The Secret of the Old Mill

The Secret of the Old Mill December 21, 2022

There’s a scene in The Rookie that devastates me every time I watch it.

Disney’s 2002 sports biopic is mostly a competent little movie, elevated by a fine cast. (Dennis Quaid is terrific — and he learned to pitch left-handed for the role, which is a whole other level of acting.) It tells the implausible true story of Jimmy Morris, a one-time pitching prospect who blew out his shoulder and wound up as the baseball coach of a small-town high school. Then, as a 39-year-old husband and father of three, he realizes his arm has healed and he is once again capable of throwing 98 miles per hour. The story involves two unlikely underdog success stories and both of those are exalting tales that the movie capably presents, but those aren’t the scenes that get to me.

What gets me is the look on Brian Cox’s face.

Cox plays Morris’s father, a distant, gruff figure who never really understood or cared about his son’s passion for baseball. But now he’s trying, and as a gesture of that he’s bought a special gift for his grandson’s birthday — a baseball glove. It’s his way of showing that he’s learned to pay attention, his attempt to please his grandson and, thereby, to make amends with his own son too. He hopes they’ll see that and understand what it means — understand how much it means.

But the old man screwed up. He bought his grandson the wrong baseball glove, a first baseman’s mitt, something he didn’t understand was different because in all those years he’d never really learned anything about his own son’s life and dreams. And then, as an angry and disappointed Quaid rallies to reassure the young boy that it’s OK — they can exchange Grandpa’s gift for something he actually wants and needs, that’s when we see Brian Cox’s face.

It’s a wordless reaction shot that lasts two, maybe three seconds. And it’s devastating. His horrified expression shows us a lifetime of pain, confusion, failure, sadness, and disappointment.

The scene works because the details are just right — with just exactly the right gift that’s wrong in just exactly the right way. And it works because Cox and Quaid are terrific actors at the top of their game.

But it’s also gutting because I’ve seen that look before. I’ve seen that same heartbroken and heart-breaking expression on my own father’s face.

When I was little — seven or maybe eight years old — I went on a Hardy Boys kick. I was plowing through the collected works of “Franklin W. Dixon,” making weekly trips to the library as I obsessively tried to read the entire series.

My sister, a year older than me, had done the same thing with Nancy Drew, and she’d even begun collecting those books. She had a dozen or so of them already, neatly arranged on a shelf in her bedroom, and I desperately wanted to do the same with those Hardy Boys books. So far, saving up my allowance, I’d only managed to acquire one volume, No. 3 in the series, The Secret of the Old Mill.

But Christmas was coming and I knew or hoped that this meant my library was about to grow. This was the one thing I’d asked for that year for Christmas: Hardy Boys books.

Our family’s custom was for each of us to open one present on Christmas Eve. As we kids got dressed for the candlelight Christmas Eve church service we went to every year, Mom and Dad would bring down the neatly wrapped presents they’d kept hidden in their bedroom and stack them in little piles under the tree, one pile for each of us. When we got back from church, we’d each examine our piles carefully, weighing and shaking and sniffing at each to determine which one we’d get to open first before reluctantly going off to bed.

And there, in my pile, was a present that was precisely the glorious size, shape, and texture of a Hardy Boys book.

“This one!” I said, giddy with excitement.

“Go ahead,” my dad said, beaming with anticipation, “open it.”

I shredded the paper furiously and held up the book: The Secret of the Old Mill.

When you’re a little kid, you haven’t yet learned to mask your emotions, so my disappointment was bluntly evident. “But this is the only one I already have!”

There was a beat before my father said anything, before he rushed to reassure me that it was OK, that we could take it back to the store and exchange it for any of the other books, for whichever one I wanted. And in that half-second it took for him to gather himself to say that I turned and saw his face.

And that’s where I saw the same look that Brian Cox had in The Rookie. Dad was crushed, defeated, sadder than I’d ever seen him before. It was only for a second — a twitch and a grimace hastily replaced by a forced smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. It was a pained and painful look that said more about his love for me than any stack of presents ever could.

I immediately changed gears, doing my best to feign excitement and enthusiasm over this present, but 7-year-old me was no Brian Cox and I don’t think my acting fooled anybody. But I was only just beginning to learn something about Christmas and gift-giving and gift-receiving that I hadn’t previously understood.

We give our loved ones presents at Christmas and on birthdays and we want those presents to convey the love we have for them. But this is something those presents can never do. Not even the best of them — those rare, perfect gifts we find that we hope will show how much care and attention we’ve put into them. Even when we don’t mess things up by buying the wrong baseball glove or the wrong Hardy Boys book, no gift or pile of gifts ever seems adequate to represent the love they’re meant to symbolize.

This is what strains our budget every year around this time. My wife likes to get her Christmas shopping done early and by the first week of December she’ll have stacks of ready-to-be-wrapped presents assembled for our daughters. Because she loves them. Because she loves them so much.

And so, because she loves them, she will begin to imagine those gifts on one side of an invisible scale opposite the enormous love they’re meant to communicate. Weighed on that scale, those presents — no matter how wonderfully apt or lovingly chosen they may be — begin to look tawdry and insubstantial. They’re never enough. They could never possibly be enough.

And so the Christmas shopping continues even though it was more than done already.

And so we’ve learned — or are learning, or are still trying to learn — to remember the sheer impossibility of buying or making or baking or handcrafting stuff to give to one another that could ever hope to adequately demonstrate the whole of the love we’re awkwardly wanting to show. Which means embracing that inadequacy and insufficiency. It means accepting that the awkward semaphore of gift-giving can never, in itself, articulate all that we’re trying and needing to say.

I suppose that all I’ve said here amounts to little more than platitudes about how “It’s the thought that counts,” or don’t have “Present Face,” or just some trite condemnation of the “commercialization of Christmas.” But this is what makes whatever that means so dangerous. We’re suckers for the “commercialization of Christmas” because of our best impulses, not our worst. We’re buying more than we can afford because we’re trying to give love, not to get it for ourselves.

And every one of us, even at our best, is going to make mistakes when trying to show our love to our loved ones. Even if you’re not the kind of gruff, distant, distracted and disinterested figure like Brian Cox plays in The Rookie, you’re bound to screw things up sometimes.* Every one of us is, at some point, going to make that same face, disappointed in our own miserable inability to show what we desperately needed and wanted to show.

But the good news is that Christmas affords us all the opportunity to show this same love effortlessly. It’s not about giving the right presents, but about receiving them. People who care about us are going to give us things because they care about us and because they want us to know that they do. Let them. Accept those gifts as what they are — expressions of love and of care which are, therefore, always appropriate and perfect and wonderful to receive. Even if they’re the wrong kind of mitt, or a book you already have, or a hideous scarf.

It’s not about getting, but it’s also not about giving. It’s about allowing others to give.

My collection of Hardy Boys books eventually grew to more than 20 volumes. Those books are mostly now in the basement of my sister’s house, on a shelf alongside her old Nancy Drews and a dozen or so vintage Bobbsey Twins books she found in a used bookstore. Her kids plowed through all of those books when they were that age, and I suppose one day their kids will do the same.

But that collection of Hardy Boys books is missing volume No. 3. I kept that one. Both of them. I’ve still got two copies of The Secret of the Old Mill and they mean too much to me to ever give them away.

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* There’s a whole different essay to be written here about Christmas and the awkward gift-giving of a distant father figure — we wanted a Magnificat and you got us a Pieta? — but that’s something I’ll have to think about some more before attempting.


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