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Last night on Facebook, I read something that rubbed me the wrong way.  A peer, a woman I worked with for two months, posted a conversation she and her mother had had after seeing a yoga mat tucked into a Toys for Tots donation box.  “That’s not a Toy for Tots!” she cleverly quipped, “It’s a Present for the Privileged.”  I wasn’t sure how to articulate it at the time, but it bothered me, so I passive-aggressively posted a link to a blog that had gone viral about a woman finding quinoa in the food donation box at a school where well-heeled children attended.  The blog, of course, was about not judging “those people” who receive food donations or welfare, in the face of blatantly prejudiced concerns about welfare moms toting iphone 6s while gaming the system for free WIC benefits and food stamps.  The author had unexpectedly found herself in a position of using a food pantry previously, she writes, and far be it for us to assume who is at the other end of our donations.  I didn’t expect my former colleague to see herself in that story, but it set my brain on fire.

 

During the two months we worked side by side at a state-funded program for full-day pre-kindergarten for needy families, and children with developmental delays, she had lamented, while justifying why a professional woman holding a master’s degree was still living with her parents, that in this economy, one could have a car, or an apartment, but not both.  It’s insulting not only because I was doing both at the time, but more so because the families we worked with, most of whom were single-parent and/or immigrant families, were struggling without the benefit of native English proficiency, white privilege, or higher education that she and I both enjoy.

 

Then there’s her assumption itself, that a yoga mat is a privileged item, that yoga is a bourgeois pursuit, that a $10 yoga mat is an inappropriate gift item for a child in need.  What, pray tell, would one rather choose for a 10- or 12-year-old girl?  A piece of mass-produced commercialized plastic drek that will last no longer than Christmas morning?  Whereas a yoga mat needs no batteries, no assembly, has no directions, and no limitations.  Boys, girls, young and old.  And, contrary to the assertion of another Facebook commenter, it can provide more than just a “clean surface to play on” over the presumed squalor of the recipient family’s overcrowded tenement.  My own kids, not even three, but already in the throes of pretended play, have commandeered my dormant yoga mats, and set them up as roadways for their cars, towels for their “beach” excursions, and blankets to hide in.  A pair of pointe shoes or a riding helmet might be a White Elephant for an impoverished child, but a quick trip to the library would yield a DVD or a book of yoga poses to imitate.

 

Many years ago, around Christmas time, my mom read a “letter to Santa” in the local paper, written by a little girl whose family was in need.  My siblings and I spent our first night of Hanukkah wrapping matchbox cars, Barbies, stuffed animals, winter coats, and an artificial Christmas tree.  My mom played elf and delivered it all to the little girl’s school.  When we were talking about our first nights of Hanukkah at confirmation class the next day, I shared the warm, fuzzy feeling I had gotten from our act of charity.  Cynically, one of my classmates posited that it had been a hoax designed to garner sympathy and free stuff.

 

Is my classmate the same kind of person who thinks a yoga mat is a trapping of the well-to-do, that charity should be practiced with a distinct separation between the stuff we use, and the stuff they’re allowed to receive as gifts?

 

The social justice club at my school is collecting canned/boxed foods and free turkey certificates so that local aid organizations can give traditional thanksgiving meals to the hungry.  What started as an effort by a small group of kids resulted in a school-wide donation of 30 boxes of canned food and 10 free turkey certificates.  Due to the need for the stuff to be shelf-stable, most of the donations are the usual food pantry staples: mushy canned yams, canned corn, limp green beans, jellied cranberry sauce (with the ripples from the can), and boxes of instant mashed potatoes.  I don’t know of another way to collect and distribute food donations, but the result is that those have become poor people food.  Those are the go-to donations.  Alongside my jar of cranberries from Trader Joe’s in the donation box was the 30-cent can of corn niblets I found at Giant.

 

The canned-corn-and-instant-potato-flakes stereotype speaks to the larger issue of access to fresh fruits and vegetables that is often lacking in “food deserts”.  Fresh food costs more, has to be stored differently, expires faster, and requires more time to prepare.  But does that mean hungry people don’t deserve quinoa or yoga mats? If we really want our charity to be meaningful, we should choose things we ourselves would use.  There’s a significant difference between donating canned caviar, and buying an extra jar of the same spaghetti sauce your family uses when it’s 2/$5.

 

When we used to collect coats, hats, and mittens for a preschool service project, we would tell the kids it was for “friends we haven’t met yet” to make charity accessible to a 3-year-old brain.  That’s all “those people” are — they’re just friends we haven’t met yet.  I’d buy my friend a yoga mat, wouldn’t you?

 

How can I communicate openly and honestly with my mother?  With her, even I-statements don’t stand a chance since she perverts and twists everything I say to her like it’s a funhouse mirror, until it resembles an insult, rather than a clear expression of my feelings. 

Mom buys me things I do not want, do not like, did not ask for.  They don’t fit, or have missing pieces, or are things I would never like and have expressed so.  Never one to see the solution-less problem, she bends over backwards, martyring herself in pursuit of the one underwire bra I will like, because it will fit, even though I have stated my opposition to them a thousand times, on moral, ethical, spiritual, and ergonomic grounds.  Yet far be it for me to reject her gifts, for she recoils as if it is a piece of herself. 

At the very least, she meant well.  She honestly believes this.  Foisting unwanted, unasked for garbage of my or others is a measure of her good intentions.  And if she is so well-meaning, I dare not say anything about that particular act, as it is perceived immediately as an act of overt criticism.  Even if I start a sentence with, “I know you meant well, but…” it’s a criticism, it’s a critique, it’s a bald-faced insult of her good intentions. 

Last night, as I tried to assert myself, going against my usual complacency for her actions, and avoidance of conflict in general, it turned into a Mommy-trashing session.  According to her, at least, I was engaged in nothing less than the undermining of her very foundation, nothing more than verbal abuse.  Here’s how I perceive my part of the conversation went, after polite small-talk:

“Mom, I don’t like it when you send me a stamped card to send to someone, like Uncle Leo.  When you do that, it makes me feel like I’m a child.  I am an adult and am capable of sending a card by myself.  If it’s important to you that I send one, please just tell me.” 

That was perverted into accusations that I was ascribing intentions (malevolent, no less) to her actions, and that she views me as a child, and that she doesn’t think I’m an adult, and that she thinks, she feels, she means, she intends.  If you’ll reference my statements, I believe I talk only about her actions, and my resulting feelings, just like a good, assertive I-statement would.  She also enclosed a note I consider hideously inappropriate.  Had I used those words, I might be able to understand her feeling “trashed”, but I didn’t.  She essentially solicited gifts for Mother’s Day, under the guise of “helping me” by offering to let me know what she wants if I am so “stumped”.  I spent 30 minutes hand-crafting her a card, painstakingly sewing buttons and embroidering little flowers on it.  Her note immediately made me feel guilty for not sending a gift.  Even if I had – and I considered it – gone into a tizzy crafting/buying something fabulous for Mother’s Day, it wouldn’t have arrived on time, like the card did.  And doesn’t that just smack of, “I meant well, but I needed your reminder to send a gift, ‘cuz really I just forgot about you until you reminded me, and  it’s the thought that counts, but you solicited this ‘thought’, and it really doesn’t count, so Happy Mother’s Day anyway”?

So I gave her a similar message about her note about gifts.   Which was again perverted into accusations that I was assuming her intentions, her feelings, her thoughts.  This turned into a tirade about how everyone needs help, not just children.  People need help remembering to do things, to acknowledge the special days, to find the right gifts. 

And I basically lost it at this point.  Instead of her usual generalizations about life’s maxims and playing Devil’s Advocate for no apparent reason, it seemed very personal all of a sudden.  As if she were accusing me of, child or not, needing help to “do the right thing”.  And her version of etiquette – that’s what it’s always been about.  Sending cards for holidays and birthdays, making sure thank-yous are sent and received in a timely manner.  I hear about her harsh criticism for others who “never even sent a thank-you note” after she painstakingly picked out an obscure wedding gift of a pickle fork that probably confused the poor bride and groom more than anything.  I hear about her so-called friends who never call, never write.  I hear the judgment pouring out, and I know I have internalized it all. 

