And Many Happy Returns
My mother wanted to give me my birthday present early this year because, as she told me with tears in her eyes and a small crack in her voice, “I might not be around anymore by the time it gets here.”
Mom is only sixty-two years old. She’s not battling a fatal illness. She’s not even sick. She’s just a little dramatic— always has been. So after she turned her back and began digging in the closet for my gift, I laughed.
“My birthday’s in less than three months, Mom,” I said to the back of her head, now hidden in the dark behind a row of jackets and sweaters. “Do you think you can hold try to hold on for that long?”
She ignored my sarcasm. “I just think people should say the things that need to be said, and do the things that need to be done,” her voice softened again, “before it’s too late.”
We’d been talking in her room for the last half hour, Mom reclining on her shabby chic armchair and me perching awkwardly on the edge of her bed. I initiated the conversation, picking up where we left off the day before, and trying to contain my left over emotion. We talked mostly about my writing, but also about our relationship, since the last thing she read of mine was a chapter in which she felt she played the starring role.
Of course, that’s not how I intended it. The chapter is twelve pages long, with about five paragraphs where I talk about her directly. However, two of those paragraphs imply that she is partly to blame for some of the sadness I experienced as a child.
This hurt Mom’s pride, but moreover she worried that I was still upset with her, about things that had happened over thirty years ago. I told her I was not, and then I tried to assure her that the whole point of the chapter is that all human relationships are disappointing. Mom didn’t find me too convincing.
I got quiet and stared down at the wooden floor between us. “Then I guess I haven’t done my job as a writer,” I suggested, shrugging my shoulders. “I must not have told the story very well.”
“I don’t think anyone’s trying to say that,” Mom said, curling and uncurling her toes. “I just want to make sure there’s no bad feelings between us right now.”
I met her gaze, finally, but now it was her turn to be sheepish. “And I hate that you felt that way as a little girl.”
“But I don’t blame you for any of that,” I said. “Not anymore, at least,” I added, trying to be as honest as possible. “I know you did the best you could.”
“Really?” she said, arching a perfectly shaped eyebrow at me.
“Yes,” I grinned in return. “Just like I’m doing with my kids.”
“Uh – huh,” she grunted. It sounded more like a question than an agreement.
“Listen, I do the exact same things you did. I yell, I get mad. I go in the kitchen and slam the cabinet doors,” I said. “And I know they’re gonna point the finger back at me some day. But they’ll grow up and have kids of their own and learn the same thing I did.”
“And what’s that?” she smirked.
“That nobody’s perfect. No matter how badly we want them to be. And no relationship is perfect either,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth having.”
That’s when Mom remembered the birthday gift tucked away in her closet. The one she’d already bought and couldn’t wait three months to give me. She told me to wait just a minute, then she got up and opened the closet door.
But I wasn’t sure I wanted Mom to give me a present just yet. What if it ruined the important moment we’d just shared? You see, our track record isn’t so great when it comes to gift giving.
When I turned thirteen, mom told me she’d booked a photo session just for me. What a surprise! I couldn’t imagine a more perfect present. It was a Saturday morning and I was so excited. I took a shower, blow dried and rolled my hair, and put on my favorite dress. It had a knitted navy bodice, attached to a flowing white skirt, along with a gigantic sailor’s collar, and a bow that tied right in the middle of my non-existent chest. Finally, I put on some make-up.
This was 1988, so my choices were pale blue eyeshadow and hot pink blusher. I didn’t think of myself as pretty, but I really wanted to be. The thought that someone was waiting to take photos of me, that capturing how I looked right then was worth the time and money, gave me the smallest hope that someone else saw what I couldn’t. It was hard to believe that mom was actually prepared to pay for something so superficial. The walls of several of my friends’ homes held framed personal portraits, some even taken for beauty pageants, but at our house, we only took pictures on holidays, or when they were required for school yearbooks.
I got in the car, already dreaming of an 8 x 10 of myself sitting on a beautiful hillside with the wind blowing my hair, like a scene from Anne of Green Gables. We lived about ten minutes from town at the time, but the ride seemed to last forever. I had no idea where we were going for this photoshoot, but I never expected what happened when we got there.
Mom pulled into the parking lot of The Great Southern Hotel and gave me another surprise. She hadn’t planned a photoshoot after all. Instead, we were about to go in this fancy old inn and have a tea party with some of my friends. She had invited my Sunday school teacher and all the girls in my class. They were already sitting inside waiting for me, with linen napkins placed in their laps and lace doilies decorating the antique table. I’m sure it seemed like the perfect gift from Mom’s point of view, but my heart broke when we walked into that candlelit lobby.
There have been a few other times over the years when Mom missed the target buying me gifts. Like the time she bought me a Winnie The Pooh watch in my late twenties. She still didn’t have a handle on my style; she just knew it was different than hers. At least she was trying. I told her thanks, but I never wore it. I’m sure she noticed.
Mom prefers the finer things in life, but I’m more content with ordinary fare. She likes to tease her hair to twice its natural height and won’t go to Walmart without fresh lipstick, while I’ve been known to wear the same plain t-shirt for two days in a row. We’re natural born opposites in nearly every way, so learning how to show each other love—and how to receive it—has taken some time.
Mom’s hair was ruffled when she finally emerged from the closet, carrying a little white box.
“Here,” she said, handing it to me as she sat back down. The lid of the box declared that it came from Kohl’s department store; it looked like jewelry again. I held my breath and hoped that I would like it, or at least be able to fake it enough not to hurt her feelings.
I opened the box and saw a dainty silver bracelet with two hearts attached in the middle. One is larger and studded with fake diamonds. The other heart is smaller — just plain, smooth silver. I teared up when I saw it but I wouldn’t notice the details until later, like how the larger heart was more like Mom and the smaller one was more like me. Yet I knew at first glance that Mom had truly bought me something simple, something she would never consider wearing herself.
I took the bracelet out and tried it on. Mom was already anticipating problems.
“Now, that might not fit you just right. Maybe my wrists are larger than yours,” she said looking down at her own arm.
“No,” I replied. “I think it fits alright.”
“Well, I don’t know if that dangly part will drive you crazy when you wear it.”
“I don’t think so,” I told her. “Not if I wear it on my left arm.”
“You know that lady at Kohl’s must have known I was a sucker as soon as she saw me comin’…”
“I like it, Mom,” I said smiling back at her. “I really like it.”
She stared at me with a blank expression, so I examined the way the bracelet looked on my arm again and blinked back tears.
“Thank you,” I said, finally.
“Well,” she said, with a hint of satisfaction, “you’re welcome.”