We were going home to Matthew's parents for "the most wonderful time of the year", and he had called to tell them, and they were asking what we wanted for a gift.
"Hillary could use a KitchenAid mixer," said Matthew.
I was stunned. I hit him, and then said loud enough so his folks could hear, "Matthew, don't ask them for that! Your parents should not buy us something like that."
I had been telling Matthew how nice it would be to have one; that is true. I mean, I bake a lot; it's the only kind of cooking I enjoy. Still, I would never ask his parents for such an expensive gift. All the hints I'd been dropping in the cooking aisles at Target had been for Matthew.
"Hillary says you guys shouldn't get that," amended Matthew with a smirk.
I rolled my eyes, and then Matthew said into the phone, "So what do you and Mom want?"
After listening to the reply, Matthew repeated incredulously, "Really? Cookies and socks? C'mon, Dad."
His dad was adamant, but to us it was a joke. Of course I'd bake cookies; no one could keep me from doing that even if they bolted my oven door shut, smashed my mixing bowls, and poured all the flour and powdered sugar in my cupboard out onto my head, but socks as a gift? Surely not.
So we went shopping, looking for some inspiration. In Sears Matthew found a Craftsman grill set and brought it to me excitedly.
"How about this?" he said, Christmas fever in his eyes.
"For who? Your dad?" I was trying to think how to say it best. "Honey, don't you think he has enough tools? Your dad has the money to buy any tools he wants, and even you've told me he has pretty much everything."
Matthew looked at me none too kindly, and I suddenly wished I'd kept my mouth shut.
"I like my set. It's a nice set!"
"I know. I just think..."
"Fine. Never mind. You ruined it," he said, turning away.
"Honey, I'm sorry. Just get it..."
"You ruined it," he replied, stalking off.
We trudged to his Mom's favorite department store next, Matthew silent.
"I don't know what to get her," he said finally after looking over many nice things. "It'd be better to get her a gift card. But I'll get these anyway; she likes these."
So we went to the register to pay for the two pairs of furry soft socks he held in his hand. But we didn't get the gift card. We still needed to work out our budget.
We picked up some nice solid-colored dress socks for his dad, figuring since we'd already begun down that road, maybe we'd just do the socks thing for fun along with whatever else we found for them.
But we didn't find anything else, because time caught up to us amid all our travel preparations, and we headed for Albuquerque two days before Christmas, still talking about what else we should get them.
"Look, your parents eat out a lot now that none of you guys are home, right?" I said. "Why not get them a gift card to a restaurant? Where do they like to eat? There was some Japanese place you used to mention going out to for birthdays and stuff..."
"Maybe," replied Matthew noncommittally. "I'll have to ask them when we get there."
I was beginning to feel uneasy. I kept coming back to that suggestion. Matthew didn't warm up to it and never acted on it liked I hoped he would. I had the mistaken idea that since it was his family the final say should be his. Shoot! Wish I thought more like my sister Vinca.
And somewhere in the middle of the wide open drive to New Mexico, while reading a book, I suddenly realized something that hit another nail into the coffin of our Christmas spirit. For though there were two festive tins full of cookies in the back seat of the car....
"The socks!" I cried, sitting up. "We forgot the socks! They're at the top of the closet."
"We'll ship them," said Matthew.
Over the road noise I thought I heard the dull dismal thudding of disastrous Christmas tidings.
We got in late that evening, and there were all those presents for our nieces, our Secret Santa brother (Matthew has four brothers), and our own two little ones to unload from the trunk of the car. I carried the cookie tins in and tried to lay them in a prominent spot in the kitchen as if to say, "See, the cookies! We remembered the cookies you wanted." Plus I was proud of them: Cinnamon Chocolate Chip and Cranberry Orange Oatmeal, two of my best recipes (or so I thought).
The next day was Christmas Eve, but there was still time to do something, anything. Unfortunately, by early evening we still had no gift cards, no wrapped presents for his parents - nothing.
I was officially desperate, because they didn't seem to care for the cookies I'd brought either. At this point I must have been so discouraged I was delusional about what constituted good manners, because I spent my Scrooge moments rudely munching my own Christmas cookies that I'd brought as a gift - the only gift we had at the time, mind you - and staring balefully at a half-empty plate of Nestle brand cookies. (Matthew's dad caught me at it. "Going for the cookies again, are we?" he said one evening, as I was digging in the tin, feeling sorry for myself and my poor ostracized sweets. I wanted to shout back, "They're good, dammit!")
"What are we doing?" I said to Matthew urgently in the guest room that evening. "Do you know what we're getting?"
