My mother has always been a lousy gift-giver. It's sort of a narcissistic disability: She's so embedded in her egocentric little world, she cannot choose a gift based on anything but what strikes her fancy at the time.
Over the years I've grinned through a handmade Cabbage Patch knockoff with dead, staring eyes (scarring to a seven-year-old); purple velour knickers and matching vest (humiliating to a nine-year-old); scrunchees found in parking lots (ew); "cow jumping over the moon" pajamas (for my 27th birthday); a generous check earmarked for a "singles vacation" with daily reminders to "look into that cruise, my friend's niece met her husband there"... and many, many, many more things that nobody who has ever met me would think to buy. My mother is generous, but not terribly thoughtful.
Maybe that's why I've become so good at giving presents. For every birthday and holiday on my calendar I spend weeks considering, then hunting down, the perfect item to suit my brother's hobby, my sister's hair color, my best friend's style, my uncle's taste in music. If it can't be bought I'll make it myself. Anything to avoid that glance, right before the "Thank you," that cries, "Do you even know me?"
But my mother: She likes cats. So if she spots a kitty-themed beach towel in the window at Loehmann's, that's what I'm getting for my birthday. Never mind that I haven't seen the ocean in five years.
This week, my mother's legacy lives on.
Exhibit A: My parents' vacation to Seattle.
(Spoiled brat disclaimer: Yes, it was very nice of my mother to think of me while on vacation, and one should always appreciate a gift, no matter how out of style or off the mark.)
But this one was a doozy: A tiny silver-framed picture of a cat, with the phrase "Life is Good" printed in pink under its tiny paw. On the back was some inane affirmation about love or happiness or something. Oh -- and did I mention it was a necklace?
I don't mean to be ungrateful. Really, my parents are so very giving. But this is an item that screams "spinster cat lady." And it's not the sort of thing I can keep on a shelf and hide when I've got company. I'm supposed to wear it. In public. Gentlemen, I ask you: If a blind date was sporting this around her neck, would you ask her out again? I've disowned friends for less.
Exhibit B: Father's Day.
My father is a practical man who likes practical gifts: Tools, electronics, hand cream... stuff he needs but is too busy to buy for himself. Stuff he'll use.
Like clothing, which my mother has always bought for him, whether it's a gift or just something he needs. This is their system: He cleans, she cooks; he earns, she spends; he does the taxes, she picks out his clothes. But as my mother ages, her taste (like her personality) is sometimes prone to absurd, inappropriate outbursts: green eyeshadow; nylon jogging suits; a Batman-size wool cape the color of a peacock's ass.
This Father's Day my dad was presented with a bag of polo shirts. (TJMaxx price tags still attached. Why pretend?) He pulled them out one by one. Navy blue, very nice. Brown with white stripes, lovely. Khaki, excellent choice. And then, almost in slow motion, a shirt the color of radioactive orange sherbet rose from that shopping bag. My brother and I clung to each other and shielded our eyes. Dad stifled a laugh.
"What?!" my mother huffed. "I love that color!"
A blind pimp wouldn't have picked that shirt for my father. And not just because it fell off of the "Miami Vice" wardrobe truck on the way to the dump. My father is a handsome man, but at the height of summer he's maybe a half shade darker than an albino, and balding and skinny to boot. In that polo shirt, in that hue, he would look like E.T. cruising a Chelsea nightclub in 1983. (Collar...up.)
But Dad rescued Mom like he always does. "I think this will go nicely with my khaki pants," he said, and kissed her sweetly on the cheek.
I should be so lucky to marry a liar like that.