“What you children need is a good Depression!” This is what my 92-year old mother said to her grandchildren in a fit of pique in 2007 as she watched them throw away “Perfectly Good Ribbon!” the day after Christmas. She still remembers the last Great Depression, and the memories have shaped her habits ever since.
Christmas, in my mother’s house, has always been something of an amusement to her grandchildren – the children of spendthrifts. My mother’s gifts come from garage sales, stored throughout the year in a closet in the spare bedroom. She sits on the bed in mid-November and picks through the bags, trying to decide who will get what. Behind the closed door, we hear her say, “Now, I wonder who would like this?”
She’s proud of the price tags -5¢- and usually leaves them on. (Recently, she’s been doing a ‘mid-term’ sorting — along about August, just in case she doesn’t live until December – and so for the past several years we’ve been getting duplicates. She will never run out of gifts; her landfill site will outlast us all — thanks to the rest of you, who sell this stuff to her from the sidewalks outside your homes.)
There are always sets of wooden salad bowls; pink plastic clotheslines that unfold like umbrellas; out-of-date Atlases showing countries with past-era names the children have never heard of before; a few schlocky pieces of jewellery; sometimes old wigs and straw hats; naked Barbie dolls, and spice racks: she has a thing for old spice racks.
There are T-shirts and golf shirts with company logos embroidered on the sleeve; and tons of old books – bought by the pound from the local library sale: they’re usually historical or political, with titles like, ‘The Collected Speeches of John F. Kennedy’ or ‘Terry Waite: Man with a Mission’. And then there are the music tapes, which the grandchildren absentmindedly unwind, looking for what – an iPod connection? We find the celluloid tendrils meandering through the debris on the dining room table after we clear the Christmas turkey.
One year, my son received from her a pad of writing paper with the name ‘Mary’ printed on each sheet. He looked surprised, and reminded her, rather plaintively, “But my name isn’t ‘Mary’.”
“So what?” she snapped, “It’s perfectly good writing paper, isn’t it?”
But it’s the Christmas wrapping that causes the most hilarity: the ribbon is frayed and limp (when my father was alive, he used to iron the old ribbon before rolling it up in tidy bundles to save for next year), and the paper has been re-used, folded and flattened so many times that it has the feel of soft suede. Tags are still stuck on from previous years. Trying to decipher who is this year’s recipient, when previous stickers say, “To Sandy, love Bapa” … “To Anya, love Robin” … “To Tanzi, love Jess”, is a sentimental puzzle – but the fact that Bapa (my father), Sandy (my brother) and Tanzi (the dog) are all now dead, helps narrow the field.
We prance around the living room late on Christmas day, wearing this stuff, clowning around. We take pictures of each other in hot pink wigs, in T-shirts with ‘Nortel’ emblazoned across our chests, wearing oversized rhinestone earrings and clutching our spice racks and naked Barbies. It must be the thought that counts — what other thought is there? We’ve learned that my mother is recession-proof: everything has value and very little gets thrown away.
My mother has often said, “Be careful what you wish for” … but her wish two years ago for us to have a ‘Depression lesson’ seems prescient. I imagine that this year – in our current economic crisis – many people’s Christmas budgets will shrink. My mother’s habits won’t change, but maybe they will catch on. In fact, if anybody wants some salad bowls, clotheslines, or an old Atlas, call us – we’ll deliver! As for ‘Mary’ — wherever you are – we’d like to do a trade … do you by any chance have a ‘Chris’?
Plum Johnson is an artist and author living in Toronto.