"The socks and cookies," he answered. Damn, he'd given up. "Look, me and Rob are going to Walgreens," he added. I groaned in dismay. "It's our only option now. I'll try to find something."
I wanted to jump into a patch of tangled plants in the backyard and hide until after Christmas when I saw what he brought home.
"Honey, noooo..." I said in real mortification when he held up "his finds".
"It's the best I could do," he answered, chuckling. "And they're funny. They'll laugh; don't worry. Plus, we'll send them something later. Hold on - I have to borrow some wrapping paper from Mom."
No, no, no! It was bad enough that we had resorted to gag gifts for his parents' presents, but we had to borrow their pretty paper to wrap them up? What had I done? I should have bought his parents' gifts a long time ago! There was no even-steven at Christmastime. The woman should do all the shopping, because she'll get all the credit for choices made, good or ill. And some ill choices could be branded in her in-laws’ memories forever.
Everyone gathered at my in-laws' house the next day to eat a fine fattening meal and exchange gifts. All of Matthew's brothers were there, the two sisters-in-law, and our nieces. Our little Berto and Ana were running around, too, while I stood in the formal sitting area where the beautiful full tree with its elegant white lights and coordinated handmade ornaments graced everyone with its presence. Beneath it was an ungodly cascade of wonderfully wrapped presents. The sight of them, instead of soothing my wounded holiday mood, only made me more angst-ridden.
"Wow, that's a lot of gifts," I remarked, climbing up onto an imaginary soapbox to begin my tirade, pounding an imaginary (candy?) cane emphatically for each point made. "Too many gifts. When I was growing up, it wasn't about the presents. It couldn't be. It was the decorating of the tree and Mom's wonderful food that we'd look forward to. Plus, Dad would always play his guitar for us on Christmas Eve and read the Christmas Carol before bed. I'm not a big present person now. It doesn't put me in the holiday mood. Just the opposite; it depresses me to see that many under the tree."
"I think someone broke the rules," was the only reply my mother-in-law made, tight-lipped. (She was referring to the Secret Santa exchange everyone had agreed to that year for the brothers and their significant others.)
My sister-in-law told me frankly that I hadn't really seen anything. She proceeded to tell us then about the extravagant gifts her parents had merrily exchanged that morning.
When I wandered off into the guest room to freshen up before the gift-giving pictures started, Matthew came in and shut the door.
"Hey, you need to be careful what you say," he told me, a seriously reproving look on his face. "You may not like seeing that many presents under the tree, but you need to remember that some of them are for you."
The weight of my own bad behavior settled quietly on my conscience like a subtle but chilly snowfall. I was ashamed and now really did not want to face the inevitable revelations of the gift exchange. But I had to, and I did - after trying weakly to eat some of my words of a moment before.
And so began the blur of torn pretty paper, discarded bows and numerous recited name tags. Our kids got way too many toys, including a Playdoh table, and as Matthew and I watched them accumulate, we wondered how on earth we were going to get them all home in his sporty little sedan. Then, on the suggestion of one of the brothers (no doubt someone who had not bought them mere socks), Matthew's mom and dad began opening their gifts.
And here's where it became evident that none of the brothers had taken their parents' suggestion of cookies and socks as only gifts seriously. There were plenty of socks and cookies, yes, but there were also gourmet food and chocolate and a beautifully handmade centerpiece for their dining room table. And from the youngest son - who didn’t have the benefit of a female’s input at the time - a lovely white sweater for my mother-in-law from her favorite department store, the same store Matthew and I had wandered so futilely in.
Then came our gifts to them, meticulously wrapped in their own quality wrapping paper.
"We forgot your socks," I said feebly as they began to unwrap. "We have them; we just forgot them at home. We'll...we'll send them to you soon..."
I turned away as Matthew's dad pulled out his gift and held it up for all to see. Matthew's eldest brother let out a jolly, full-throated laugh, and I turned back to look once more with despair into the big yellow face of Homer Simpson on a pair of men's boxer shorts.
The underwear was held up for everybody's mutual merriment, and then tactfully returned to its packaging as Matthew's mom removed her present from its box. This time it was the red furry face of Elmo on a pair of oversized slippers that greeted everyone and elicited more snickering from the brothers.
Heaven help me! They thanked us without one look or word of reproof, but what could I say? Oh, you’re welcome. Agonized for weeks over your gifts and presto! Stumbled on these Christmas Eve! Sure hope you get some use out of them. (Oh, and here’s the gift receipt - you can return them, if you like, for a fat 10 bucks to spend on anything you want!)
Matthew and I afterward had to apply ourselves to unveiling the gift from his parents that someone had lugged to our feet. It was quite large. Heavy, too, and I must have known what I would find inside. