On this blog I’ve mentioned my mom’s pesky habit of dumping her unwanted crap on me. She has done this through a combination of smooth talking andbrute force.
This is why I own a worthless statue of Don Quixote, a pair of worthless West German beer steins, and a terrible watercolor painting of a ten-speed bike.
And then there is the charcoal chimp. I made this drawing when I was 10. Upon completion, I named him Bonzo.
I’m not sure why I decided to draw a chimp. Maybe I liked the pensive expression on his face. Maybe he seemed easy to draw. I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that I hate chimps. Unlike other primates—like orangutans or silverback gorillas—chimps are mean. They’ll rip your face off just as soon as look at you. Curious George was a chimp, I believe, and he was an agent of chaos wherever he went. If I had any influence in the Curious George universe, I would’ve euthanized the chimp and sentenced The Man in the Yellow Hat to 30 years of hard labor.
But I digress. The point is, I drew Bonzo even though I hate chimps and gave Bonzo to Mom even though she doesn’t like chimps either. But Mom’s opinion on chimps doesn’t matter; according to an ironclad unwritten law, all moms are supposed to hang onto every piece of art crap their children make like it’s a little treasure. And they are supposed to continue doing this for the rest of their lives.
These are the rules, people. I don’t make them, I just follow them.
But Mom flipped the script on me last fall. I invited her to my house and she brought Bonzo with her. Then she said something along the lines of, “If you don’t want it, get rid of it, but it’s not going back home with me.”
It was the ultimate Mom betrayal.
A few months later Christmas arrived. Mom gave my son, Alex, tickets to a Devils game. And it was through her generosity, I decided to give a Christmas gift to myself.
Long story short, as Mom and Alex were shouting themselves hoarse at a hockey game, I let myself into Mom’s condo, artfully hung Bonzo in the guest bedroom, and took my leave.
Mom doesn’t spend much time in the guest bedroom, so she didn’t notice Bonzo for a while.
About a week later I got the call.
Mom dispensed with the pleasantries. There was no “Hello.” No “What’s new?” No “Do you have a minute to talk?”
Instead, the first words out of her mouth was a hard edged, “Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?”
And I laughed for the next three days.
But my laughter was masking my fear. I know my mother. I know her tone. I had fired an opening salvo in the Crap Wars, and I would pay for my audacity.
The retaliation has not happened yet, but I know it’s coming. Germans are a cold people, and everyone knows that that is the best way to dispense revenge.
I need to set up defenses. Trenches. Maginot lines.
But I know it won’t matter.
A Blitzkrieg of crap will soon arrive on my doorstep. I see no way to prevent it.
Mom, come hell or high water, will make a monkey out of me.
Mom always knows the precise moment to start her sales pitch. She waits until I’m placid, unsuspecting, and sated after a big meal. I’ll be sitting there drinking her coffee, nibbling her cookies, and perusing her huge stacks of mail-order catalogs, chatting with her about this and that, when she says, “Oh. That reminds me of something. Let me show you something. I think you might want it.”
Before I can fully brace myself for what’s about to happen next, she hands me Something Awful.
Whatever the Something Awful is, I don’t want it. Because of course I don’t. It’s awful.
But Mom is undeterred.
She explains that my opinions about this Something Awful aren’t wrong exactly, just a bit too narrowminded. I’m failing to see The Big Picture. Actually, I do want this Something Awful, she says. In fact. I don’t just want it, I probably really want it. Then she gives me her reasons. There are many reasons. If Mom was more technically savvy, this would be the moment she’d break out the PowerPoint.
Long story short, I’m driving home with the Something Awful belted into the backseat to make sure it doesn’t get jostled.
Since my Don Quixote post, I have hardened my resolve against such gaslighting. Mom’s most recent “Take My Crap” overtures were met with a polite yet firm “No.”
But Mom is Mom. She is persistent and German. She does not drift gently into the night.
The other week Mom had to run an errand near where I lived. She told me about it, and I, being the wonderful son that I am, offered to take her out to lunch afterwards. She happily agreed.
At precisely the scheduled time (remember, German), I heard her car pull up. I peeked out the front window and there she was, trundling up my driveway weighed down with some framed artwork.
This was an egregious escalation in the “Take My Crap” battle of wills. In the past Mom would only push stuff off on me while I was visiting her. Now she was bringing stuff to me? This kinda felt like a violation of the Geneva Convention. How can I be expected to defend myself against this? Am I supposed to tell Mom to take the stuff back? Should I make her lug all that crap back to her own house? But what about her bad hip?
And even if I did tell her to take the crap back, she wouldn’t. She’d leave it with me and say, “Look, if you don’t want it, throw it away,” knowing very well that I never would.
So I was blindsided. Miffed. And a little impressed, actually.
“Is grandma here?” Alex called from his room.
“She sure is,” I replied.
I couldn’t see the artwork she was carrying to my front door, but I recognized the frames. This was my art. Mom wasn’t just bringing me crap, she was bringing me crap that only existed because of me.
“Let me show you something,” Mom said as she breezed into my foyer with a spring in her step far more suited to someone without an artificial hip. “I think you might want it.”
Mom smiled as I accepted the art without argument. She handed me two pieces; a watercolor of a bicycle and a charcoal drawing of a pensive chimp.
“Ooh. When did you do the monkey?” Alex asked.
“Fifth grade. It was one of the first things I did when I started taking lessons.”
“Wow. It’s good.” he said. “I like it!”
“Want to hang it in your room?” I asked.
