EVERY year my mother would hope, in her heart of hearts, that my father would think about her and get one small thing, anything, something, as a gift under the tree.
And every year my mother “ran” Christmas single-handedly. She was the planner; shopper; cook; Santa; tree trimmer; gift-giver; guest-list maker; party-thrower; Christmas Card author and holly-bough-swagger while my father kept well out of her way.
In his defense my Dad was one-eyed and color-blind; had lost his sense of taste after a war-time head wound and had lost the feeling in his hands and feet after taking Thalidomide for insomnia in the 1950’s. This meant he covered everything he ate in tomato ketchup and tended to break glassware, tree ornaments and tiny Christmas lights.
He was, in his own terms, “a man’s man” and back in the day “manly men” didn’t help with Christmas. One year he and the Uncles were deputized for Santa duty, but that was also the year the pre-Christmas party rendered all the Santas overly merry, and they were summarily fired by the women “so as not to wake the children.”
Every year my mother would drop tiny hints as to suitable gifts. However, her hints were so small even her own mother would have missed them and they certainly blew right past my Dad. Until the year something landed and my father actually did what my mother thought she wanted.
Some back story:
My mother had a sense of style and an eye for beauty. She was formally trained as a dress designer and raised in a home speckled with antiques. She herself haunted local auction houses and slowly built up a small but tasteful collection of Georgian and Edwardian items which added a certain flair to parts of our home.
Whether she was nesting in a British-army-issue barracks, or in the occasional civilian home my family bought, she made the place lovely.
My Dad – “the man’s man” – was one of five Irish boys who attended an all-boys boarding school; played Rugby for Ireland; joined the army; fought in WWII; and worked most of his career in an all-male environment. Living in a houseful of women (wife and five daughters) he had three modest demands for happiness on the home front:
- A male dog (we always had one);
- A sturdy arm chair positioned by his book shelf with a bright light;
- Tomato ketchup with every meal.
All this not-with-standing, when I was about 14 and the only daughter still based at home, he approached me in mid-November with a conspiratorial air.
“Gem, I need your help! I’ve got an idea for your mother this Christmas.”
I was thrilled! Things between them were perpetually dodgy and maybe this spasm of thoughtfulness signaled a fresh start? They’d be loving and attentive and happy… my mind took off down a rosy-tinted Rabbit hole.
Then my father produced his idea in the form of a catalog of the most ghastly, fake-looking reproduction antiques I’d ever seen. I think I gasped.
“Marvelous, eh!” beamed my father.
“I’m thinking your mother needs a nice new bedside table,” and he turned to a page of beauties. Sickly cream-colored edifices, with channeled spindly legs poorly painted, and with a sort of glazed faux-marble surface that looked like a 1950’s kitchen counter tear-out.
I was now on the horns of an excruciating dilemma. An exquisitely designed web of expectations beset all three of us ~
- my father expected to make his wife happy, for a change;
- my mother expected to be disappointed, as usual;
- I expected the above two expectations to collide, unhappily.
Here is how things looked to me that November.
From my mother’s viewpoint, she had a wonderful bedside table but it had perplexed my father for years since it had a hole in it.
A bit like this one, these Georgian mahogany commodes had a spot for the porcelain chamber pot in that lower drawer.
Pre-indoor plumbing at its most gracious.
My mother’s explanations about the beauty of the wood, the elegance of the form, the particular joy it gave her to pop flowers in the porcelain pot – left my father bemused and seemed to call forth some here-to-fore dormant “man-must-fix-problem-of-hole” instinct.
I knew, without a whisker of doubt, that this reproduction side table my father favored would elicit a reaction closer to nausea than joy from my mother.
From my father’s point of view, he’d totally scored. He’d paid attention to this issue of the hole in his wife’s bedside table; he knew my mother was fussy about furniture and preferred old so clearly new-old, “functional but-elegant” (as the brochure copy reassured him) was clearly what she needed.
I also knew, without a whisker of doubt, that if my mother reacted to his gift with anything other than delight she might as well kiss goodbye to any future attempts. This was my Dad trying something new and it had to go well.
From my point of view . . what can I say?
I desperately wanted my parents to connect. I needed (but did not expect without my intervention ) ~
- my Mum to see the intention and effort behind the actual (hideous) offering;
- my Dad to feel effective, like he could get things right with my Mum sometimes;
- to feel emotionally safe that Christmas.
So – facing my fears I started down the path of managing expectations, with a delightfully unexpected outcome.
I spent time looking at the catalog with my Dad, making appreciative noises and steering him toward what I thought was the least objectionable choice. He settled upon a piece that would more or less fit the space the Georgian commode occupied. It was lower (a much better height don’t you think Gem? ) and given the “some assembly required” warning, I felt the two of us could put it together with minimal chaos.
And then I agonized as to what to do about my Mum’s reaction. Would she wince and smile wanly? Would my Dad notice her lack-luster response? Would she run from the room in tears? Which, as I thought about it, would be preferable as I could interpret this for my Dad as “tears of joy.”
But maybe she would be genuinely delighted. I mean – how many years had she wanted him to make an effort? Who was I to blow the surprise? And around the worry wheel I’d go again.
Fortunately, a truck delivered the large flat package on a Saturday while mum was out shopping. The box was clearly crushed on one corner which initially my father did not notice. We smuggled it up to his study and opened the thing.
