A Gift For Mama
For many moms, a card or some flowers are perfect. This unusual woman deserves something, um, special
There is a country—I read about it once—where the local custom is that if you go to a house and praise some small possession, the owners feel obliged to offer it to you as a gift. I don’t remember the name of the country; the only other place I know of with such a custom is my mother’s apartment.
Knowing Mama, I have always been careful with my compliments, but that doesn’t stop her. Mama senses admiration far more subtle than what’s spoken. If she catches me staring at anything small enough to put in a grocery sack, she hands it to me as I leave. It would do no good to protest.
“I was merely staring at that photograph of Mount Hood because I have one exactly like it in my living room.”Mama would only nod and say, “Of course. You were thinking how nice it would be to have a set. If a mother doesn’t understand, who does?”
Sometimes, while visiting Mama and trying not to say anything complimentary, I reflect on what might have been had she ended up in, say, the White House. “Here you are, Mr Prime Minister, that nice picture of George Washington you were admiring so much, from the Blue Room. No, take it. You like it. What do I need it for?”
Being with Mama is like watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie: I never know what’s going to happen next.For instance, I have lasting memories of childhood walks with her. Mama noticed everything. We had to stop to admire a nice house, a nice tree,a nice flower. Mama regarded the people we saw (those who didn’t look like her relatives) as portraits in a museum—no matter if people stared back. “She was pretty once, but has seen tragedy,” Mama would whisper,or, “Such a handsome man, but conceited to the core.” Her sharpest epithet was ‘Minky’, reserved for the type of woman Mama thought would wear a mink to the supermarket.
As far back as I can remember,Mama was telling people they were in the wrong line of work and suggesting alternative careers. If the landlord fixed the sink, she told him he should have been a plumber. If he couldn’t fix it, Mama would wait until the plumber came and then tell him he should have been a landlord.And if either one of them told her a joke, Mama would have to know why he hadn’t gone into show business.
My turn came when I grew up and became a housewife. “You missed your calling,” Mama sighs, examining the doodles on my phone book. “You should have been an artist.” Later, I tell her how I returned rancid fish to the supermarket and demanded a refund, and she amends this to lawyer.I know it’s horse feathers, but I like it.
“You missed your calling,” I tell Mama. “You should have been a vocational counselor.”“I know,” she sighs. “But that’s life.Maybe now that it’s spring ...”According to Mama, there is no problem that will not be a little bit solved by the coming of spring.
I grew up believing that there was only one correct way to end a discussion of things unpleasant or troublesome:nod at the calendar, pat somebody on the back if possible and sigh, “Maybe in the spring ...”I could understand how certain problems—sinus conditions, chapped lips, sticking windows—would respond to the change of seasons. But I never tried to unravel the spring magic that Mama vowed would help me understand fractions or long division.
I was not the only target of Mama’s philosophy. At one time or another,Mama had several dozen people in the neighbourhood waiting for spring to relieve them of indigestion, mice, domestic difficulties and trouble with the horizontal hold on their television sets.
Sometimes, sitting in school during history (which Mama promised me I’d find less boring in the spring), I would daydream my mother into other places and other times. Once I saw her patting Napoleon on the back, after he got the news from the Russian front. (“Maybe in spring ...”) She was beside George Washington at Valley Forge, brushing snow off his epaulets. (“In spring,maybe, you’ll win the revolution.”)She was looking over Thomas Edison’s shoulder, comforting him in his early failures. (“Don’t worry; maybe in the spring you’ll try something new.”)
I have been worrying for weeks now about what to give my mother for Mother’s Day. For most people, this is a modest problem, solved by the purchase of a bathrobe or a box of candy.For me, however, Mother’s Day represents an annual challenge to do the impossible—find a gift that will make neither Mama nor me feel terrible.Expensive gifts—which Mama defines as costing over $1.98—are out,because they make Mama feel terrible.
(“This is awful,” she says, examining an apron. “I feel just terrible.You shouldn’t have spent the money on me.”) Inexpensive presents—under $1.98—please Mama, but they make me feel terrible.
There is always the danger that a gift given to Mama will bounce swiftly back to the giver. If I buy her something wearable, she perceives in an instant that it could be let in here, let out there and it would fit me perfectly. If I give her a plant, she cuts off the top for me to take home and root in a glass of water. If I give her something edible, she wants me to stay for lunch and eat it.
Papa, a sensible man, long ago stopped trying to shop for Mama. Instead, on Mother’s Day, her birthday and other appropriate occasions, he composes a short epic poem in which he tells of their meeting, courtship and subsequent marriage. After nearly 30 years of poems, Papa sometimes worries that the edge of his poetic inspiration has dulled, but Mama doesn’t complain. She comes into the room while he is struggling over a gift poem and says, “It doesn’t have to rhyme as long as it’s from the heart.”
This year, finally, I think I, too, have found a painless gift for Mama. I am going to give her a magazine article,unrhymed but from the heart, in which I wish her ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ and tell her there’s nothing Papa or I could ever buy, find or make her that would be half good enough anyway.
This story originally appeared in the May 1977 issue of Reader’s Digest.THE OREGONIAN (2 OctOber 1975), copyright © 1975 by OregOnian pub.cO.,