And because we cannot be mature in our conversations, my mother hung up on me shortly after 10pm, leaving our words said, but our conversation unresolved.  I called 8 times, and she wouldn’t pick up.  I tried my father’s phone, the land-line, and finally left a short message on her voicemail:

“When you hang up on me and don’t pick up the phone, it hurts my feelings.”

I tried again this morning.  She really couldn’t fathom why I’d want a “do-over”.  I had said what I wanted to say, right?  And every way I tried to say it, hurt her feelings.  I asked her last night how she would prefer I phrase it, as I couldn’t seem to play the game her way.  Oh, she had no idea; I should talk to my therapist about that.  Yes, I demurred, but my mother would be the only one who can gauge if my statements are appropriate enough for her ears. 

I don’t have therapy until Wednesday, and Mother’s Day is tomorrow.  I had to get this monkey off my back, so I tried again, in spite of her protestations that we’d already said all that needed to be said. 

“I don’t like it when you send me a stamped card to send to Uncle Leo.  Please don’t do it again.”

Okay.

“I don’t like it when you send me a list of things you want for your birthday or Mother’s Day.  Please don’t do it again.”

Okay.  I pushed for a third.

“I’m not using the stand mixer you bought us for our anniversary.  Where can I return it to?”

Wal-mart.  Figures.  Of course, I was not rewarded for my last attempt, as I had waited too long to speak up (see how I can’t win?), and she doubted the store would take it back, even if she could (heroically) find the receipt.  And what a waste of money.  Yes.  Her money.  For buying us something we neither asked for nor have used in the 7 months since receiving it.  We are automatically ungrateful.  This was not expressed, but I could hear it between words. 

And though therapy isn’t until Wednesday, I think I may have figured out how best to express my feelings or opposition to things my mother says and does – leave emotion out of it entirely.  As all my feelings are perverted into insults on her pure intentions, or assumptions of her thoughts, none of them are valid. She can’t handle my feelings.  She can’t even comprehend them.   And they certainly don’t have a place in any conversation where I express dissatisfaction.  I may be able to get away with statements like this, geared at someone with the emotional maturity of a preschooler: “Stop that.  I don’t like that.  It makes me feel yucky.” 

Nothing more specific, nothing like “I feel angry when…” or “It hurts me when…” or “I feel guilty when…”  Nope.  Just “yucky”.  I think she could handle that.

And just to prove I’m not completely insensitive, cold, hard, and unfeeling, I ran a version of my first attempt by my husband.  Just to check. 

If he persisted in buying me beautiful skirts that were size 4, and I’ve been a size 6 since forever, it might make me upset.  I might want to speak up.  I might say, “Honey.  I know you mean well when you buy me these skirts, but they’re always the wrong size.  When I see that they’re too small, it makes me feel fat, or as if you’re trying to tell me I’m not the right size.  They’re beautiful, but I can’t use them.  Please stop doing it.  It makes me sad.” 

I asked him if that would make him feel “trashed”.  Nope.  I asked him if felt like an attack on his very underpinnings. Nope.  It seemed, on the whole, quite rational, quite reasonable.  And quite, now that I’m wiser, unlike anything I’ll ever be able to say to my mother.

My aunt is a giver of choice gifts.  She is reponsible for the matching buttoneered license plate frames that adorn our car, which were an anniverary present.  Apparently, the 2nd anniversary is not cotton, but kitsch.  For years, she has insisted that I am still in love with all things frog, and has bought me no fewer than 3 sets of frog pajamas on my birthday.  I thought finally she was relenting when, last year, she gave us a gift card to Barnes & Noble for Hanukkah.   breathed a sigh of relief.  But, oh, no.  This year was no exception. My  newest frog pajamas (with matching fuzzy slippers) were earmarked as a donation to Mr. Apron’s work as soon as I tore the paper off.  A few short weeks later, we opened our anniversary box to find a pair of these:

Arrrr!

Yes, that is a giant pirate martini glass with “Cannon ball” written on the  base. 

I was regaling my coworkers with tales of my aunt’s atrocious gifts, when one of them showed undue interest in the martini glasses.  Turns out her family celebrates the holidays by doing what used to be called a Chinese auction, but is more P.C. to call a tacky gift pollyanna.  She knew, she just knew, she would win for worst (and therefore, best) gift with my martini glasses.  So I donated them to her cause. 

“But what will you do if your aunt comes to visit and asks to see them?” she inquired.

The last time I saw my aunt was at my wedding, 4 years ago.  If she saw us more often than that, she might know I’ve moved beyond frog pajamas and that we don’t drink at all.  Not even pirate martinis.

Gift-giving in my family has always been a strained topic.  (For proof, see here and here and here.)  My brother, with his December 25th birthday, always got shafted anyway for separate birthday/Hanukkah gifts.  He always wanted, yet rarely received, expensive electronica.  My father is impossible to shop for, and as a result, has more neckties and shirts that he can wear in a lifetime, and a stack of dry, “Daddy books” by his bedside, waiting to be read.  Mom, on the other hand, is very specific about what she wants, and does not hesitate to let us know, in writing, as an e-mail or card in the mail.  As she does this about a week before the event, we have to scramble to coordinate the shopping, shipping, and chipping in, lest she become very disappointed. 

Ah, yes, disappointed, that all-too-familiar feeling associated with Hanukkah.  Year after year, I’d make a wish-list, as we were encouraged to do, and time after time, the hopeful expectation has turned to doom and dread as I unwrap The Misunderstood (non) Turtleneck Sweater, The Wrong Birkenstocks, and The Hideous (non) Pea Coat That Looks Like a Men’s Blazer, and The Clothing That Would Not Fit.  And those are just the gifts I wanted.  I also end up with piles upon piles of crap I never wanted, little trinkets and tchotchkes that have always filled out the Hanukkah piles, as we opened one a night for 8 days: piles of socks, weird “gourmet” foods from TJ Maxx, stuffed animals (into my 20s), and clearance merchandise from Ocean State Job Lot with holes, stains, or “ready for crafting”.  My sister tries to keep these things at bay, fighting not to let them cross the threshold of her apartment, while I make trip after trip to Salvation Army, and jump at the chance to make a few choice contributions to other people’s yard sales. 

I’ve heard of large families who all pick names out of a hat and choose one person to shop for.  I’ve heard of the $20 limit.  I’ve heard of the themed gift giving extravaganza.  I’ve read Cathy and “AAaack!”ed my way through well intentioned agreements not to exchange gifts.  I’ve hemmed and hawed over who needs to be on my list.  Yesterday, a coworker revealed that her family actually does not exchange gifts.  As I strive each year to find homes for the piles of acceptable crap that enter my house after birthday and especially Hanukkah, I would genuinely welcome a truce on my family’s gift-giving quagmire.  Mr. Apron is stressing  because he has not started shopping yet for my Hanukkah gifts, and I’ve promised not to get him the full 8 this year.  For our anniversary in October, he was in the throes of play rehearsal, and I’d just emerged from a birthday, so we kept it delightfully low-key.  No fruit, or china, or appliances, or linen, or paper.  Just a bouquet from the florist who did our wedding flowers, a picnic at the township park where we were married, and dinner from Wegman’s.  I bought tickets to go see Peter and the Wolf at the symphony, and he scored seats at a live recording of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”.  That was it.  As soon as we’d accepted our own failures to procure the “perfect gift” for each other, we relaxed and had a great anniversary.

After our wedding, I was so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of “stuff” from our registry, I swore off consumerism for a good, umm, season.  The “Holiday Shopping Season” gives me hives. The endless pop Christmas songs blasting through store speakers, the 80 degree stores that leave me stripping off winter layers from the 40 degree day outside, the snaking cash register lines, the commercials to buy, buy, buy, and the overflowing tables of Isotoner gloves, Dearfoams, plaid pajamas, cashmere sweaters, and keychain/flashlight/iPod speakers, set up by gender, age, and dollar amount so you can blindly pick out a “perfect gift.”  It’s all too much for me.  While I was on my double-boiler pursuit this weekend, I was greeted by packed parking lots, eager shoppers, and early sales.  I wanted to bolt, run home, bury my head under the covers, and stay that way until December 26th

It is so much harder to be a gracious recipient of a crap gift, than it is to give a gift you’ve put any thought into.  It’d be easier, period, if my family could accept that all us kids are “grown” and won’t be crest-fallen not to see the huge pile of gifts again.   Ever.  I think we’d actually be elated to be free of the guilt of fulfilling Mom’s wishes, finding something (anything) for Dad, and shopping merely out of obligation.  Though the Salvation Army might suffer for it.

