Gifts to Remember

My mother did not have that je ne sais quoi regarding gift giving.

She gifted things she denied herself, then was pissed they weren’t received with the same appreciation she would have for them. Ironically, that experience taught me the art of gift-giving. The golden rule being it must have the person’s tastes and likes all over it, not your own.

As a child, I was acquainted with the disappointing gifts my mother gave me. I remember desperately wanting a fashionable coat that I saw at Eaton’s one year. A colossal box showed up under the tree that I couldn’t pass without shaking, convinced my mother was finally plugged into my wishes. But when I tore it open, my hopes and dreams were scrambled like a deflated balloon that had been stomped on, lifeless and flat. Instead of a coat, it contained 100 pairs of underwear from Marks and Spencer. I rummaged through the box, naively, believing the underpants were a distraction and the coat was tucked underneath. It wasn’t. I looked at all the underwear, baffled she would make such an excessive purchase on something pedestrian. She liked to buy toilet paper and dried goods on sale, so these had to have been as well.

The idea of a new coat for a first-generation Canadian kid that wasn’t a hand-me-down vaporized. As I went through the box, I discovered underwear labelled for six of the seven days of the week. Pissed off, I felt compelled to apprise her that Sunday was missing. She responded that they couldn’t make underwear that read Sunday because it was a holy day. So she included a bunch of floral pairs to serve as placeholders for Sunday. The patterns weren’t dissimilar to those featured on her tablecloths, and embroidered table runners peppered throughout our house.

Each year I received pyjamas from Honest Ed’s wrapped and placed underneath our overlit artificial tree with a snake of extension cords peeking out, waiting to ignite. The word’ flammable’ was stamped on the bottom right corner of the pyjama top. An unsettling detail when living with a parent who was a smoker. It wasn’t Christmas without receiving a pair of those. The font used to create the word ‘flammable’ made them more memorable. Adding a campy graphic quality similar to today’s graffiti art. There were long johns and undershirts because nothing like thermal undergarments say Christmas to a little girl.

Then there was the year I got a train. I sat in the kitchen, stuffing myself with cookies, completely unamused while watching my dad play with it. A cigarette loosely dangling from his lips, holding a rye and ginger. Back then, shopping at your local grocery store meant you received loyalty stamps. Based on your spending, they could be applied towards a selection of toys and featured gifts at Christmas. Similar to a points card, with the goods available at the store for pick-up. My toys all came from their annual selection. That year they featured a train. 

Every Christmas season, I would sit high on the mechanical rocking horse that overlooked the grocery store. Feeding it dimes while kids complained, I was hogging it, watching my mother shop while I strategically stared at the mountain of gifts redeemable based on the number of stamps submitted. Taking a mental inventory while trying to send her vibes for something I might like.

Nine times out of ten, the toys were male-dominated, with the girl’s stuff being secondary. Void of being fresh or modern, like a Barbie. Instead, some fake cupid doll in a lame dress was showcased. In hind site, the boy’s toys were more engaging and moved me out of my comfort zone, teaching me to be a kick-ass little girl, every bit able to play with the boys and win.

I wanted a Barbie, all her groovy clothes and Go-Go boots. But my mother thought good Catholic girls don’t wear Go-Go boots as sensible footwear. That attire was reserved for prostitutes. Barbie apparently was a slut with her micro mini wardrobe, so she never appeared under the tree. I was sure to point out the boots to my mother on an episode of Laugh-In that a respectable celebrity was wearing. She didn’t say a word, looking closely at the television, adjusting her glasses for a hint of a crucifix dangling from her neck to validate her sporting them.

One year she took me to the Bata shoe store at Bathurst and Bloor and bought me a pair of shiny red patent leather Christmas shoes like mini Mary Janes except with a square heel. I wore the shit out of those shoes. They were fantastic. Shiny and as bright as the souls of Manolas. Being December, more often than not, I had to slip them into those Gawd awful galoshes that little kids wore back then. Covering the precious fire-engine red shoes, thinking it was a sin that their beauty should be hidden for even a second. 

When I got married, I was the recipient of dishtowels and aprons. The accruements that speak to a time domestic divas were striving to be the next Betty Crocker. Naive to the fact that her daughter could not roll a delicate pastry or a tight cabbage roll but could roll a splif. I begged her not to gift anything, telling her that, being the matriarch, it was our job to gift to her. But she insisted to the detriment of even our kids. Giving them clothing that even Kmart wouldn’t sell. Colour patterns from the early 70s of rusts and browns assembled in test patterns that would scorch the vision of anyone with one iota of aesthetics. She managed to keep that up for years. Validating the purchases by insisting the kids would grow to love it, seeing they were purchased from Simpsons or Eatons. Department stores she had a fierce allegiance to.

I wanted her to stop wasting her money and remove expectations hoisted upon us that we couldn’t fulfill. Suggesting it better served to help those in need. To her credit, those were the people she looked after first. Leaving groceries at their front door anonymously, so their pride wasn’t injured in front of their kids. 

Growing up, a Christmas cornucopia adorned with sweets existed in the shadow of these failed gifts on top of an upright piano in our modest dining room. Decorated and loaded with delicacies. You couldn’t help but reach for a Viennese-style Christmas cookie, citrus, a slice of coffee cake or walnut tortes as you entered the room. It was like reaching through a window at Fauchon in Paris. I now do that on our buffet in our dining room, where treats exist from December 1st until the 31st. Belgian chocolates, covered cherries, and an array of cookies and sweets getting rotated weekly. 

After bringing the bags of gifts for our kids, my mother would present me with cookie tins. Each housed the most incredible Christmas cookies. You can’t buy them today because they are too labour-intensive. Gorgeous vanilla-infused walnut-style meringues encased in a delicate pastry dusted in icing sugar that melted as they brushed your tongue. They were light, soft and crisp all at the same time. Refined in their presentation and taste. Uniform crescent cookies would melt in your mouth made from an array of nuts and butter, each perfectly done by hand. Tiny sandwiched cookies, a cross between a shortbread and a sugar cookie. Rich in butter, exposing either apricot, raspberry or plum jam peeking through the gorgeous hand-cut fluted top layer. 

These were the gifts I will never see again and those that have stayed with me for decades. Mom passed these off as a token when they were the feature gifts of Christmas. I knew how much effort she put into creating them and that cookies were her currency. Doing anything kind for my mother would find you as a benefactor to a tin of her amazing, magical European cookies.  

Gifts were never a focus at Christmas; food was. I started our kids on gratitude Christmas letters instead of them believing they needed to give us a gift. Each wrote an annual Christmas letter to my husband and me about all they were grateful for. I have dozens of heartfelt notes. I still receive those letters from our kids, who are now adults and can’t read them without weeping. No gift can give me what those letters have annually—reminding us that we have a front-row seat to these beautiful souls walking the earth. Now that’s a gift.

When mom passed, I gifted the nurses who looked after her with shopping bags of the best cookies I could find to thank them for looking after her. 

It’s approaching 20 years since she passed, with no hand towels, aprons or dishtowels coming my way. It has also been that long to have yearned for her enchanted Christmas edibles. 

Void of THC but chock-full of the sweetness of TLC.

Thank you, mom.