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One year I asked my mother to contribute to a fund for people who needed help with heating costs in lieu of any "Santa Claus" gifts for me. Not that holiday presents went unappreciated. Typically, wonderful surprises unfolded -- a fishing rod, a three-piece luggage set I occasionally carry, a mohair sweater that I wear still.
But between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, something yanked me out of my comfort zone. My college certainly classified as mostly middle-class, my friends solidly so, and yet somehow the easy life now seemed undeserved.
What broke the spell?
Volunteer work with Head Start? My newly expanded lens through which to view my world, which until college had revolved around family, school and home? The disdain of my English professor, a young Indian scholar so obviously irritated by his soft, bland, unmarked students?
Whatever motivated my request, my mother reacted badly. She appeared offended and, in fact, refused to honor my wish for nothing. We didn't discuss it further, courting harmony at the expense of honesty, and I was left wondering whether she doubted my sincerity.
But I know now that I had snubbed her.
Giving thoughtful holiday gifts allowed her to reach me, her wayward, beloved daughter, by choosing a stylish ensemble or selecting an unusual tool for a favored hobby.
Had I listened, I would have heard her need to give. Though she'd been my mother for 18 years, I had not yet noticed the shapelessness of the sweater in her first-grade picture: It was probably her only sweater. I had not heard the hunger behind her offhand remark about why we never ate oatmeal: She had thrown it up after eating it every day twice a day during the Depression. Her pine cabinets, unlike my empty pantry, overflowed with enough to feed the five of us for at least two weeks. Ditto for the freezer. The overworked appliance was typically filled with a side of beef, carved into steaks and roasts and ribs and stew pieces.
For me to turn from these symbols of prosperity she had so carefully assembled, at great expense and labor, insulted my giver.
I've forgotten what I did unwrap at Christmas that year. It might have been that multicolored striped poncho, which I wore until it was embarrassingly outdated.
Today I still struggle with gifts. Too much in the way of things has seeped into our lives. It's easier to buy than refrain from buying; simpler to give than resist giving.
How I envy my mother her eagerness to carefully shop for each of us, choosing a shade of blue she knew we liked or seeking brand names we got only at Christmas. How she loved to shop and wrap and, in a culminating moment on Christmas Day, watch as we opened the turquoise lamb's-wool sweater.
Though I know that for her the act of giving was the joyful part true givers embody happiness inherent only in service still she longed for the material goods that had been scarce in her youth.
How can I appreciate giving the way she did, then?
Perhaps to give items of true value, in short supply, would inspire me. But they would take time, the ultimate gift.
For instance, when was the last time that you received a gift of "all ears," complete listening? It'd be easier to just buy a CD.
Or how about a start-to-finish home-cooked meal, accompanied by the leisure time and companionship to enjoy it? It'd be faster and cheaper to buy a gift card to Ukrop's.
The shortcuts the CD or the gift card wouldn't match my mother's quest to provide what she never had, but the attention or the nurturing would. This new list of scarce, nonmaterial goods, once cultivated, could grow exponentially.
Perhaps excessive listening could become more common than the sweater or tie or socks. We might even get sick of it. That'd be kinda cool.