“Some assembly” is apparently not new to IKEA and as multiple parts spilled out from the crushed cardboard box my father’s face took on a look of mounting horror. We encountered ~
- 4 spindly legs with flimsy off-center screws at the top end;
- 1 “realistic faux marble” top with a slightly crushed corner;
- 4 “gilt-embossed” edge pieces which neither one of us remembered from the catalog photo;
- 1 lower level shelf also graced with “realistic faux marble”;
- dozens of loose screws and instructions written a language neither of us could interpret.
It dawned of both of us at the same time I think – the gift was a disaster.
We took to our task however with fine British/Irish fortitude, stoicism and a mis-placed optimism entirely fueled, I remember hazily, by sherry.
Two days later, when we’d done all we could with the side-table, it looked like a distant runner-up at a middle school wood-working expo. There were minimal 90 degree angles. The damaged edge revealed the telltale sawdust of cheap chip-board. The legs with off-centered screws gave the thing a distinct lopsided air.
My father and I surveyed the replacement for the Georgian commode. We were in too deep to bale now. He covered it with a blanket and wrote a gift tag: To Tina, With All Love, Charles.
“It’ll be alright Gem” he said. We both highly doubted it.
I’d managed nothing concrete with my mother – although I’d tormented myself (and possibly her) with my own version of little hints.
- “Mum – you like any gifts – right?”
- “It’s the thought that counts isn’t it? You always say that.”
- “I don’t mind if I don’t get gifts this year . I mean, Christmas isn’t about the gifts really , is it.”
Christmas dawned. Our home had filled up with returning sisters; aunts, uncles and cousins. And the un-nerving presence of my Dad who was showing up in a way I wasn’t used to. Despite the fact mornings were hard for him (he never slept well after the war) he was attentive. He was – what? Nervous?
For reasons I never fathomed, my father had decided it would bode best for his foray into gift-giving if he positioned his present where it was destined: next to my mother’s bed where the Georgian Commode used to be. So sometime during the day’s festivities he must have made the switch. As the family gift giving wound down and the pile of gifts was replaced by a pile of wrapping paper, my father took deep breath and said, looking at my mother,
“Could you come upstarts? There’s something I’d like to show you?”
I felt all the air leave the room. My hearing went. My heart pounded so violently in my chest I thought folks could hear it. Ought I go up there too? Dad hadn’t invited me. I looked at my mother – kinda sorta hoping she’d fix me with a pleading look. She didn’t.
“Oh heavens Charles, what do you need...” but she stood and followed him upstairs.
No one seemed to know how enormous the moment was. The Uncles cracked jokes. The aunts fussed over wonderfully home-made gifts. My sisters did whatever older sisters do when satiated by Christmas.
I strained to listen.
It wasn’t until much later that night I caught up with my mother. She’d been gone for ages and then bustled about making sure the guests had libations and the kids were happy and the next food-event served. We all chipped in and the mood was warm, a bit hazy with champagne and brandy and I was altogether exhausted. Finally, I took her arm and asked:
“What did Dad want upstairs?”
“Oh Gem darling, you know perfectly well! Your father gave me an extraordinary bedside table and told me all about how you helped him choose it, and assemble it, and how he was a bit worried about the quality. But you know, I’m so happy he went through with it. That you both went through with it!”
“But – it’s so ugly, isn’t it!” I ventured, now snuggled into my mother’s bed beside the darned thing.
“Yes, your father and I both agree, it’s a disaster. But neither one of us can remember laughing so hard together for ages and ages and that – my darling – made it the best gift of Christmas!”
I had just asked, “Will you keep it?”
when my Dad walked into the room.
He answered for her.
“She’s agreed to keep it until she can’t stand it any more. And then, you know what, we’ll find someone who needs it. Something born from such noble expectations deserves a good home!”
Wishing you & yours a wonderful Holiday Season.
May you find yourselves long on laughter, short on expectations and filled with gratitude for the chaotic wealth of life, exactly as it is.
FIRST TIME HERE?
This is the penultimate article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”
If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.
SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING
SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”
SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.
- Report The News – Don’t Act it Out
- Happy Families
- Self Leadership
- When Does A Relationship Need Help?
SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity
- 5 Non verbal Cues You Need To Know
- How To Change Someone Else
- 2 Magic Ratios for Great relationships
- Is Understanding Overrated?
SKILLS FOR CONNECTING
SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation
- Five Conversations
- How To Never Be Boring
- The 5 Principles For Great Conversation
- The 7 Deadliest Fights & How To Fight Fair
SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self
- 5 Ways To Be A Better Listener
- Listening To Yourself
- Who’s Listening
- Beyond Emotion Coaching – Listening For Your Child’s Needs
SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut
- Thriving Through Tough Times
- Teaching Empathy to Adults
- Teaching Empathy to Children
- Living Empathically
SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness
- Kindness Is Key
- Cultivating Kindness
- Can We Ever Be Too Kind?
- Independence, Co-dependence and Interdependence
- One Small Step Toward Self Compassion
SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality
- The #1 Reason Marriages Fail
- How To Negotiate The Small Stuff in Marriage
- How To Negotiate The BIG Stuff in Marriage
- Values Worth Fighting For
SKILLS FOR RE-CONNECTING
SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.
SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It
- Apology “Fails.”
- The Anatomy of a Bad Apology.
- The Anatomy of a Good Apology
- The Anatomy of a Great Apology
SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It
- Cake or Death? Forgiveness & Revenge as Evolutionary Bedfellows
- Why Forgive?
- How To Forgive Someone Else
- Forgive Yourself Already!
SKILL TWELVE ~ Let go. Relationships end. You’ll learn, grow and carry on.