Can't Have Anything Nice
Mom, Chaos and Christmas
at home always drove me insane, and I attribute that fact to my
the youngest of five children, and with both parents and
a grandmother all living under the same Italian Catholic roof, I
was keenly aware of how tight money was. That's how madness starts,
a simple matter of survival, my mom shopped by buying items in bulk,
never threw anything out that could possibly be used later, purchased
anything on sale in case someone might need it some day, and made
coupons a way of life. This led to such holiday traditions as all
of us kids trotting down to the grocery store and buying, say, two
cans of corn each because there was a "two can per person"
limit on the purchase. Or on Christmas day we had to open gifts
by neatly cutting the tape with scissors because wrapping paper
is not only expensive, but it's still in plenty good condition for
next year's presents. I don't want you to think we were poverty
stricken, but my Mom was never quite sure if wrapping paper or canned
corn would ever go on sale again, so we did what we had to do
just in case.
only got worse with age. Mom still shops as though eight people
live at home, although all the kids have moved out, my grandmother's
now in a nursing home and my father died 13 years ago. To her credit
she has adapted with the times, she now buys for eight adults instead
of five children and three adults, because we are all grown up,
let's do some math. Between all the two-for-one coupons and the
"buy $75 of groceries, get a free turkey" type of offers,
her garage is a veritable Costco of canned goods, paper towels,
toiletries, pastas, rice, and cans of cat food for an animal that
has never lived within our house. She also has three full freezers,
jammed with frozen free turkeys.
I love my mother, though, I did what came naturally
in denial about her OBSD-Obsessive Bargain Shopping Disorder.
that blissful state isn't possible during Christmas because all
of my siblings, with their spouses and children, are in Mom's house.
We also bust our grandmother, Nana, out for the day, so she sits
in her chair yelling for people whenever she needs something, supposedly
because she's deaf and can't hear herself speak, but we all suspect
it's really passive-aggressive revenge for putting her in a home.
At the same time the TV's blaring and everyone's talking over it,
while my nieces ask me to play Barbie because I give the dolls creative
voices. In order to get from one room to the next you have to step
over the pile of old video tapes Mom's going to give to the church
at some point, but not quite yet because she has to go through them
to make sure there's nothing important on them like the Mary
Tyler Moore Special, Murder She Wrote repeats, or the
Carol Burnett Reunion that I recorded for her 10 years ago.
And amidst all this chaos, my mother, who secretly wishes she could
entertain like they do on The Food Network and goes out of her way
to make everything very special, will break something in the kitchen
and shout, "Dammit, we can't have nice things!"
expression was the kicker. I mean, who's she talking to? God? Us?
She says it like the chaos is our fault, but come on!
of years back I got a reprieve from the madness by spending Thanksgiving
with my then-boyfriend's family. Let's just say, they're the antithesis
father is an architect like Mike Brady, having built the farmhouse
they live in, and Derek's mother is so domestic she really could
have her own Food Network special. We woke each morning to freshly
baked muffins, eggs from the farm, and pancakes that Derek's mom
wouldn't think of making with a boxed mix. Thanksgiving dinner was
turkey and dressing, a potato casserole and fresh vegetables, and
rolls Derek's Mom made during the meal, and wine his father brewed
in the barn... And, no kidding, I was given some strawberry rhubarb
jam to take home as a lovely departing gift.
that morning, feeling more rested than I've ever felt on a holiday
at home, I thanked Derek's mom for all her hospitality and complimented
her on everything for the hundredth time. She said quite simply,
"It's how I find my joy."
soon followed, and as I arrived at my mother's house, with noises
thrashing out of it that made me think Apocalypse, I was immediately
overwhelmed. Inside, one sister was playing with the children, my
brothers-in-law were talking about day trading, and Nana was yelling
for a shot of brandy. The tension immediately rose from the base
of my back and crawled along my spine. Mom spotted me first. Her
face lit up as she cheered in this singsong voice, "I get the
first kiss!" and trotted over so that my nieces could beat
her to me. But when she saw the look of intense, overwhelming exhaustion
on my face, Mom grew concerned. "What's wrong?"
was all I could manage. "I just need an aspirin." What
can I really say? She's my mom, and it's Christmas.
do you one better!" she grinned in victory and opened the cabinet
above the microwave to reveal rows of Advil, Tylenol, Bayer, Children's
Tylenol, Tylenol PMS, Tylenol Cold and Aleve -- rows and rows and
rows of headache relief! She took out a whole box and handed it
to me, proudly saying, "Keep it. Vons had a sale..."
that moment, when I saw her so excited about this little gift, I
realized my mom had done what most people would consider a chore
-- feeding a family of eight on a very tight budget -- and turned
it into something she could enjoy. And amidst this house of noise
and clutter and watching where you walk for fear you're going to
crush something valuable, my mom was finding her own personal joy
by taking care of everyone in the family, the only way she knew
Suddenly, none of it seemed insane at all -- it just felt very nice.
So with that understanding I leaned forward and gave her hug.
this for?" she asked.
I love you," I answered simply, and as I let go my arm knocked
over a glass that broke in the sink with a crash like a chorus of
whacked me on the arm, gave me a look, and muttered, "We can't
have anything nice."
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