Birthday letter to my Mom (on her 75th)

Dear Mom,

          Yesterday, I was reminded your birthday was approaching when Pam asked “Isn’t your mother’s and dead-to-me-sister’s birthdays a day apart?”  When answering her follow-up (‘who’s was which’) I said, “I once had a mental trick which helped...it was...let’s see...Mom was born before my sister, so my Mom’s (...) on the 28th.”

          As I paused slightly at the (...) point, she tried to be funny and finish my sentence with: “is older than your sister”.

          It was a giggle in an obvious way, but it caused my brain to hiccup and question my decades-old trick; since the number 29 is larger than 28, is Mom’s birthday the 29th?

          I’m now back to kinda almost positive your’s is the 28th (because 28 comes before 29) but, regardless of the exact day, I hope you have a happy one on your birthday—whichever day.

          The conversation which ended with Pam messing with my memory or calling attention to the noticeable loss of it (a menopause symptom), began with her wondering why I disliked presents and when/why it began.  I tried to explain it and as I talked, old thoughts began to coalesce.  I said:

          I was a normal child when it came to gifts—eagerly anticipating presents in December wrapped in white tissue paper and in March after cake.  While recalling some childhood favorites:  Big Bruiser, Mister Man, a Crackfire rifle, a white spherical Panasonic radio on a chain, a red Huffy with a banana seat, a ten-speed racing bike (stored before Christmas in a neighbor’s garage), I also remembered a couple of not-so-greats:  a frozen-to-death hamster; a do-it-yourself model wagon train with wooden horses to carve; and, embarrassingly, trying to steer my sister away from buying me a plastic pin ball game, while we were ‘kids corner’ shopping for each other. 

          As a teen, my girlfriend began to sour gift-giving and -receiving for me.

          After wracking my brain on what she might really like...either spending weeks making something (like a jewelry box) or weeks of my paycheck on a bracelet or necklace...I would notice over the following months that she never wore it or preferred to keep using her old store-bought one.

          Conversely, the gifts I got from her made me sad.  The items themselves said ‘she really doesn’t know me, and either doesn’t listen or pay attention to what I say when talking about my preferences’.

          As an example, she didn’t seem to think my favorite color was something to remember.   (It’s been orange since I was 14... while working at the pro shop; one member teased another for wearing an eye-straining orange leisure suit with white stitching and I admired his vehement defense of ‘his favorite color’ and decided I agreed with him about the reasons orange was best—albeit not about his extreme wardrobe.)  I still remember that my girlfriend’s was black.  And not just because so many women claim that’s their favorite color, but because my gifts from her would almost invariably be dark, subdued, grey, silver, or black.  Never orange.  As if her first thoughts were how my item might look when accompanying her.    

          Long before my first marriage, I instituted a rule:  we’ll provide each other with a short list of affordable specific items, at least a month before the holiday.

          I continued this tradition with my second wife because I’d fallen into the routine.  I thought it worked, and she never balked at any of my suggestions (which was a big reason I married her and - then - became a big reason to divorce).

          In the mid 1980's I had opportunity to witness what I consider the saddest gift-giving and -receiving failure ever (between my Nana and her son, my Uncle):

          While visiting, Christmas of ‘86, she received a boxed fruit basket from him (it may have actually been a boxed basket of sausage, cheese, and crackers.  Maybe it was a boxed basket of candles, bath salts, and lotions).  No matter.  She beamed and was oh-so pleased.  She talked about her son (whom I never witnessed visiting or talking on the phone to) so warmly.  I learned she got gift baskets every year from him; once around her birthday and another around Christmas.  Always with a brief note attached, ‘With hopes this finds you well,’ or ‘Thinking of you this holiday season,’ or maybe slightly more personal ‘A milestone - 60 - wow.’

          Nana told me that he also called her a few times a year, to wish a happy or a merry.  I asked if she ever got a present from him that wasn’t from a catalog, ordered over the phone.  “No,” she said. “He’s very busy and the men in our family, as-a-rule, aren’t much in the way of gift-giving.  They say it’s not the gift but the thought that’s important and I agree.  The baskets say he still thinks about me and that’s what matters.”

