So my parents are old. Not like 60 “I’ll retire and open a vineyard” old, but like: keep your teeth in a glass by your bed, “That music just sounds like noise”, “What would I need a cell phone for?” old. Like old with an ‘e’ old. They are 80 and 86. Lots of things happen when your parents get older but one of the worst is they become impossible to shop for at Christmas.
My father doesn’t want anything new: “I like my chair.” And my mother always insists that she doesn’t want anything. We tried skipping a gift for my mom that one Christmas back in ’05. I remember it well - we only speak of it in whispers. It is referred to as: ‘The Christmas of Silence and Tears’. My mother said in a tight voice: “Oh, its ok. I told you not to get me anything.” - and then went to stand silently at the kitchen sink with a single tear running down her cheek like that sad litter Indian from the 70’s commercial and only answered questions with a single word for the rest of the visit.
After literally Googling “Gifts for an 80 year old woman” and finding my options were: Mugs for the “Year you Were Born”, bathroom safety devices and an abundance of cozy cat sweatshirts - I thought: "there has to be something better." I decided that I will only give my parents things that I ultimately want to have. I mean, let’s be honest, according to the actuarial tables everything they own should be coming my way within say the next 5-10 years. So, it’s kind of like layaway. So - This year my mom is getting a silver necklace from Tiffany and a Keurig. She’ll never use the Keurig: “What happens when they stop making those little cups? How will I get my coffee? I’ll stick with my Mr. Coffee thank you very much!” She will store the Keurig in the basement in the box for me. It will be good as new when it comes my way. Let’s hope they still make those cups when the time comes!
So yes, Christmas there is an exercise in unbridled restraint. Let me explain, I have come to the conclusion that most people can only accept so much change over the course of their life. At some point they have to stop and draw a line and say: “That’s it. I cannot and will not go any further!” For my parents 1984 was the cut off. Madonna, answering machines and Miami Vice were as far as they could go - this includes Christmas. It is also important to note that being Protestant Midwesterners of a certain age, they are also exceedingly thrifty and humble, like Lake Woebegone is an aesthetic to which they aspire.
So - long, long ago, every Christmas we would trudge en famille, out to the woods to cut down our own tree. My father would never let us get a really big one because: “They charge by the foot and anything over 5 feet it just too ‘showy’” (here he would make fluttering hand gestures to demonstrate just how ‘showy’ he felt it was) but around 1984 they switched to a fake table top tree that my mother found by the side of road one year: “…and I was just driving by and I saw it and I said: ‘Why would anyone throw out a perfectly good tree like that?’” So yeah, we have a ‘trash tree’ in the corner of the family room about which my Dad says: “Its new to me”, except that it is 20 years old. No new ornaments have been added. The playdough snowman ornament I made is still there minus his nose and hat along with the macaroni Jesus glued to construction paper. There is a heavy overall Charlie Brown Christmas tree vibe going on. AND my mother saves….wait for it….. the tinsel. Yes every year she methodically collects the tinsel from the tree and carefully, strand by strand, places it back into the container from whence it came. We only got one box of tinsel (see above regarding being ‘showy’) and it was only on the top half of the tree so the cats wouldn’t eat it and slice their intestines up.
My mother also bought several giant rolls of wrapping paper from a department store that was going out of business in the 80’s and…… we are STILL using that very paper today. Same paper every year. When we get together with the cousins we don’t have to do tags because everyone knows that paper. You would think that with such an abundance of paper we could tear at the gifts when we get them, but no! Each gift should be opened with surgical precision so we can: “…save the paper! It is such good paper you know.” This will cue my father to produce his pocketknife, which he literally carries in his pocket all the time. He will use said knife to carefully cut the tape on the paper, which he will hand to my mother for careful folding. Each of the children has been given a pocketknife and EVERY year my father will say: “Where’s your pocket knife? Why am I the only one who has one?” as if carrying a pocketknife daily is a totally normal practice.
So, there is literally no room for excess, but they like to pretend that they are indulgent which leads my mother to wrap virtually every item that is given. Now as a kid this was problematic because I would come downstairs and see just like a million gifts with my name on it and feel pretty jazzed, but… not so fast! My mother would buy a 6 pack of socks and then wrap each pair separately. She would give me a roll of quarters, carefully wrapped or a single candy bar with a bow. When you are 10 this gets disappointing really quickly. She believed that 10 pennies was worth more than a dime. So instead of the $50 boom box, I would get 5 things, each worth 10 dollars but all I really wanted was the Toshiba boom box! Then of course she would rub her back and carry on about all the hours she spent wrapping things. Last year I gave them an 8x10 framed picture of my family for Christmas and I felt like I was giving them the most garish gift! I think I would have felt more comfortable giving them the Kama Sutra – because at least that can be tucked away! I cannot overstate the level of understatedness here. At no point should one draw attention to oneself unless you are singing loudly and clearly in the church choir. For their 50th anniversary we gave them an 8x10 canvas image of them on their wedding day. It is currently displayed in my mother’s bedroom at waist level on the far side of her dresser: “Wouldn’t want people thinking we are full of ourselves now would we?”
Now the dark side of my parents is the Christmas card list. I know no one sends them anymore but it used to be a very big deal and it still is to them. My parents have an extensive list of people to whom they send cards. When we were younger there was a family picture, but not too showy so just like us in a barren field looking tired. So people could see what we looked like but also know that we weren’t too full of ourselves - and then each year my father writes a letter to accompany the photo card. His letter is the antithesis of the letters you see today. I mean he hardly mentions any of us and plays down everything that happened: “Carol is busy with church, the kids are going to school and Chuck is still employed.” In describing our vacations it would read: “Well, we took a trip to Yellowstone. It was nice but we had a flat tire a broken axel and there were roaches in the Motel 6. Good family time.” But the list - I mean she has a file with hundreds of addresses, and on each card for each family or friend there is a little chart with the years all listed in columns so she can keep track of who sent HER a card. If you have a letter ‘N’ in two consecutive columns you are cut from the family Christmas card list. She is heartless and swift. At the back of the card box is a whole section devoted to the fallen. I think she keeps them so in case someone suddenly sends one they can be placed back in the rotation but - I also think she derives a little satisfaction from looking at the pile of people she successfully excised from the gift of our dreary photo and humble missive, and thinks to herself: “Serves them right.”
Coming soon: A Very Sober Bacchanal.