Last year on this date I wrote about how important my mother’s birthday was to her. Perhaps it was the knowledge of the day’s significance that put an almost crippling pressure on me when it came time to shop for a gift for her.
I might as well admit up front that I’m not now and never have been an inspired gift giver. The intention is always there, but my desire to find The Perfect Gift festers into delays and anxiety that often lead to a down-to-the-wire, last-minute–-or even late--purchase. That, of course, undermines my confidence even further and continues the cycle.
My mother was 76 when she died. Doing the math tells me I was around for 57 of her birthdays. If you add in the Christmases and Mothers’ Days, that’s a lot of gifts. When I was a little girl, I’d spend a whole dollar to buy her nylon stockings, paperback “murder mysteries” (the dollar would buy four of them), or Evening in Paris “eau de toilette.” She always pretended to be thrilled.
As we all got older, things changed. Either my gift choices grew worse or Mother's skills at pretending deteriorated. At any rate, my gift-shopping nightmares began. I had more money and could buy nicer gifts, but almost always, when she opened them, I could tell by her face that I’d missed the mark. She’d be polite, offering thanks with a smile but without enthusiasm. “Dang!” I’d think to myself. “I’ll have to try harder next year.”
You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In all the years that followed, I can only remember giving Mother one gift she really liked: the well-preserved remains of an actual blowfish, mounted on an acrylic stand. I’d never have selected that in a million years if I hadn't seen her admire it in a shop.
The blowfish was purchased in the mid-1980s. Then, in 1999, I thought I had another winner. Mother had commented a few weeks earlier that she’d like to have a nice shirt that could also be worn as a jacket. Luck was with me, and I found one I thought would be perfect. It was made of a soft, buttery yellow faux suede. The color would be beautiful on her, and the lightweight fabric felt wonderfully soft and smooth. I knew she would like it.
I traveled to Texas for the occasion and sat in my sister’s living room while Mother opened her gifts. When she unwrapped the shirt, she hesitated for a moment as she looked at it, then gave the tiniest of smiles, said, “Thank you; that’s pretty,” and laid the shirt on the coffee table.
“Well,” I thought, “I was wrong again.” I was disappointed, but I’d kind of gotten used to it through the years.
That turned out to be Mother’s last birthday. She died a few months later, and only afterward did I find out that she did like that shirt after all.
On the sad day when the family gathered in Mother's home to go through her things and pack them away so her house could be sold, one of the most difficult tasks was sorting through her clothes. Tears filled my eyes as I stood in her closet amid clothing that still smelled like her. Then I spotted that buttery yellow shirt, and in the next minute I was laughing.
On a hanger right next to the shirt I’d given her was another buttery yellow shirt, slightly older, judging by the wear, but otherwise identical. The “perfect” shirt I’d given her was so perfect she’d bought herself one before I did.
I have that shirt now. It's exactly right to wear on the first cool nights after summer ends, and I always feel connected to my mom when I wear it.
Happy Birthday, Mother! As stressful as it always was, I’d still shop for you if I could.