As we approach Mother’s Day I recall the agony of trying to choose an appropriate gift for my departed mother. My mother was difficult to please, and this was never so evident as when she opened my gifts. Unlike the more Americanized mothers, mine was Italian and quick to express her feelings.
One year I bought silk flowers in a small glass vase because I knew real ones would never be welcome. Within an hour, my father phoned my apartment to ask me how much the gift cost. The entire arrangement was twenty-five dollars but apparently the vase was tagged three dollars; my mother had looked underneath the gift and was immediately insulted. My father tried to convince her that I didn’t undervalue her.
I learned the hard way, cheap or expensive didn’t matter. I failed at it all. Perfume, clothes, jewelry, no matter how carefully I tried to pick out the perfect present, she would exhibit some sign of disappointment, be it the soft sigh, the forced thank you, or even the more direct “What the hell did you buy this for?” Yet for a non-event I could show up with a donut and she’d be happy for the thought. In fact, any used item was even more appreciated.
One Christmas I bought a ruby necklace, spending four times my budgeted allotment. It would be worth every penny to have my gift appreciated. Ruby was her birthstone, so I couldn’t imagine her not loving the extra care I took to pick it out. My mistake. From the moment she dangled it from her hand, I knew she hated it. I could feel my heart itself swaying back and forth with the necklace as she rocked it in disbelief. But in case I didn’t pick up on the clue, she twisted her mouth and reminded me she had asked for a battery operated TV. Still, I didn’t admit defeat.
My mother had amassed a collection of home-recorded tapes from the food network. I stumbled upon a New York Times award-winning recipe tape. I thought for sure this was a no-brainer. I wasn’t going to give her something I thought she needed. I was going to give her something I knew she liked. Wrong again. In fact, she could not understand why I would pay money for something she could get for free off the food channel. A discussion ensued and my father, uncle, and aunt came to my defense. I don’t think I said much that night, except to myself, vowing never again to do more than write a check or place cash in an envelope.
That was not the last gift I gave my mother, though it was the last one I gave her while she was alive. When she died I gave the undertaker a pair of my shoes that had been in and out of high rises in New York City, places I suspected she would have enjoyed if she had been born a generation later and given the opportunities I was lucky enough to have. Whatever she disliked about my life no longer mattered. Her negative comments about my gifts just gave me something else to hold onto, one more precious memory of her. But I’d like to think she appreciated the shoes. I’d like to think that one gift said it all.