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Why I Make Toys

My Dad Died on Christmas

It was early in the morning the day before Thanksgiving when I called my Dad to tell him we would be making the trip after all. We were unsure whether we would be able to join my family this year, as my four year old daughter Cecile and I had been sick for most of the week. "Hot dog. We can’t wait to see you" my Dad said. After I assured him we would drive the 275 miles carefully, I said good-by. "Drive carefully, I love you, Tommy" he said and hung up the phone.

When we arrived later that day, no one was home but the door was unlocked. My Mom had left a note in the kitchen telling us they had gone out to get their Christmas tree so we could all decorate it together. But it was not to be. Within a few minutes of our arrival, the phone rang and I heard the awful news that my Dad had fallen on the sidewalk and been rushed to the hospital unconscious. Later that night he underwent emergency surgery to relieve bleeding on the brain and spent Thanksgiving in intensive care.

The days that followed were a dreadful blur, as it became apparent that he would not recover. And then on Christmas morning my Mom called with the dreaded news. "Tommy, your father died this morning. He died on Christmas."

After the funeral, my Mom took me out to my Dad’s workshop in the garage. "Look what he was working on. Now it will never be finished. Why don’t you take it home and finish it?" she said. She showed me the parts for a wooden train he had started but not completed, similar to one he had made for my daughter the year before. When I was a boy he had taken my brother and me to his workshop every weekend. My Dad and Mom owned a small toy company and made wooden toys that were sold all around the country in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstroms. I didn’t really want anything, but is seemed to make my Mom feel better, so I just put the stuff in the car. When I got home, I stored the boxes in my own garage and tried not to look at them.

My Dad and I had been pretty close and the loss seemed unbearable to me. But even I was surprised by the grief I experienced as Thanksgiving approached again. I seemed to relive every moment until Christmas day, when I suffered his death yet again. This went on for several years, with me dreading the holidays because I knew the pain would be so much more acute. Nothing helped me through the holidays, not even the birth of my son Douglas, named for the grandfather he never knew.

And then when my son was two, nearly four years after my Dad had died, I decided to face the boxes of wood and wooden parts my Dad had left behind. Maybe I could make a train for my son that would be from both his Grandpa, who he would never know, and me. It did not surprise me when I cried, going through the boxes. But I discovered that I felt better touching everything. And as I looked through the plans I found in the box, I felt sure my Dad was standing by my side, explaining them. I was a little boy in his workshop and my Dad was still with me. That day was a turning point for me, although I didn’t realize it.

I told my Mom about the train. She had been the marketing force behind their company and she encouraged me to make more trains and sell them. And pretty soon she was on the phone regularly saying, "Tommy, get a pen. I’ve got an order for you." She was taking orders before I even had the trains made, so I started spending more time out in the workshop. I didn’t know if I could turn my woodworking into a full time business, but I wanted to try. I decided to apply for an arts and crafts booth at the Arroyo Grande Strawberry Festival, an annual festival that attracts over 100,000 people to the small town where I live. I’d take my craft out in front of strangers and see how they responded.

Ironically, the date of the show fell on my Dad’s birthday, another horrendous time for me. So as people approached me and said, "Do you make these?" I would tell them my story. "Yes, I make them. My Dad taught me. He died on Christmas. I made the first train for my son, from some parts my Dad left behind. Then my Mom started selling my trains…" I would often talk to complete strangers for 15 or 20 minutes, giving them every detail of my Dad’s injury on Thanksgiving until his death on Christmas, explaining why I was making toys. It was like therapy for me. Over the next few years I told the story hundreds of times, in similar situations, without much prodding. I’m sure some of those folks weren’t planning on listening to my life story, but they were kind. I was proud of what my Dad taught me and wanted to talk about him. One Christmas a couple of years later, a man who had read my story in a local magazine came to an arts and crafts show to talk to me about his own Dad’s death. "It takes a long time when you lose someone you love as much as your Dad," he said. We talked about how we felt and tried to support each other.

For years I still dreaded the holidays. My wife and I went through the motions for our two children, but I couldn’t wait for January. And then my toy business began to grow and she encouraged me to work at it full time. It had always been my dream to make toys, like my Dad, but it never seemed practical. But then I began to spend most of my day in my workshop, with my Dad standing by my side (at least in spirit) working with my hands the way he had taught me, doing something we both loved.

This Christmas, it will be 25 years since my Dad died. My life has changed for the better in many ways. I have two wonderful children now who remember him through my stories. And I’m living my dream of making toys just like my Dad; I know this wouldn’t have happened if he were still alive. Christmas is a time when lots of small children will have a wooden toy "from Santa Claus" that I’ve made and that makes me feel good.

And now when someone asks me "Do you make these?" I answer, "Yes, my Dad taught me. He used to make toys just like these." And I no longer have to tell them that my Dad died on Christmas.