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The Over-Gifting Affliction
By Kimberly Brittingham


For a long time I felt guilty about throwing away my mother's gifts. Often I'd transfer my guilt into a bizarre sort of mourning for the material things themselves.
I have this vague memory of standing over the kitchen trash can, my heart breaking for three little bears lying in the bottom, clutching tiny tea cups, soused in used coffee grounds. They were attached to a plastic music box from a "Tea" theme gift. As soon as I got the thing home, I pitched it. Minutes later, sappy at the sight of those happy bear faces half-obscured in wet waste, I plucked the music box right back out again. It felt like I was throwing away my mother; as if to toss out her 99-cent figurines was to kick her in the head and leave her in the gutter.

Harmless though tea-guzzling musical bears may seem, each time my mother gives me something I don't want, I have to experience the same feelings all over again -- awkwardness, annoyance, remorse, resentment for having to take time to deal with the unwanted things; to hide, hoard or discard. Decades have passed since a wood plank shelf wrapped itself around the walls of my bedroom, reaching and winding and clinging like a rampant vine, growing three-foot extensions as the collection of penny banks and porcelain clowns expanded. And I watched, passively, from the island of my well-appointed twin bed, as a mother's gifts were amassed and placed one after another after another in a row, like a bread line of five-and-dime dollies, a decidedly unscientific cabinet of curiosities, label-less, without significance, tied to no memories. It was easy to let it happen then; I was a child, at the mercy of others. But having it forced upon me as an adult is an uneasy thing, so it happens. It requires some unpleasantness to draw a line at my own front door and say, "no".

The time had come to confront my mother. I broached the subject strategically in mid-November, when I knew she'd already be ferreting away just-a-little-somethings for Christmas. She takes great pride in stacking the boxes in ascending order according to size, creating a bittersweet beribboned tower, a glittering pyramid of sublimation.

I asked my mother, as gently and as tactfully as I could, to refrain from giving me soooo many things. "I really don't have room for that much stuff," I said, "And the more stuff I have, the harder it is to keep my place clean. I would appreciate one nice gift, Mom. That's all I need. You know what I want? A Black and Decker Scumbuster. If you get me nothing but a Scumbuster, I'll be perfectly happy."

We tiptoed back and forth for five minutes through a sludge of diplomatic sweetness, but my mother flatly refused. "I know you don't need these things, but I need to give them to you."

My mother was oblivious to the poignancy of her own words, but I wasn't. All those years, she'd been imposing her mania on me. My mother's buying-and-giving is actually for her gratification. If she gifted in the healthiest spirit of giving, my mother's motivation would be to give me happiness -- joy as defined by me.

That was it, I decided. No more pussyfooting around. "Well, will you still want to give me all these things if you know I'm just going to throw them out, or give them away?"

Her response was not what I expected -- easy, unflinching. "You can do anything you want with them. They'll be yours."

After that, I wasted no time. The Salvation Army brought its truck the following Monday. We see each other frequently throughout the year, the Army and I. They need what I have to give, and I need to give it to them. It's one of the most rewarding relationships I've ever had.

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