My mother died 10 years ago, and though the passage of time has eased the pain, I still miss her a lot, especially so this weekend. So in honor of Mom, here’s an essay I wrote in 2001 as I approached my first Christmas after her death.
Each year at Christmastime, I have readied myself for the unwelcome addition of some piece of blue gingham plaid something or other to my household.
My mom and I always had decidedly different taste. As Marie Osmond might say, Mom was a little bit country. I, to put it bluntly, am not.
This difference in taste didn’t stop my mother, however, from routinely presenting me with some little treasure she’d found that seemed just tailor made for our kitchen or guest room. At some point, she stopped waiting for holidays or birthdays and even got to thinking of a random Saturday as reason enough to share some trinket.
We had plenty of conversations about our lack of stylistic similarities. She used to joke that she figured the best way to pick out a sweater for me was to pick up the thing she thought was most offensive.
But even after she conspiratorially agreed to tell the family not to buy me knickknacks for my wedding shower, listening to my complaints about anything that makes dusting take more than five minutes, she simply couldn’t help herself.
She always came bearing gifts, and I couldn’t take the idea of being the jerk to tell her I didn’t want the plaque or wallhanging with a heartwarming saying in swirly script.
It’s not that I’m looking down my nose at my mom’s tastes. Either through nature or nurture, I share her love of a bargain. It’s just that my bargains tend toward an eccentric silver serving piece from a consignment shop while Mom’s credit card nearly leapt from her purse the moment she walked into Kmart.
I still laugh when I recall Mom’s priest telling me she’d confided to him that my taste seemed to get worse every year. At least it wasn’t just my imagination when I saw how we struggled to find any middle ground on everything from home furnishings to clothes to music.
For years, Mom and I had what you might politely describe as a strained relationship. She and my dad divorced when I was just 3 years old, and she often worked two jobs to pay the bills. She had a rough go of it, and we clashed often about everything from my lack of enthusiasm for cleaning my room to my relationship with my father and stepmother.
After all that, we somehow got to actually liking each other, and I think underlying the gift ritual was a sort of peace offering or gesture of friendship. In that context, how could I look her in the eye and refuse?
I hate to admit it, but I’ve actually taken clothes I got from my mother and donated them straight to charity without so much as taking them out of the car in between. I figured it was better to have someone appreciate a perfectly good sweater than to have it sit it in my closet and guilt trip me every time I passed it by.
My husband and I always did a quick pass through the house before a Mom visit, just to make sure a representative sampling of her country kitsch was visible. Most of the goodies lived in the closet or the basement the rest of the time.
When Mom was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, the emotional part of me started taking a mental inventory of every part of our relationship. If I lose her, I thought, what will I feel right about and what will feel wrong? It got me thinking about these oddball gifts.
I started to see them not just as an act of kindness or generosity, but as Mom’s genuine desire to connect with me. When I was young, I cried about the way she dressed me and the way she got my hair cut because it seemed she was more concerned about her preferences than mine. That’s how I used to see the country gifts – she wanted to give me a present, but wanted to give me something she liked, not something that suited me.
Then I started listening more. She bought blue silk flowers in an enormous blue-flowered vase because she knew we were doing the guest room in blue. Ditto for the blue stuffed angel, which she said would match the décor and watch over me, double duty. The gingham plaid kitchen hanging seemed perfect for that empty spot on our wall and sort of matched the colors of our dishes.
The gifts weren’t random. Mom was watching us establish our home and was trying her hardest to contribute to the effort.
Even if I never would have chosen the silk peignoir set she bought me as a wedding gift, I couldn’t help but be moved by the kindness in the extravagance of such a beautiful thing. It wasn’t just a fancy nightie. She was contributing to our marriage.
I used to think I’d love it if my mom would miraculously understand my taste and get me exactly the gift I wanted. Then again, she always asked me for a wish list and when she followed the requests to a tee, it felt a little clinical. She was just using a shopping list, not injecting herself into it at all.
Sure, I love the Handspring Visor she dutifully bought at my request for my 30th birthday, but she didn’t even know what it was. It said nothing about her, it was all about me.
When Christmas comes this year, my first Christmas since Mom died, I’ll miss all sorts of things about our holiday traditions. And at the top of that list, much to my surprise, is realizing how strange it will feel not to bring home a ceramic goose with the little outfits you change for the holidays. Now we’ll probably never have a set of seasonal flags to fly in front of the house. There isn’t a single “bless this home” sampler anywhere in our abode, and who’s going to change that?
As I’m mourning the loss of my mom — my country-to-the-core, blue-jeans loving mom — her ill-chosen tokens of affection will be the things that keep her close to my heart.