And so more unwanted crap from my past joins the pile of unwanted crap I’ve been unwittingly collecting. My attic is getting very full.
Mom and I went out to lunch as planned. We had a lovely time. We enjoy each other’s company. She’s fun to talk to. She really is a good person, mostly.
She even picked up the check; Mom is nothing if not generous in victory.
I’ve always loved the Christmas season. The inside of my house proves it; every table, windowsill, wall, and shelf is overflowing with 50-years-worth of accumulated decorative Christmas crap. We pull Christmas cookies out of the oven with snowman potholders and display them on Christmas plates. We read by twinkle bulbs. We dry our freshly showered tushies on holly jolly towels. We own a seizure-inducing, blazing, blinking Christmas village. We have a small mountain of Christmas-themed stuffed animals. And we have two Christmas trees (one real and one artificial) to house every one of our 72 gajillion Hallmark ornaments.
‘Tis a festive sight.
If you take a gander at the outside of my house, however, you’d be convinced I was a virulent atheist. Not a wreath, not a jingle bell, not a ding dang thing can be found.
When Ellen and I were first married, my No Outdoor Decoration Policy flummoxed her.
“Why not put just a little something outside?” she asked. “Just strand of lights. Or a sign that says ‘Santa Stops Here.’ Maybe we could hang a couple of glass balls on the red maple and call it a day?”
But I was adamant. Ellen could decorate outside if she wished, but I wouldn’t.
Not now and not ever.
I have a good reason for feeling this way; I am a longtime sufferer of PTSD (Post Traumatic Sub-arctic Decorating). As with most people’s crippling psychological ailments, the cause can be traced back to childhood. And, more specifically, Mom.
When I was a kid, my mom had a hard-earned reputation for always having her crap together. I attributed this to her German work ethic, her German planning and organizational skills, and her German no-nonsense approach to everything. This German-ness was evident during the Christmas season, too; she would have all of her shopping done before Halloween.
Yes, she was that person.
A person can’t tackle every Christmas chore in October, however. Christmas shopping in October told the world you planned ahead. Christmas decorating in October, on the other hand, told the world you were a weirdo. Mom did not want to be perceived as a weirdo. The decorating would have to wait until December.
This waiting made Mom tense and cranky.
Come to think about it, there was clearly something about the Christmas season that made Mom go a little batty. The weather had a lot to do with it. When the temperatures dipped below freezing, Mom would suddenly get a vague yet visceral feeling that Christmas had snuck up on her without warning. Despite all of Mom’s best laid plans, she was now Behind Schedule. The actual date on the calendar was irrelevant; as far as she was concerned, every Christmas thing that wasn’t yet done needed to get done RIGHT NOW!
That was her cue to bellow up the stairs.
“Michael! You need to get the outdoor decorations up RIGHT NOW!”
“Why now?” I mumbled into my pillow. (Mom liked to announce my chores early on weekend mornings, when I was sleepy and docile.) “It’ll be warmer on Sunday. I’ll do it on Sunday.”
“No!” Mom exclaimed, “it needs to be done TODAY!”
I could’ve followed this up with another, “Why?” but there was no point. Christmas may have been four weeks away, but Mom needed decorations now and if I didn’t agree, then I would be deemed “lazy” and sometimes Mom had a habit of slapping lazy people.
So I got up, got dressed, and got to work.
The outside decorations at the Allegra house would never impress anyone. All I had to do was twist some garland around the vertical porch posts and follow it up with a string of lights. Easy peasy.
Only it wasn’t easy peasy. I may have been responsible for decorating the outdoors, but Mom was responsible for getting the supplies. She insisted on me using “live” garland–that is to say, garland made from real pine branches which, in her words, “looked better than the fake stuff.” This may have been true, but the fake stuff was designed to easily twist around porch posts. Pine branches don’t want to be twisted. They resist it. They fight you.
Also, tree branches are thicker and heavier than fake garland so I couldn’t tape or staple gun them into place. I had to use nails. It’s impossible to hold a nail in place while wearing winter gloves, so I needed to hammer barehanded in sub-freezing weather as the whipping wind slashed away at my bleeding knuckles. On a related note, a hammer hitting your finger hurts like crazy in any weather, but it hurts super crazy when your hands are borderline frostbit. And since my bare hands were trembling in the cold, I hammered my fingers a lot. And on the rare occasions when the hammer did find the nail head, the pine branches would split and fall apart and slide off the post and gush pine tar everywhere. And pine tar can only get off of your hands with Lava soap, which Dad didn’t buy because the last time he went to the grocery store, he went without the list because he was “sure he could remember everything.”
And so the 12-year old me, in my long, pointless effort to celebrate the birth of Jesus, muttered the F-word over and over while making a mental note to convert to Islam.
The job took me two hours and aged me several years. Then, as a kind of punctuation, while cleaning up I tripped over the stepstool and took a header into an adjacent snowball bush. Because of course I did.
“It looks great!” Mom declared as I trudged inside. She was trying to lift my spirits, but my spirits were unliftable. I was achy, numb, sticky, and hated everything. Soon I would feel the unbearable needle-like sting as my fingers began to defrost. It was only 11 in the morning (Dad wasn’t even out of his pajamas yet!) but I was exhausted enough to know that my Saturday was pretty much over. The rest of my day would consist of lying down, nursing my aches, and adding a Sam’s Club-sized bottle of Advil to my Christmas wish list.
“It’s over,” I told myself. And I believed it.
Until I heard Mom’s urgent voice thunder up the stars.
“Michael! We need to get the Christmas tree RIGHT NOW!”