First, twenty-two years ago at a holiday potluck at work, the subject had somehow turned to shopping for parents, and I mentioned that I didn’t always know what big present to get my Mom, but there was a particular kind of candy that she loved and I had been buying her a box of it every year since I was a teen-ager, so there was always a point during the opening of the presents when my Mom would pick up the box and realize what it was and grin. A new co-worker expressed shock and disbelief, insisting that any mother she knew would be irritated to get the same thing every year. She further insisted that my Mom must be faking the enthusiasm for the candy.
Second, twenty years ago, I visited Mom for Christmas and drove her to Grandma’s for the big Christmas Eve shindig Grandma used to throw. At said shindig, Mom received a present from one of the other relatives that was an enormous (and ugly) knick-knack. It was taller than any table lamp that Mom owned. And Mom had just recently moved into a smaller place specifically because she was trying to get rid of stuff. Mom had said thank-you to the present, but the look in her eyes had clearly communicated to me, “What am I going to do with this?”
During the almost hour long drive back to her house, there was a point when Mom went really quiet for a moment, then asked, “Where am I going to put that thing? I mean, it’s so big!”
I made sympathetic noises, but otherwise didn’t have an answer.
She suddenly grabbed my arm and said, “Promise me you won’t get me things like that! Give me candy, or cookies, or candles—things I will use up! If you don’t know I need it or will use it, please don’t spend the money!”
Third, seventeen or eighteen years ago, Mom had mentioned needing a specific thing for the kitchen, and I had found it, but it was in a weird, truncated pyramid-ish shaped box. And while I was trying to decide how to wrap it, I noticed that the broad base of the box was almost exactly the size of the box of those candies I have been buying her for Christmas since I was a kid. So with some wadded up newspaper and a lot of tape, I turned the two things into a large, retangular package, then wrapped them together.
Christmas Eve was at my Aunt’s that year, and Michael and I drove Mom to it. During the gift opening, one of the kids of one of my cousins had distributed everyone’s presents as piles beside each of us, and it had turned into a bit of a torn paper frenzy. I had watched Mom getting quieter and more sad looking as the evening progressed. She hadn’t been feeling well that morning and had almost decided to stay home for Christmas Eve, so I thought that she was feeling worse. I quietly asked a few times if she needed something.
There was only one present left beside her chair—my two-in-one box. Everyone else was finished, and one of the kids asked Mom if she was going to open her last one. She sighed and said something that sounded quite a bit less than enthusiastic. She picked it up into her lap. She turned it around looking for an edge to the wrapping. And when she did, the candy jiggled inside its box—making a distinctive sound she recognized.
Mom’s eyes lit up like search lights. She turned the box again and looked at the tag to see it was from me. She grinned at me. “I know what this is! I know what this is!” And then she tore the paper off like a tornado of ninjas attacking a castle. She liberated the box of candy from the rest of the present and exclaimed, “You didn’t forget my candy! My son didn’t forget my candy!”
Michael had to point out that there was another part of the gift she might want to look at. She was glad that I’d gotten her the kitchen thing, but she was clearly more happy about the candy. And she was enthusiastic the rest of the night.
So, my Mom really does like it when I give her that candy every year1.
Fourth, as long as I can remember, Mom has loved hot tea. She loves nothing more than to curl up with a new book and a cup of hot tea and spend the day reading. For various health reasons, she can’t do caffeine any more. So the tea needs to be herbal. Unfortunately, when most of the rest of the people in Mom’s life think “herbal tea” the go for camomile3. Mom doesn’t dislike camomile, but she gets tired of it after awhile.
So every years I look for interesting herbal teas for Mom other than camomile. Last week I found two boxes that looked interesting while I was out shopping. I went to a rather large number of stores that day. When I got home, there was a lot of stuff to put away. And when I was finished, I couldn’t find the two boxes of tea.
I searched all the shopping bags. I looked around the house. I looked in the pantry with my teas. I looked everywhere. I confirmed on the printed receipt that I had paid for the tea. I decided that when I and the person at the store were bagging my groceries, one of us had accidentally pushed the boxes aside.
The next day I headed out shopping again with a list of people I needed to get gifts for. At the first store I went to the back of the car to get a shopping bag. And there was a shopping bag from the day before with four things in it. Two of which were Mom’s tea. Fortunately, nothing in the bag was perishable, so I didn’t waste anything by forgetting some groceries in the car overnight.
