Previously I explored my father’s ability to channel a childhood affection into taxidermied wonderment. Admittedly, my tone before was something of a mix between bewilderment and bemusement. I would hate for anyone to get me wrong, however: my dad is one of the sweetest guys around. In high school some of my friends used to refer to him as the “hugging fool.” Anyway, I say he is sweet because he has a penchant for really taking things to heart. When talking to him, it often seems like he is not paying any attention, or at the very least not comprehending what is being said. Then, lo and behold, a few hours (or it may even be days) later he will appear on the scene with an opinion, retort, or other pronouncement about a topic I might have forgotten about entirely by that point.
And, seriously, you never know what you might get. In this case it was neither hours nor days, but years later that I found out dad actually had been paying attention to something I said. Sophomore year in college my best friend (the one who damn near got named Randa) recommended that I read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. (As an aside, if you have not read it, do.) In the novel there is a taxidermied armadillo that plays rather a charming little role. I fell in love with the whole thing: the characters, the house at 80 Front Street, the granite quarries, and of course the armadillo. At the time I thought how great it would be to *find* a stuffed armadillo and give it to Randa — this was before e-commerce for the proletariat really took off, so I envisioned my quest taking a while. Apparently I brought it up while visiting my parents one time, but it was of such little consequence that I eventually forgot about it and moved on. Randa and I graduated and that was that.
Only it wasn’t.
Eventually I moved to Boston for grad. school. It was on a subsequent visit back to Memphis that I walked into my room to find a package sitting, unopened, on the bed. I did not recognize the return address, and it was clearly sent to my father. I asked him about it and, unphased, he said it was just a little something for me to give to Randa. There really is no way for me to describe my reaction when I opened the package to find this:
To the undiscerning eye, this is indeed a handbag fashioned entirely out of a dead armadillo. What served previously as the “little armored one’s” protective shell has been repurposed — with the help of a functioning clasp, a hinge, a bit of leather and some snakeskin accents — into a nearly unbelievable gift.
There was never any doubt that I would give it to Randa (who is not exactly the purse carrying type), but those first few moments I savored entirely alone. The purse has a certain beguiling effect. Its beauty, for me, lies not in its repulsive hilarity and uniqueness (are these common?!), but rather in the fact that my dad had been tracking dead armadillo (of a certain condition) for half a decade, and had even enlisted the help of his coworkers and friends throughout the South and Midwest — which is precisely how the purse ended up on my bed in Memphis, having been purchased, packaged, and sent to my father’s attention from a colleague of his in Oklahoma. Apparently an actual armadillo, taxidermied to preserve its original bilogical form, proved elusive.
More than anything else, this is a story about the kindness (perhaps with a wink, perhaps unacknowledged) woven throughout my father’s persistent quest — although I suppose it could be about any number of other things as well (I would love to hear it from the perspective of the guy in Oklahoma, for instance)! Randa and I still marvel not so much at the purse, but at the gesture. I gave it to her that year as a Christmas present, and she carried it proudly throughout the holiday season. I distinctly remember inadvertently kicking it underneath the dinner table on New Year’s Eve and watching it sail puck-like across the floor of the restaurant. More than that, I remember the curious looks as I retrieved it and gave it back to Randa, apoplectic with laughter.
Here I am featuring the purse last year during a visit with Randa; it usually makes appearances during cocktail hour:
As a post-script, armadillo handbags have become something of a theme for us, as you might imagine. This is my wedding present to Randa two years ago, fastened to our luggage cart as we emerged from the airport in Toronto.