Monkey Business

A lesser work from my Copying Pictures from National Geographic Period.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Mom’s Lawful Neutral habit of pawning her stuff off on me. This is why I own a Ugly Don Quixote Statue (On sale now! Make me an offer!). It is also why I have a pair of Not-Ugly-Yet Equally-Worthless German Beer Steins.

I kinda like the beer steins.

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.

Clever girl.

“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.

Here’s the bike. It is perhaps the most ’80s painting ever.

“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.

“No.”

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.  

Quixotic Matters

Yup. This is mine now.

Whenever I visit my Mom, two things happen.

  1. She sends me home with food.
  2. She sends me home with Something Else.

I don’t mind the food. I never mind the food. And Mom certainly doesn’t mind handing it over without provocation. She’ll wrap up a pumpkin pie in an acre’s worth of tinfoil. She’ll hand over garbage can-sized tin of butter cookies. She’ll insist on me taking an entire sack of red potatoes. Or she’ll load up her 1970s-era Tupperware with leftover steaks. This is just the way she operates. I think Mom buys stuff just so she can tell me to “Just take it.”

And when I finally say, “Thanks, Mom, but no more. Please!” she’ll redirect her sales pitch to my son, Alex, opening negotiations with “You like Tootsie Pops?”

And milliseconds later, Alex is merrily struggling under the weight of enough pops to satisfy every sweet-tooth in, say, Cleveland. 

I tease, but I do appreciate Mom’s boundless generosity. How couldn’t I?

But then there are The Something Elses. These gifts are less welcome and require a harder sell, but Mom is always ready and prepared to break down my defenses.  She knows like no one else how tap into the atrophied part of my brain that says things like, “Gee, I really do need that!” or “That should be in my house right now!”

And so it was a few weeks ago when I lugged the latest Something Else into my home. Moments later, my loving wife, Ellen, scrunched her eyebrows together and began to speak in one-word sentences.

“What. Is. That?”

“It’s a statue of Don Quixote,” I said.

“And why do you have a statue of Don Quixote?” she asked.

At that moment I looked at my treasured acquisition through a fresh pair of eyes.

Huh, I thought. Why do I have a statue of Don Quixote?

I began to parrot the pro-statue arguments Mom had used on me. I explained how I used to play with the statue when I was a child (The spear is removable, you see). I explained how Don Quixote is an important character in literature and that I, being a Working Writer, am clearly the worthiest recipient. I explained that the statue was originally a gift to my father and I don’t really have any Dad things in the house, and isn’t that a shame?

But as I prattled on and on, citing one talking point after another, I came to the realization that there was only one reason why I dragged this statue of Don Quixote into my home: A crafty old lady had decided to downsize.

There may have been mischief in Mom’s actions, but there was certainly no malice. She just wanted to get rid of stuff without having to endure the unpleasant task of throwing vaguely sentimental things away.

I concluded my speech to Ellen with, “I made a mistake.”

“You sure did,” Ellen replied.

But Alex, as always the optimist, offered me a shot at redemption. “But it’s old, right?” he asked. “Maybe it’s worth something?”

My wounded pride began the healing process. (The promise of a big payday can do that.)

“Yeah!” I exclaimed. “Maybe it’s worth a pile of money!” My imagination went wild. Perhaps the resale value of good ol’ Don will keep me from feeling like a schmuck. Maybe this ugly thing was worth thousands of dollars. I watch Antiques Roadshow all the time and, by golly, old, ugly crap is often priceless!

“Nope,” Alex said. (While I was fantasizing, he was doing research on his phone.) “It’s worth 60 bucks.”

My chin fell to my chest. “I’ll keep it in my office,” I told Ellen.

“Keep it away from the door,” she advised. “I don’t wanna see it when I walk down the hall.”

So good ol’ Don is in my office (and nowhere near my office door). I keep him within my line of sight as I work. His presence keeps me humble. He also serves as reminder to refuse any and all future Something Elses from Mom.

Except for the beer steins. I’m sure they’re worth something.   

I am such an idiot.

Home Invasion

Come in? Sure!
Sure, if you insist!

A few years ago, when Alex was four, he and I both found ourselves standing on our front porch staring at a locked door. Neither of us liked this situation, but we both recognized it as a Best Case Scenario. I had gotten on Ellen’s last nerve. Had we stayed in that house much longer, my wife might have been forced to murder me.

So I turned to Alex and said, “Why don’t you and I do something, eh?” as if this eviction was all my idea.

“What are we gonna do?” he asked.

“I have a plan!” I replied. I only say this when I don’t have a plan.

As we drove around aimlessly I racked my brain. It was mid-afternoon so a nice place that charged admission, Like Liberty Science Center, wouldn’t be worth it. The movies? Nothing was playing. A park? It was about 95 degrees.

I drove around looking for a sign. Then – quite literally – I found one. A sign! With balloons on it!

“Hey, Alex! How would you like to nose around other people’s stuff?” I asked.

Alex was intrigued, so I pulled up next to the Open House sign ready to explore.

“Hi, where are you gents from?” The chipper realtor asked. He had a smile suitable for toothpaste commercials.

“Six blocks away,” I said, responding with a toothpaste commercial smile of my own. Then, so my nosiness didn’t seem quite so obvious, I replaced my smile with the solemn face of a gen-u-wine serious homebuyer.

“You see, we’re looking to trade up,” I said. “Right, Alex?”

But Alex had discovered the candy dish Mr. Realtor had set out and was not interested in playing pretend with Daddy.

We puttered about, exploring the rooms one by one. As per my instructions, Alex and I could only say nice things about the house in a normal voice. When the comments weren’t so nice, they had to be whispery. This is good parenting.

Once we were done nosing around (and boy-oh-boy did we nose; we even checked out the crawl space), we hopped into the car to find another house to scrutinize. It turns out Open Houses were everywhere.

When Alex and I explored the first house, I asked the realtor a lot of questions about the people who lived there. By the time we reached the second house, I let the houses do the talking. It was fun to discover how much they revealed. Just by scanning my surroundings I could, with little trouble, imagine a family dynamic.

There was the house that contained over-indulged children, who were allowed to litter every room with their toys.

There were the ambitious social climbers, who lived in a tiny, tiny house that was stuffed full with Ethan Allen Furniture, home theatre systems, and his-and-hers jet skis in the overstuffed garage. (I also came across the other kind of social climber who owned a huge, expensive house but didn’t have enough cash left over to furnish it.)

There was the museum house run by, I assumed, a woman with control issues.

There was the man who still displayed his high school trophies who, I also assumed, peaked at 17.

With every new discovery, I marveled at just how many secrets a person’s stuff can reveal.

It was a kind of epiphany for me. From that day forward, whenever I create a character for a story, I always consider the types of things he or she might own. I have found that a well-placed tchotchke can speak volumes about a character – even before the character has an opportunity to say or do anything.

The day Alex and I wandered through those open houses also made me wonder a bit about what my own stuff says about me. Do my things reveal embarrassing parts of my personality? My fears? My regrets? My sins?

Is there some seemingly innocent item resting on my shelf that telegraphs to the world that I’m the kind of person who inadvertently pesters his wife to the point where she contemplates murder? That I’m that kind of person who goes to open houses with a child in tow because I’m too cheap to go to Liberty Science Center after 2 p.m.? That I’m the kind of person who wastes realtors’ time and passes judgment on complete strangers?

I sure hope not. Because, well, that would be very embarrassing.