The Things We Got from Our Fathers
On the anniversary of Harry Potter receiving his father’s Invisibility Cloak.
So there’s this old guy, right? And he’s basically babysitting an 11-year-old at Christmas, in a massive castle that has a three-headed, killer dog living in it (long story). And this kid can do magic but like, not super well because he’s 11. So what the old guy thinks is a good idea to give him for Christmas is not only probably the only family heirloom the kid’s late parents left behind but also an invaluable artifact that is the only one of its kind, thousands of years old, and makes the wearer invisible. Also, just to refresh, the kid’s still 11.
Gift-giving horror stories, am I right? It’s like that time your granddad bought your cousins a drum kit. Or realistic imitation weapons. Or expensive antique watches. Or vuvuzelas.
Jokes aside, the gift Dumbledore gives Harry at what is, arguably, the first proper Christmas he’s ever had (don’t think about that too hard; it’ll make you sad) is incredibly important to how the next six and a half books unfold. Not only is James Potter’s Invisibility Cloak invaluable in getting Harry into numerous places he shouldn’t be – thus helping him triumph over evil, no big deal – it also turns out to be one of the three Hallows that, united, make the bearer the master of death itself.
(Let’s just pause here and remember that Dumbledore gave this to an 11 year-old. Ahhh, old people and inappropriate Christmas presents. Ahhh, Dumbledore, you madman.)
But for Harry, the Invisibility Cloak doesn’t mean all of that just now. It’s a cool toy, but it means something else, too, something bigger: It’s something of his dad’s, perhaps the closest Harry has been to his Dad since he was a baby.
Harry spends the series on a bit of an emotional roller coaster as he pieces together, bit by bit, other people’s clues about what his parents were like. Sometimes the picture is flattering, sometimes a bit horrifying. But what Harry is always, hungrily, looking for as he catches those glimpses of his parents – reflected back at him in the Mirror of Erised, in Pensieves, waving out of photos – is little bits of himself. Everyone wants to know they belong somewhere. Those moments of realizing, “Oh, that’s where I came from,” create an identity, piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle.
Family can be pretty weird – even hard to deal with – at Christmas. It’s easy to forget the things that bind us together and instead to wonder how the hell you are related to this person while fantasizing about committing the perfect homicide (I mean, hypothetically. I’ve never done that). And sometimes we get given gifts from people close to us that make us wonder whether this person knows us at all. Or it might be that you can’t spend Christmas with the people you love most, for whatever reason, and that makes you feel untethered and alone. But at all of those times, like Harry, we need only look for something that ties us deeper than dinner table conversation or stuff.
Sometimes I can’t believe my father and I come from the same genetic material; it seems as though I have inherited nothing from him at all. Sometimes it feels like we are both baffled by each other. And then, a glimpse of a memory: all the high school summers spent curled up on the porch reading totally age-inappropriate crime novels – you know, those ones with ladies getting hacked up all over the place – with my Dad next to me furiously reading one, too. Or I think about us cleaning his car with The Best of Queen blaring in the background. Or eating pancakes for dinner on Sunday nights. And then I remember that we all get things from our fathers, even if we feel like we haven’t.
And Harry, unwrapping that cloak – before the Marauder’s Map and Lupin and Sirius and all the other clues that he’s actually surrounded by family, even if he doesn’t know it yet – gets his first hint that he’s inherited more from his father than money and looks. So before the cloak is a fabled magical artifact, and before it’s a means of evading evil, it’s just a really beautiful reminder that even if you don’t know what you have in common with your parents at Christmas, there’s always something – even if it’s just really terrible taste in detective novels.
If you’re doing it hard this Christmas, hang in there. And if an old guy just gave your 11-year-old a magic cloak that lets him hide from Death, well, good luck, I guess. You’re going to need it.
Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!