bothered with when running the standup Hoover.
My reasoning for the purchase was that Melinda had just started taking grad school classes, and on top of taking care of the kids and school and her other job at the dance studio, it was unfair that all of her free time had to be spent sweeping up Goldfish crackers and mud from my boots. Now she could spend more time in the loving arms of her husband, curled up with a bottle of wine before a crackling fireplace while the Roomba did the grunt work.
I was so pleased with my selfless and thoughtful gift that I told all of my friends about it, though I was slightly deterred upon hearing their responses.
“Did she ask for a Roomba?” asked my friend Jim, who has been married for 30 years.
“No, but she’s going to love it,” I said, supporting my claim with my time-saving logic mentioned above.
“Good luck,” Jim said.
Christmas day arrived with all of the fanfare and excitement that comes with celebrating the holiday with two young children. Melinda and I sat in our robes clutching cups of coffee while the kids tore at the presents under the tree in the pre-dawn light. Given the expensive nature of the Roomba, Melinda had significantly fewer gifts than me, which caused an awkward imbalance of the your turn, my turn routine. But no matter. As soon as she tore into the paper of her cornerstone gift, I knew all of that would disappear and the love and adoration would flow.
It was time. I hefted the box into her lap and wrung my hands as she tore away the green and red paper. When the top of the box was uncovered, revealing the word ROOMBA in white block letters, she stopped ripping and stared.
“What is it?” she said.
“It’s a Roomba,” I said proudly. “Now you’ll never have to vacuum ever again.”
She looked up at me, pushed up the sleeves of her blue fleece robe, and bit her lip. “What would possess you to think I would ever want something like this?”
Oh no. Like a vet with dreams of the Tet Offensive, I flashed back to my mother unwrapping a solid oak toilet seat.
“I just thought it would be nice for you to not have to vacuum all the time,” I said, reverting to my original logic on the purchase, but realizing only then how flimsy and absurd it was.
“If you want me to not have to vacuum all the time, why don’t you just vacuum once in awhile?” she said.
Now, this is the point of the story where my version of events and reality diverge a little. When my friends asked later in the week how Melinda liked my SuperGift, I said this:
“It was awful. She opened it, and then she started crying.”
What ACTUALLY happened was this:
It was awful. She opened it, and then I started crying.
It’s true. I ran out of the room and pouted like a kid who just got grounded for not picking up his room. After sobbing into my pillow for a few minutes didn’t elicit the desired sympathetic effect from Melinda, I came back into the living room, eyes red and breath hitching.
Eventually I got my shit together and was able to have a reasonable conversation with my wife, whom was really more confused than upset about the whole thing. She told me she really appreciated the thought, but that I was waaaaay off in my calculations.
“I gave you a list,” she said. “Why didn’t you just get me stuff off the list?”
I got rid of the Roomba the next day, selling it to a friend whose wife actually asked for one. I asked Melinda for a do-over, and two days after Christmas, I showered her with gifts of Vera Bradley, Alex & Ani, and, as the cornerstone, a Patagonia fleece. I learned a lesson I thought I learned way back in 1994, but I got too cocky.
This year, the presents are all coming from the list except one, which I told Melinda about earlier this week.
I get it, I should know better. But this year I have a plan.
“I have an idea for your big gift,” I said, “but it’s not on the list.”
“Is it a Roomba?” she asked. “A toilet seat?”
She looked down the bridge of her nose like I was insane. “Okay,” she said, “but I don’t want you crying again. I’m fine with the things on the list.”
“You’ll like this one,” I said. “But just to be sure, we’re going to pick it out together. Is that okay?”
“I think I can handle that,” she said.
Will she like it? Will I ever learn? Only time will tell.
Merry Christmas, all. May your holidays be filled with only the best robot vacuums and designer toilet seats.