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We Can't Have Anything Nice
Mom, Chaos and Christmas
by Richard Andreoli

Christmas at home always drove me insane, and I attribute that fact to my mother.

As 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, through necessity.

As 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.

It 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, after all.

So 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.

Since I love my mother, though, I did what came naturally … lived in denial about her OBSD-Obsessive Bargain Shopping Disorder.

Unfortunately, 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!"

That 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!

A couple 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 of mine.

Derek's 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.

On 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."

Christmas 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?"

"Nothing," was all I could manage. "I just need an aspirin." What can I really say? She's my mom, and it's Christmas.

"I'll 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..."

At 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 how.

Suddenly, none of it seemed insane at all -- it just felt very nice. So with that understanding I leaned forward and gave her hug.

"What's this for?" she asked.

"'Cause 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 screaming Angels.

Mom whacked me on the arm, gave me a look, and muttered, "We can't have anything nice."

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