Since before I was born, when it was only my sisters in the house, my mom has always asked for peace and harmony every year for Christmas. This year we got her a Crock-Pot. 

I screw up gifts for my mom all the time. It started in the second grade, when my teacher assigned us each the project of picking out gifts for our parents from a box of festive trinkets. She’d ordered the box from Oriental Trading. She sent us home with a worksheet with spaces for what our family wanted. On it were question prompts, in case we blanked during the interview.

“Mother, what is your favorite color?” I had to ask.

It seemed silly. I thought I already knew all there was to know about the strange people who lived in my house and enforced my bedtime, which wasn’t much. I’m not sure it occurred to me they could have opinions and desires that were not directly related to my person and well-being.

“Yellow,” my mother said. “I love yellow. Now put on your cleats for soccer practice and no crying this time.”

So I brought her home a little yellow ornament for the tree. And that was all the getting-to-know-you I did with my mother for a very long time, until a Christmas in middle school when I bought her a yellow sweater. I had asked her what she wanted but she’d just said “peace and harmony,” per usual.

She just loved the sweater, “really, I do,” she said. Except she didn’t. One of the many reasons giving and getting gifts is a terrible and frightening institution is because of the expressions we have to make while we open them. Most everyone knows when someone really loves a gift, or if they’re just making the face you’re supposed to make when you unwrap it. “Oh, I just love it!” they’ll say, tucking it away in a drawer and quickly patting the handle.  

A few weeks later, my mother was walking around the house in a sweater almost exactly like the one I got her, except it was periwinkle blue. I figured she’d exchanged it, which would be fine. But she hadn’t. She’d kept the sweater I’d gotten her — she’d never give that away, it was a gift from her son. She just wanted one in blue, because after all, “Blue is just my favorite color,” she said.

It was enough that my parents were allowed to have ideas and opinions not directly related to me. But to go about changing all the time and acting like real, living people was another matter. I’d put in the quality time in the second grade, and from then, my relationship with the people who lived in my house and enforced my bedtime should have been coasting.

That night, or some night thereafter, my sisters and I gathered sub rosa to discuss the matter of our mother, who was impossible to pick out gifts for. I quickly suggested she should be eliminated. “If she were in a coma,” I said, “we would only have to visit once a year with flowers, like they do on TV.”

My sisters and I weighed the relative emotional cost of having a mother in a coma or admitting to ourselves that perhaps we didn’t know our mother as a person the way we assumed we always had. After some deliberation, it was decided that measure was too drastic, but it was put on the backburner as a last resort.

We decided the easiest way to pick out gifts was to determine what our mother liked to do.

“Cooking,” my sisters said, “and cleaning.”

“Yes … Good, good. But what about laundry?” I asked.

It was decided that, in lieu of rubber gloves and laundry detergent, for the next Mother’s Day we’d save up the money, go to the Home Depot and buy all the fixings for my mom to start her own garden. It just seemed like the sort of thing that the sort of person who seemed to like to cook and clean and wash dishes and pick up children’s rooms would like to do — gardening, I mean. I’d find out years later that my mom had other interests that didn’t involve caring for us, that she likes snowshoeing and tennis and apparently used to work for Microsoft, whatever that was or meant.

So that May, we plopped a few stacks of wood and some nails and seeds in the yard with a bow on all of it. Then we patted each other on the back and left our mother to construct it, because there was a daytime marathon of Lifetime original movies on and the weather was just awful.

My mom actually did like that gift. I think she would have spent a lot of time in the garden had she any time to spare, between driving us to and from sports and doing the cooking and cleaning and the laundry that she seemed to love so much.

So the garden never got built, and I think I felt a pang of grief, or annoyance. I just really thought I’d finally gotten her, bought her off with a garden. It wouldn’t have mattered what it was. It could have been a Prada bag, a Lamborghini, a whole circus in the goddamn back yard. Just so long as I could say that I’d done it: I’d bought you out and you had never really wanted peace and harmony, you had wanted…

But no. It struck me that the woman who lived in my house and enforced my bedtime wanted nothing from me. She had done all she’d done out of love, a great insurmountable love that I was ashamed I couldn’t understand, and that I could do nothing in my whole life to repay her. 

Anyways, my sisters and I have changed the gift plans a little bit. In addition to the Crock-Pot, we got her some Crock-Pot cooking lessons. I think that’s a nice little addition, because we spent a little more, maybe.

But the idea of my mother standing in a cooking class with a few people she did not know, being taught to cook for her family using a Crock-Pot-brand crock-pot, hit me in the stomach like a ton of bricks. So if all 13 of my readers can keep a secret, I’ll tell you that my sisters and I bought the same lessons my mom is going to, and my dad is coming, too, and maybe, after a little more quality time spent with her, a few years down the road, I’ll find out what she’s really wanted all along.

Tom West can be reached at tkwest@umich.edu.

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