When my brother was a small child, he had a tricycle he loved.  It was a navy blue Fisher Price tricycle made almost entirely out of plastic, with a lightning bolt on the side and a seat that hinged open for storing treasures.  On it, he was unstoppable.  Many kids will wear down the heels of their sneakers when they “brake” their tricycles.  My brother backpedaled until he’d skidded the front wheel into oblivion.  Since it was just hollow plastic, not solid rubber like better made trikes, he’d soon worn clear through the plastic.  My father, cheap and inventive, managed to rivet strips of fiberglass around the wheel until he had, in effect, given it new tread and a new life, like truckers do instead of replacing the entire tire.  My brother loved this tricycle to pieces.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Apron and I were at the new Philadelphia children’s museum, the “Please Touch Museum”.  It’s a wonderful place built instinctively from children’s imaginations.  It features an expansive water play area, an Alice in Wonderland-themed zone, an aerospace exploration exhibit, a “town” which included a grocery store, kitchen, shoe store, train station, city bus, car, and construction site.  The kids, especially my grown-up kid husband, especially enjoyed climbing all around the Scion xB they had staged.  In  addition, for adult interest, they put on display behind glass vintage toys, including real antique wooden toys with the paint loved off, and some toys from my childhood only a few years ago.  They themed the display toys so that they related to the actual exhibit – putting space age and flying toys with the wind tunnel and flight-themed exhibits; and Alice in Wonderland toys near that area.  Near all the wheeled goodies – the city bus, the Scion xB, the manhole cover puzzle, the fix-it shop, they had a case filled with wheeled toys.  There was a Big Wheel, an old-fashioned pedal car, and my brother’s tricycle, c. 1985. 

I snapped a photo, texted it to my brother, and, within minutes, received the following reply:

“omg, my trike!”

Little brother was born on Christmas, making his birthday a tricky thing to shop for.  He always gets shafted, with his birthday so close to Hanukkah, if not overlapping outright.  Growing up, he always was disappointed not to find the expensive electronica he’d asked for under the wrappings.  It wasn’t that he was hard to shop for, but video games and computer parts were expensive gifts in the early ‘90s.  Nowadays I’ve found a new area of gifting for him – nostalgic toys from his youth.  A few years ago I found on eBay an exact copy of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurine he’d had.  It was a cheap talking toy.  When you pulled a plastic ripcord through the Turtle’s backpack, the toy would “read” the bumps on the strip and say some barely intelligible Turtles phrase.  He was overjoyed to open it, destroy its value as a collectible, and even say thanks. 

This year, though, I was brilliant.  I took the photo I’d snapped at the museum, dumped it in MS Word, converted it to black and white, printed it out, traced it onto freezer paper, cut out the negative space with an X-acto, ironed it onto a t-shirt, and stenciled his beloved trike onto the shirt.  Simple. 

Oh, and the caption I thought of: “Pimp my ride”.

I hastily wrapped it before presentation, and he opened it.  When the realization spread across his face, I knew I had a winner.  Mr. Apron explained that I had (painstakingly) made the shirt using the image from the museum, and his jaw dropped.

My brother and I have never gotten along, and lately he’s begun giving perfunctory hugs out of social grace.  I got one such hug and he exclaimed, “Whoa.  This is way better than anything I would have given you.”  Talk about the ultimate compliment.  And then, I got another hug.  Perhaps a real one?