          But I disagreed–then and still–and the aphorism (which I do agree with) is the reason she was wrong...there was no thought behind the baskets which his wife or secretary automatically ordered when the calendar said it was time.  And since he was intelligent enough to know that constant impersonal baskets from catalogs should have been (would be, by most people) perceived as less than sending no gift at all...and still he did only that...for decades...I can only assume his sensibilities were broken.  That sentence should have ended with a question mark...like: broken?

          I suspect he might’ve been following in his father’s footsteps...doing as he was taught.  I recall occasionally riding with Papa when he’d “visit” his mother.  Papa seemed to enjoy my company (but the men in our family are practiced at deception) and I also recall enjoying the cage elevator in Great-Nana’s building; liking the candy she seemed to always have; wondering about the odd curb-feelers on her car; and I don’t think I minded talking with her as much as he did (at least that’s the impression he gave...the visits seemed brief, even to a five year old).  My thought is Junior had opportunity to witness Senior’s interaction with his Nana, solidifying that going through the motions is all that’s required.

          But where was I with my rant about gifts?  Oh yeah.  Third wife.  At first, I relaxed the rule because her daughter still received presents wrapped in white tissue paper and after cake.  After our first holiday, I proclaimed that I wanted no more gifts.  I told her I didn’t like them in general and that getting gifts made me uncomfortable (which wasn’t a lie).  I agreed to keep buying gifts for step-daughter, but much preferred she and I shop, pick out things we each wanted (which we could afford) and to then let the other buy them.  What I didn’t say was that it was because all the gifts I got that holiday were items I would never use (a fat tie when I only wore skinny ones; a sport watch with a massive dial when I only carried a pocket watch; a members only jacket ... Ugggh, remember those?  I hated them even when they were en-vogue).

          Fast forward a few decades...to now. 

          I very much like giving gifts when they’re honestly wanted and subsequently make the recipient happy.  I’m not alone in disliking giving anything—to anyone—if it’s unwanted.  Nobody likes their time or money to be wasted.

          Ditto that last paragraph replacing the words ‘giving’ with ‘receiving’ and ‘to’ with ‘from’.

          Which makes me think of your kerfuffle over the back porch light, which according to you wasn’t destined to become what you wanted if your daughter/my sister did the replacing.  I don’t blame you for nipping that in the bud before it blossomed into something you’d either hate every time you looked at it or would’ve needed to replace (dreading the next visit when you’d be forced to either admit hating it or make-up a white lie about it getting damaged).

          Bringing me to my very-own favorite “gift failure” with her:

          Backstory:  I began my collection of spheres in 1990 while on a camping vacation in Moab, Utah.  I bought a red-veined jasper sphere in a green-marbled malachite dish.  I quickly realized that If I didn’t set some rules for myself I could easily end up with too many spheres, from bowling ball size to pea size, so I chose a small bracket around the size of the first one (1.75" diameter) and only added spheres if they were between 1.5" and 2".  These outside parameters are soft (I don’t carry calipers) so...I have a few which are slightly larger and slightly smaller—but only by a millimeter or two.

          In the spring of 2000, when I was in Germany, she and her boyfriend came to visit before they went to Spain and Switzerland, and brought a sphere which she proclaimed a “late birthday present.”  She elaborated that although she knew it was slightly larger than my collection, she’d met this amazing craftsman and learned all about how he made these wonderful rainbow colored marbles and blah blah blah immediately thought about my sphere collection and decided—even though it was quite expensive—that she had to get one for me.  It was slightly larger than three inches.  The fact that it was very costly was mentioned.  A lot.

          The backstory as to why she should have known better:  She visited me in Georgia in the early 90's and saw my spheres when the entire collection could fit in one hand.  And she visited in New York in ‘98 and saw it when it was 50 spheres displayed on my living room wall.  I recall telling her then about all of my criteria:  no flat surfaces; no built-in stands; one piece only; any and all materials are allowed (currently the range is: woods, glass, dozens of different minerals and types of rock, rubber, plastic, different metals, ivory, and various composites like Formica); and – most importantly – never smaller than 1.5 or larger than 2 inches.  Also, I bought spheres with her in three different Indiana locations and she saw and handled those purchases.

