My mother and I have a fundamental incompatibility when it comes to shopping, and that incompatibility had an effect on our relationship for a number of years. It manifested most often when it came to gifts.
When I was a child, my birthdays and Christmases were always disappointing and served as stark reminders that the members of my family did not really know me at all. My parents bought me three types of gifts:
1. Things that they thought girls should have, regardless of whether it was something I would want or like. Things like expensive gold and sapphire jewelry that I would never wear.
2. Things that were the feminized version of what they got my brothers. That’s why I had a pink baseball glove, a pink basketball, and my own pool cue. It wasn’t that I wanted these items, it was that they were getting them for the boys and they believe in treating their children equally (not equitably, equally. There is a difference).
3. Horrendous awful horrifyingly ugly clothing and knickknacks that they insisted I loved and wanted, no matter my protests.
There was nothing to be done about numbers 1 and 2. But number 3? I found out the reason, years and years later, after having created a pipeline from the Christmas tree to the donation bin. My parents bought me these horrible items because they genuinely thought I wanted them. What eleven year old wants a porcelain mask decorated with feathers to hang on their wall? Not me, not ever. And I certainly didn’t want a second one the following year. What serious student needs a cheap plastic bejeweled calculator rather than the scientific one her courses require? Certainly not me, no matter what my mother said. And every time I received yet another bizarre gift and felt more and more isolated and more and more like my parents really didn’t care about who I was or what I liked, they insisted that it was something I loved, that I wanted it, that it was my favorite thing ever!
Last year, I figured out the reason why. I was shopping with my father, and he kept pulling ugly and ridiculous items off of shelves and showing them to me, and I was doing the same to him. “Look at this, why would anyone make this, what is this thing?” We were laughing about it and having fun and then it hit me – that’s how my dad and I shop. We look at things we hate.
You see, I’m not big on owning stuff. I like to minimize what I have, so if I’m out shopping, I’m really just out to browse. And if you see me picking up an item in a store and examining it closely and reading the label and holding it up to the light, here’s what my internal monologue is probably saying: “Good god, what is this thing? Why would anybody buy this? What is this made of, some kind of weird plastic? I bet it’s made in a sweatshop by people who wonder what the hell they’re producing. Yep, made in China. I’ve never seen anything so ridiculous. How much is it? What? What kind of price is that? Who would pay good money for this? I bet I see a ton of these in the dumpster outside the thrift shop in a few years, because I bet whoever gets one of these donates it right away. Holy crap, there are more of them. Are they all the same? I better check. Will isn’t going to believe me when I tell him about this.”
My mom doesn’t shop this way. She only looks at things she likes and admires. So when she sees me browsing, she ascribes to me what her own inner monologue would say. “Wow, this is really cool. I want one! I’m going to hold it up to the light and imagine how it will look in my house. Perfect, I love it. Let me read the label. Awesome. And the price? Oh, no, I can’t afford this. I should regretfully put it down and check those other ones and see if I find one I can afford, because I want this so badly!”
So for years, when I would shop with my mother and I would pick up ugly clothing and examine it, she thought I wanted it. When I was reading the label on horrendous knickknacks, she thought I was checking the price because I wanted to buy them. If I touched something in a store, to her way of thinking, I was marking it as something I desired. And she would observe me, and make mental notes of what I examined and the time spent doing so, and when it was time for gift shopping, she would go get them. And then she’d inevitably be annoyed with me when I returned the items, or when I was a sad young child confused by her gifts, and she would argue with me that I clearly wanted those horrible things, and would get mad at me when I told her I did not.
If she had ever asked me what I thought about, ever, she would have known how I browse. If she had ever engaged me in conversation in a store while I was examining a ridiculous and unnecessary object, she would have known I didn’t want or like it. But that never happened, and we continued our incompatible shopping for many years. I am fortunate that, as an adult, she no longer buys me gifts. I fear for my children though. When Wildling is older, I’m going to have to teach her the difference between shopping with me and shopping with her grandmother. I’ll probably institute a rule: When shopping with your grandmother, keep your hands in your pockets unless there is something you really love and want, and then you just have to touch it and it will end up wrapped and under the holiday tree.