I don’t often get these wonderful brainstorms for gifts, and I’m rarely compelled to give a gift so fitting and time-consuming to my little brother, who has for years been the antagonizing force in my life.  We’re so distant that, two years after my wedding, he didn’t even know I’d changed my name.  Yet these forces of family compel even disparate siblings to make an effort.  I came to a difficult realization a few years ago which has strangely liberated me in my feelings towards him:  I may have to love him, but I don’t have to like him. 

In small ways he’s become more “human” over the years.  Peer pressure finally kicked in and he wears regular clothing now instead of sweat shirts and track pants, even if he is wearing oversized sunglasses indoors like someone with dilated pupils.  He can now eat with his friends in a normal restaurant, as opposed to the half-dozen American fare fast-food joints that his picky diet restricted the family to, growing up.  He now sends almost regular birthday cards, cards I’m sure my mother has addressed, stamped, and given to him to sign and send.  Yet these little acts, acts we’re all making little efforts for, are gradually pushing us both towards, if not fraternal harmony, then civility at least.

Besides white elephants, my mother gives another type of gift.  Once she learns that someone is “into” something, whether it’s Stash brand Licorice Spice Tea, or rubber ducks, or The Three Stooges, or perfume, she doesn’t let go.  She engages in pursuit of products matching these themes, and lavishes them unceasingly on the unwitting recipients.  My cousin is now 38, and I have no doubt she still receives rubber duckies every October for her birthday, because she once happened to mention in passing she thought they were cute.  And it’s never just one tchotchke.  I was looking for a gift for my clinical supervisor at the end of the semester to thank her for her support and mentorship, and I made the mistake of asking for help.  Mom, upon learning this woman’s penchant for making to-do lists, and her first initial, sent me 5 monogrammed packets of post-it brand list pads. 

If you let it slip that you’re having a hard time finding something, she’ll set her sights on it, and you’ll receive, in due course, 6 boxes of red bush tea, 12 cans of Chef Boyardee pasta without meatballs, 8 packs of string bikini style underwear in size 5 (okay, my secret’s out), and untold amounts of men’s shirts in neck 15, sleeve 34/35 (and so’s Mr. Apron’s). 

Each time we visit my parents’ house, there are a gross of Canada Dry ginger ale waiting for us.  Never mind that we’ve defected to Caffeine Free Diet Coke.  And I don’t know how to call her off, how to submit a cease and desist order. 

For some people it must be a joy to receive these items.  Oh, they’re so hard to find.  Oh, she knows me so well.  Oh, I’ll never run out of my specific brand of deodorant or chocolate chips.  But for others, I think it must be embarrassing. 

Which is why I ended up only giving 2 of the monogrammed listing pads to my supervisor, and gave away the others to other people with the first initial of “B”.  I think it would be awkward for them. 

All this to arrive at today’s event, a family dinner, transpiring in 3 minutes (Mr. Apron, where are you?).  Mr. Apron’s big sister is having a birthday today, and I let slip to my mother that she was having trouble finding 5oz Dixie cups with Spongebob on them.  Her favorite motif in bathroom cups.  This week, in a large carton, arrived 2 boxes (total 180) of Spongebob cups, plus 4 packs of 10 each (40 total) Spongebob lunch bags, and a Spongebob bubble bath thingy.  I wrapped up the Dixie cups, and made an executive decision to save the rest for Hanukkah.  I just couldn’t present all the stuff tonight next to her other gifts…Mr. Apron’s family is not a pile-o’presents family.  They choose, instead, a few thoughtful gifts that don’t clutter the recipient’s house.  My family is–haven’t you guessed by now?– the inventor of the piles.  Much is “cute” gifts, tchotchkes, inexpensive things Mom collects all year long with the recipient in mind.  She LOVES having these missions, these quests for hard-to-find or special-interest gifts.  She loves giving. 

You’d just better make sure to send a thank-you note, or  you’ll suffer donations in your name to wildlife foundations instead.  No one, not even Mr. Apron’s family, wants that.  She will rarely kick you off the list entirely, but you’ll get spoken of in tense tones as the one who didn’t send a thank you note, or the one who sent only 1 note for all four gift giving occasions in the past year.  Oh, yes, there are tallies.  And terse words. 

Remember folks; send a thank-you note.  Yes: even for 5oz. Spongebob cups.