          None the less, she spent (I would guess) well over $250 for a sphere that very clearly was not something that would fit in my collection.

          For years I kept her expensive marble (not a sphere) in a spiral brass window sculpture in the kitchen.  To not ruffle any feathers, when she came to visit last October, I moved it from the kitchen into my collection.  Of course—as expected—she sought and pointed it out to her husband with the re-re-re-mention of it’s expense.

          I attended a holiday party last month.  We were asked to bring a no-longer wanted item representing something we “wanted to put behind us”.  When someone picked our item, we would then explain what it represented, pick something from the pile, and explain why that item “intrigued or represented something we wanted to bring into our life in the coming year”.

          Yea – a crowd of old hippy’s, young hipsters, and wingnuts...most of our Portland-friends are pretty far out on the fringe.  The artist fringe is something I could never quite embrace.  I like meat and logic too much.  And vegan-spiritualists are so incredibly chock-full of nonsense they seem to be speaking gibberish.  English words but with sentences that lack any commonly understood meanings.        

          The Expensive Marble was selected by a woman who cooed about the colors of the rainbow imbuing her porch with it’s aura (or cleansing her essence or some-such gobbledegook).  I picked a coffee table book on art deco (a design era Pam and I both admire).

          When the time comes I’ll say I gave it away because it never fit in my collection and that I wanted to put deceit behind me, because I was tired of continuing the ruse.  I don’t know if I need to tell her now (so she can get over it in a year or two) or if I can put off telling her until her next visit.  Which, if Pam and I get married will probably mean the not-so distant future.

          While on the subject of gifts, I think it only apt that I mention the best and worst gifts you’ve given me:

          The best gift of all is my life.  I suspect I’ve not thanked you in clear and definite terms for birthing and raising me.  Sorry I didn’t say it sooner:  Mom, thanks for being my mother.

          Second best gift you gave was:  my smile.  You and Dad scrimped and saved but spent money on straightening my teeth...those thousands could easily have gone elsewhere.  As every year passes, I’m more proud of my smile (with only the one filling, which I got when I was twelve) I’ve got quite an impressive mouth for an oldster.  And it’s not just because of the braces; clearly, you instilled a higher oral hygiene standard; brushing, water picks, and less sugary drinks growing up may all have been a part of it, none the less, the combination stuck.  Thank you.    

          Third best:  my love of reading.  Having talked with so many boorish adults and ignorant children in my life, I’ve identified a common denominator:  none of them ever read for fun.  Most stupids think reading is something you had to do in school.  Thank you for reading to me as a child.

          Making me a cat person.  You may not remember doing it, but you did.  I got Popcorn in 1979 the week after you visited my first Milwaukee studio apartment.  You were leaving (walking down the outside steps to the car) and said, “I’m surprised you don’t have a cat yet.”  I replied that I’d been thinking about it.  A lie.  Twenty year-olds don’t know how to say, “Thanks Mom, what a great suggestion!”  Which it was.  And, even though my neighbors had a ton of pets, I hadn’t considered getting myself a cat until you mentioned it in passing.
         
          The wooden hinged box made at the prison (which I use).

          Every package of half-way cookies, which (even with the recipe) nobody else on the entire planet is able to make correctly.

          Rag rugs (3 adorn my floors and a 1 cushions the cat’s eating shelf).

          The one present you sent which I recall disliking so very much was a sweater in 2000.  It was a goofy Xmas sweater with a huge golfer on it.  You said later that it was a “gag gift” but it didn’t feel like that when you sent it.  I never wore it and felt real bad throwing an unused sweater away.  I think that same emotion must have driven me to keep up the ruse with The Expensive Marble.  I also think that same guilt-emotion is one of the contributing factors why I continue to say I don’t want gifts.  Maybe I empathize too strongly with the gift-giver.

