can't visit without bearing gifts. I open my apartment door and every
time, without fail, I find her wielding the dreaded glossy pink plaid
or polka-dot "gift bag" with a plume of coordinating tissue
sprouting from the top. It is a festive but deadly weapon. You see, I
am the victim of my mother's over-gifting.
A string of financial blows returned my once free-spending, Spiegel-catalog-venerating,
upper-middle-class mother to the penny-pinching of her impoverished youth.
But even a dramatic reversal of economic circumstances couldn't banish
the seductive sirens of recreational shopping. My mother simply adapted.
At bargain outlets and strip mall stores where everything's a dollar,
she resourcefully gathers gift-bagfuls of gadgets for a modest sum. Quality
doesn't seem to matter. This is a game of quantity.
Quantity and a creative bent lead my mother rather fluidly into "theme
gifting." She assembles a variety of items (their usefulness irrelevant),
creates an interdependent wrapping scheme, and presents them together
for the sake of the theme they represent -- "Relaxation," "Breakfast
in Bed," "A Snowy Day." One year I grew pots of basil on
my balcony, and my mother brought me a gift bag with a gardening theme.
I reached into the silvery sack and pulled out a packet of flower seeds.
That's cool, I thought. I'll plant these. I dug deeper and discovered
doll-size garden tools -- a rake, a hoe, a shovel -- each about six inches
long. Maybe I'd use those, but they were probably too small to
really do anything. Deeper still were nestled two weighty ceramic
rectangles hanging from loops of gold cord, each with flowers and vegetables
painted on them. Christmas tree ornaments? I'm still not sure.
Having reached the bag's bottom, I could no longer ignore the two wobbly,
semi-flexible rods that had been shooting out of the top, each with a
miniature wooden "birdhouse" bobbing from the end. My mother
called them "garden stakes." "You stick them in the soil
in your flower pots," she said, "for decoration."
The fact is, I don't want my mother's crappy presents. First, there's
the stark fact that my typically tiny New York apartment doesn't have
enough horizontal surfaces on which to display the number of things my
mother gives me, or enough closet space to store them. The bulky electric
gadgets notorious for having very little real-life value -- electric foot
soakers, magical massaging mats; the kitchen drawer-cluttering cheese-spreaders
with Santa Claus handles, roughly-soldered napkin rings imported in bulk
from Bombay with deadly, jagged-edged stars, a cookie press topped by
a scarecrow grip. Then there's the maintenance factor. Tchotchkes collect
dust, and the adult I've become prefers to keep things simple. But most
injurious of all, my mother shows no interest in finding out what I really
want, and seems contentedly oblivious to the clues around her. The majority
of things she gives me are completely inappropriate. They're nothing I'd
ever choose for myself. Sometimes I think she'd prefer I was someone else.
For example, despite the fact that I haven't celebrated Easter since I
dissolved my last Paas tablet at age 14, my mother still gives me gift
bags full of Easter decorations. One year it was an entire set of resin
bunnies. Do you know what resin is? It's a cheap, hard, plastic-like substance
capable of poorly mimicking porcelain, stone, even wood. Things made with
resin are painted hurriedly by assembly line workers in Taiwan. They rarely
bother to paint inside the lines on resin. There were five bunnies in
the set. One bunny was wearing overalls and tending his garden, another
was riding a bike. Still another bunny was a mail carrier with an overflowing
sack of letters swung over his shoulder. There was a bunny in a chef's
hat, and a bunny that, as far as I could tell, was the town vagrant, because
he was pulling a little red wagon full of tin cans. I acted pleased when
I unwrapped the resin rabbits from their protective lavender tissue and
lined them up along my fireplace mantle. As soon as my mother left, I
swept them into the garbage in one dramatic flourish.
All my mother had to do was look around to know I had no use for resin
bunnies. I wanted to rage, "Mom, do you see any evidence that I even
acknowledge Easter? Do you see rabbits, or figurines of any kind,
anywhere in this apartment?" I can't even remember when Easter happens,
let alone decorate for it.
She denies the physical reality of me by routinely bringing marked-down
jeans and blouses four sizes too small, "just to kick around in."
The stating and restating of my true size is dismissed like some absurdity
of self-deprecation. Standing before her, tugging at two front plackets
of a blouse that fail to meet by at least three inches, my mother's gaze
becomes eerily distant. I suppose she'd prefer I was a smaller person,
I was tolerant, but my tolerance reached its limit when my apartment began
to look like my mother's -- like a junk shop, a fire hazard. It was my
worst nightmare come true. How had I let this happen?
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
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".
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."
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."
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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