My Thanksgiving Fable
Fifty years ago, my father left his C-suite job at Ford Motor Company, and moved to Saint Marten to build the first timeshare resort, Mullet Bay. At the time, Mullet Bay was the largest resort in the Caribbean, financed by Goldman Sachs, Bankers Life of Nebraska, Salomon Brothers, and the list goes on. Each of the CEOs of those companies owned condos at Mullet Bay, and when they weren’t using them, they were rented out as hotel rooms and suites. Very expensive ones. Profits shared by owners and the hotel. Arthur Ashe and Tom Okker (Saint Marten is half Dutch) were the touring tennis pros, and Lee Trevino was the golf pro. You get the picture. In 1971, I took a gap year before college and became Julie from “The Love Boat.” I loved my time there. I give you all this because it’s my personal story. I am to the manor born, and going to high school at Bloomfield Hills Andover didn’t exactly expose me to diversity or ask me to consider the life issues of others, to say the least. The car my father gave me for my year down there was a fabulous convertible (with air-conditioning), and as I recall, it stood out among the heavy-lifting cars on the island. And thanks to my last name, everyone on the island knew it was my car. What does this paragraph add up to? I was born rich and have lived a rich life ever since.
But my father, while not known to the world at large as a “nice guy,” also taught me about other lives. He was to the manor born as well, but he had a soft spot for those less fortunate than he. I don’t know where it came from.
One night, I went out to dinner with my father and some board members, and I left my car with the keys under the seat. Everyone did that. The island is 9 miles long and 8 miles wide. When we were going island crazy, we’d drive around the perimeter of the island just to go somewhere. It would take an hour if there was traffic. Everyone knew everyone and where they were on the island.
I left the casino late that night, and my car was gone. They found it the next morning on the French side of the island, crashed on the side of the road. The guy who took it worked in maintenance at the hotel, and he’d taken it for a joyride. People saw him.
I was outraged. Outraged, I tell you.
I ran into a friend the next day, and she told me my dad wasn’t pressing charges and the guy wouldn’t lose his job.
I marched my then-much-thinner fat ass to my dad’s office, barged in, and demanded an explanation. It was the only time I’d ever done that.
“Dad. You can’t be serious. He stole my fucking car and totaled it.”
My father asked those in his office to leave, and he sat down across from me.
“Christine,” he said making me make eye contact. “He didn’t steal money. He stole a car. A recognizable car on a small island. Did it occur to you to ask yourself why he did that?”
I was silent. No, it hadn’t occurred to me.
He waited and then he said quietly (totally out of character, I might add), “Maybe he wanted to live like you for five minutes of his life.”
He went back to his desk and called his secretary, and everyone returned to the room. I left his office and went to the beach, where I thought about it for a long, long time.
That kid (he was in his late teens, I think) became my father’s driver (my dad loved irony) and personal aid, and he worked his way up the ladder to become a respected member of Mullet Bay’s team.
Fast-forward to this past week. I was having lunch with my beloved Aunt Molly (everyone should have an Aunt Molly, who for decades gave even when I didn’t return, and is truly one of the great people in the world). She told me that the woodpile at the family estate on the water in a small town in Maine, was stolen. I don’t know about cords and things, but I can tell you that the pile was made over the years by my aunt and uncle, and now their children after them. And it was large.
“Everyone is furious,” she said. “Can you imagine?”
I went home and thought about my stolen car all those years ago, which I hadn’t thought of in ages. I thought about how this year I bought my oil for the winter in bulk, and it was double last year’s price, which added up to thousands of dollars. I have remarked to my neighbors about my concern that people will have a brutal winter in Maine because they won’t be able to afford heat. I thought about that goddamn woodpile, and on some strange level I know — or, I should say, I believe — that it was taken by a man desperate to keep his family warm.
I want to write my cousin’s children, a boy and a girl who are 9 and 11 and already deeply caring people, and tell them the story about grace and understanding, the lesson about walking in another’s shoes, that my father taught me all those years ago. They can choose to be angry or ask themselves why it happened. The house is deserted. The person could have broken in and stolen much more expensive things than wood. All these years that pile has been there, alone in the winter — why this year? Oil is unaffordable in this state, actually all across the country. But it gets very cold here. Wet cold. And wood is a commodity here that has become exorbitantly priced as well. And maybe they can forgive the invasion of their beautiful home and be grateful we are all warm this winter without a second thought.
My father and I never spoke of my car again, but when something of mine is stolen, as is sometimes the case, I’ll make up a story about the reason why the item was taken that feeds my sensibility to be grateful for all I have, have always had, and with any luck, will always have. Stay warm this winter, friends. If you need wood, let me know. My next-door neighbors are flush with it, and I’ll steal you some.