So there will be several presents under Mom’s tree from me this year. And now you know what three of them are. And I’m pretty sure as soon as Mom picks them up, she’ll know what they are, two. Ever since that one Christmas, I have made sure that the box of candy was wrapped by itself, so it would be no surprise to Mom what was inside.
But surprise isn’t the point of that particular present.
1. One time when I told this story, a friend who is also a mother and grandmother told me that there was a type of salt-water taffy she liked, and anyone who bought her some of that for Christmas was a winner in her book.2
2. Another person (who also happens to be a mom and grandmother) pointed out that while it is undoubtedly true that Mom likes this favorite candy of hers, by the time I was an adult and I still gave her a box of the candy every Christmas, the candy had become a symbol. “I have absolutely no doubt that every Christmas when she opens that box, she looks up at you and she doesn’t see you as the grown man you are. She sees her little boy—how you looked as a small child. That isn’t a box of candy, to her, it’s a box of memories of her baby.” I suspect she’s right.
3. One time my Aunt found a big boxed set of “herbal teas” in the gift box aisle at Walmart. Except they weren’t herbal. When you read the small print on the box, the teas were all regular black tea4 with artificial flavoring. So the “camomile” was regular black tea with some kind of camomile flavoring. And the “hibiscus” was black tea with hibiscus flavoring. And the “elderberry” was black tea with flavoring and so on.5
4. Loaded with caffeine.
5. The set included I think it was 8 little tins, each of which had the name of the herb in question, and then behind each tin in the box was a little foil packet with three of the skankiest looking oily tea bags. And they all smelled absolutely awful.6
6. Mom begged me to take it home. Michael and I had a lot of fun throwing it away.
Some years ago (on another blog) I said some extremely stupid (and dickish) things about wish lists. One friend brought the dickish aspect to my attention, and I felt like a complete heel. As well I should have. I didn’t say what I said merely because I was a jerk1. I had reasons for feeling the way I did. But like any emotional baggage, we are seldom aware of just how off-kilter our perception is thrown by carrying it… Read More…
This time of year I often find myself saying, “You don’t have to get me anything. No, seriously.” And I mean it.
One reason I mean it is because I already have too much stuff. I’m a packrat, son of packrats, grandson of packrats, great-grandson of packrats, and things accumulate around me. I hang on to extra adaptor cables, chargers, old gadgets that have been replaced with newer models because someone might need that someday. I collect books, certain kinds of toys, pens, earrings, paper products, movies, music, and other things because I like them. Or because they have some kind of sentimental value.
And my husband has similar tendencies.
So, on one level, I literally don’t need more stuff.
On the other hand, who doesn’t like getting gifts? Particularly if it’s something really wonderful? A couple of friends found an old book I didn’t know existed, written by an author I love, illustrated by an artist I like, featuring a character both my husband and I have enjoyed reading about, and with a hilarious title which was perfectly innocent when the book was written in the 1930s, but now sounds like a sensational expose of some secret gay life of the character in question.
It was a perfect gift for us. And I was truly ecstatic when I opened it.
Several years ago, when my mom was trying to come to grips with the problems inherent in her packrat tendencies, asked me to refrain from buying her things that would just sit around taking up space. “If it isn’t something I can use up or that you know I need, please don’t.”
It has proven a valuable guideline, which I have been trying to apply to everyone I shop for at Christmas time. And I really enjoy getting that kind of present from others. For instance, another friend gave me some really comfortable, extra warm socks in my favorite color. They’re perfect for cold winter evenings when I need to keep my toes warm. And yeah, they’ll wear out eventually, but the whole point is to use them, including use them up.
Another friends got us a custom engraved photo frame with the date of our elopement. We were blessed to have several friends take some really great pictures of the event, and yes, I want to display a few of them. One of aforementioned friends gave us framed printouts of some of the best of the pictures he took. More great gifts.
I know that I have ignored others telling me that I don’t need to get them something. I’m not trying to be difficult, and I certainly don’t want them to feel obligated to reciprocate. I do it because I want to give them something. Sometimes it’s because I saw something in a store or at a craft fair or in a dealer’s den and I thought, “Oh! So-and-so simply must have that!” And sometimes it just means I was thinking of them.
And I recognize that the same thing is happening with the people who give me things when I say they don’t need to.
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
Well, actually, the solution is quite easy: now that I’ve typed it. Instead of telling people they don’t need to get me anything, I should just stick to a heart-felt “Thank you!”