          I mentioned this months ago about possessing several traits of Asperger’s.  Here’s a list of the most common symptoms for adults.  The first six are those I share to some degree: 
  • Average or above-average intelligence.
  • A precise eye for intricacy and detail.
  • Difficulties engaging in social routines, conversations, and small talk.
  • A preference for routines and schedules; stress & anxiety if disrupted.
  • Lack of eye contact.
  • Sleep problems, including difficulty in falling asleep, frequent nocturnal awakenings, and early morning awakenings.
  • Extremely specialized interests or unusual hobbies. 
  • Difficulties with high-level language skills such as verbal reasoning, problem solving, making inferences and predictions.
  • Difficulties in empathizing with others.
  • Problems with understanding another person’s point of view.
  • Problems with controlling feelings such as anger, depression and anxiety.
  • Unusually sensitive or insensitive to sound, light, and/or other stimuli.
          I’m prone to read waaaay too much into what I think another person is feeling based on what I’m “reading” from a person’s non-verbal communication and vocal tempo.  This helped me be a good interrogator and interviewer, but it’s also one reason that I eventually left my last wife.  She was prone to crazy mood swings.  Her bad mood became mine.  Then she’d get angry that I was in a bad mood.  We could so easily become a snake eating it’s own tail. 

          Since I tend to “catch” the mood of those around me, I can get dragged without warning into a bad mood just because she’s angry at her boss, or her child, or the neighbor’s dog, or the traffic on her drive home.

          Fast forward to now:  I adore Pam’s moods.  I have a nickname for her that causes her to cringe when I use it: ‘Pure-Pam’.  She’s never in a snit without a real good reason.  Like you.

          I think Pam (and I) are both having perimenopause symptoms.  We both get night sweats and have unusual aches and tenderness in our joints.  But since I’ve been told men don’t get the symptoms women get, maybe my night sweats and body aches are just me over-empathizing—all psychosomatic.    

         Symptoms unique to me:  the occasional rapid or irregular heart beat and a decrease in libido (the only one the literature claims I could have).  So maybe the heart-thing is too much caffeine, the night sweats is too many covers, and the aches and pains is just from a lot of walking.

          PurePam still claims she’s too young for menopause.  So to explain her symptoms she says the tingling in her hands could be caused by sewing too much; sweating at night is too many covers; her lower libido and joint and body pain is because of some long work hours standing on a concrete floor which makes her over-tired; and her insomnia is either something she ate, too much sleep the day before, or because the book she’s reading is too interesting. 

          She doesn’t have moodiness or anxiety or any of the anger-stuff.  I can deal with smellier farts and sweats and all the rest, but I really hope she stays PurePam who never gets her panties in a bunch or her dander up.

          This has been my birthday present.  A real letter.  Not written with a pen, but I’ve always written better behind the keyboard.

          After watching the movie ‘Her’ where the main character’s job is writing and mailing computer generated letters which are designed to appear as if the customer wrote them with a pen on heavy letter stock, I realized it’s been way too many years since I wrote you a real letter.

          Although phone calls are nice, the spoken word is less solid.  I’ll insure there isn’t another five-year span between letters.

          With love and hopes that your next year is filled with happiness -

          {signed with a pen}

PS:  I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t end without mentioning your desire to give me a camera.  The fact that last year you were aware of my sensitivity to gifts (even if you didn’t understand why) and asked if a GoPro would be welcome, was in-and-of-itself...wonderful...just that you asked.

       Gifts are best when the giver—in sync with the receiver—selects an item the recipient is already considering.  I also appreciate that we were in sync.

       But (yea, here comes the but) I feel uncomfortable when you spend hard-earned on what I consider an extravagance.  Just as uncomfortable as when you asked if I’d like your car after you pass.  My thought process went thusly:  I can’t afford the added insurance and upkeep so, if gifted with a car, I’d sell it and put the money in savings, which–then–seems like I’d be “reserving” money from your estate...way too much like when dead-to-me-now had soon-to-die-dad “loan” his granddaughters money.  Icky-ick.

       I’d prefer you bake a bunch of half-way cookies and not buy me a GoPro.  I still love Necco wafers and non-pareils.  Or...I’d love a big bag of homemade GORP—my favorite is equal parts:  Kellog’s cracklin’ oat bran (which I can’t find locally) - Regular m&m’s - Nuts (a mix of peanuts, walnuts and cashews) - Raisins - and a small amount of mini marshmallows.  Thanks so much.  XOXO

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