Monday, December 30, 2019

Present perfect

For the last few years, I’ve given my parents the same thing each Christmas: a photograph of me. That sounds horribly conceited, I’m sure, but my parents aren’t on any social media so this is the only way they have of seeing what I look like other than the handful of days I can get out to see them. The photos aren’t just of me; K’s usually in them, and sometimes K’s kids, and frequently our pets, especially the macaws, since the truth is I hate having my picture taken and I’d much prefer a big colorful bird draw everyone’s attention away from me. I figure a framed picture is something they can actually “use,” in the sense that they’ll hang them up and likely glance at them once in a while, even if inadvertently. They’ve always been difficult people to get gifts for, especially my mother.

As a child I would present her with lumpy clay creations or blobby paintings I made in school for Mother’s Day or Christmas, and she would thank me politely and hand them back. “You keep it for me, OK?” I would be crushed, or at least act like I was, but I think I knew even then that she didn’t mean to be hurtful. This was simply a reflection of who she was. Hers is the classic immigrant story, almost to the point of cliché: she came here, 60 years ago, with nothing. She is practical and unsentimental, and anything she has ever wanted, she worked for, hard, and got it for herself. She’d been given very little, so perhaps she saw gifts as largely irrelevant. I get it, but it does make things challenging at times.

This year I was all set to print off a selfie of me with Fred Bird with his wings outstretched, looking big and impressive (I’m in there somewhere, behind him and to the side). Then I had a change of heart. I take after my mother in lacking sentimentality, but this year I decided to go full-throttle teary-eyed Hallmark-card sentimental and knit her a scarf instead. My mother taught me to knit when I was a kid, or at least tried to, but I lacked the patience then and never got far. A good four decades later I’m still not always a patient person—just look at my face when the person in line in front of me at Starbucks recites a lengthy soliloquy when all I want is a F-ING CUP OF BLACK COFFEE FOR F’S SAKE—but I’ve finally gotten serious with the knitting. The scarf I made for her was definitely a beginner’s project—a scarf is, at its simplest, a long rectangle, and you can get away with using a single kind of stitch, over and over and over—but I picked a fun color in chunky wool and enjoyed watching my creation grow.

My sister sent me a photo of my mother after she opened her gift and tried it on. I posted the photo on facebook and got a slew of likes and comments—how happy she looked, how proud of me. I don’t think there’s any lingering resentment on my part when I say I’m sure she liked the gift but doubted she was truly “happy” or “proud,” any more than she’d been when I gave her misshapen artwork for her birthday. And that’s OK, because that’s not why I gave her this gift. My mother is in her late 80s. There have been health problems. The brutally honest truth is that one of the other reasons I stopped buying presents for my parents at Christmas is that at their age anything I buy for them I can’t help but envision having to dispose of in the sadly not-too-distant future. But this year for some reason I felt like I had to give my mother something material, something solid she could hold in her hands, and maybe, I don’t know, maybe it might make her stick around a little longer to enjoy it.