The Christmas We Found Out
Our Mom Was a Criminal
“What?” I ask after tearing open the wrapping paper on a Christmas gift Mom just handed me. My three sisters had seen me do it and all gasped in shock, as though witnessing a horrific accident. I whisper to them, hoping (only slightly) that Mom doesn’t hear me. “The paper’s over 30 years old — she can’t get mad at me for ripping it.”
My mother is a Depression-era child from New England, so she was always good at stretching a penny (forget about having a dollar), but she became even better at using coupons, buying in bulk, and responding to refund offers once she and my dad started a family. She had to be that way. Dad didn’t have any money sense, their jobs were fine for two people who never went to college but they didn’t pay much, and with five kids plus our grandmother all living under one roof there wasn’t any extra money to go around.
But things were different now. Dad and Nana had passed away years before and we were all adults with our own careers and families, homes and savings accounts. She doesn’t need to buy groceries in bulk, snatch up decorations at all the after-Christmas sales, or have us use scissors to carefully cut the tape off of wrapping paper so that it can be used the following year — especially on gift wrap that was purchased when FedMart went out of business decades ago and the company sold off all the giant rolls from their former gift wrapping department to any eager customer.
No, Mom doesn’t need to do all that, but she still does. Old habits die hard. And yet, I still found my sisters’ shock to be ridiculous.
Then I see what had really caused their reaction: My Christmas gift was in a Macy’s box. It wasn’t dented or creased or even worn at the corners like the boxes she’d often re-gift items in. This was a new box.
“You don’t shop at Macy’s,” I say slowly, worry suddenly filling my soul. This isn’t right. It isn’t like her. She’s a shop-at-Ross-on-Tuesdays-for-the-senior-citizen-discount sort of person. Is she sick? Dying? Are these the first signs of dementia?
“Well, I do now,” she replies simply, her Massachusetts accent still seeping through. Then, as if to assure us of her sanity, she begins her holiday ritual of disparaging the gift she’s just handed you.
“Now, I wasn’t really thrilled with this present,” she starts, picking up her purse to look for something. “The colors are kind of yuck, I think, but it was such a great price and, well, I don’t know if it’s right — what with styles and fashion changing like they do — but I got it anyway and I saved the receipt.” I start to speak but she continues on, still digging for something in her faux leather bag. “Now I won’t be hurt if you don’t like it, but I did buy five of those in different colors so if you want we can go into my closet later and dig them out and exchange it for one you like better.”
My sisters and I sit there, still confused.
“You bought five of the same gift…” my sister Eileen slowly states, as if hearing the facts wrong. “From Macy’s?”
Mom looks up and smiles as she pulls a stack of red plastic gift cards from her bag. Victory! She then sees the looks on our faces and sighs, as though explaining herself to her dense children is such a labor.
“I was shopping at Big Lots for some stocking stuffers for the grand kids, and I found Oster Juicers on sale for $15.” We all blink, confused. “Well that’s a major brand name!” She says as if to ask, How do you not know that? She continues, “So I snatched up all 20 and drove to different Macy’s around town returning them for gift cards — because Macy’s won’t give money without a receipt, but they will give credit slips!” She smiles like Angela Landsbury after solving a crime, then immediately scowls. “And it could’ve been even better if someone hadn’t blown the jig.” She shakes her head in disgust. “Some idiot tried doing the same thing I did, only they left the Big Lots price tag still on it, so Macy’s stopped accepting returns on them. I have five juicers in my closet if any of you wants one, otherwise I’ll take them back to Big Lots next week for the money.”
Silence. Absolute stunned silence.
“That’s illegal,” my sister Joanne says.
“Charging $45 for a juicer that Big Lots can charge $15 for and still make a profit on, is illegal.” Joanne tries to counter this Mom-logic when my mother adds, “And it’s better than what your father and I used to have to do at Christmas.”
Silence. Again. We stare at one another in genuine worry.
“What did you do?” I ask tentatively.
“We’d buy each other gifts for Christmas and then return them on the 26th,” she says simply. She sees the look on our faces. “What? When you were all kids we had nothing. I mean, nothing. So we’d save our money so you kids would have a nice Christmas. But then one year one of you asked if your father and I didn’t love each other because we didn’t buy each other gifts. So after that we decided we’d go out and buy something really nice for one another, open it in front of you guys, and then we’d go back on the 26th and return it.”
She looks up at us now and smiles, tears welling in her eyes. For her that act wasn’t a burden, but rather a sweet, sweet memory.
“We wanted you to know we loved each other.”
And with that simple statement Christmas continues, opening gifts that we’ll no doubt return so we can donate those Macy’s gift cards to someone who really needs them.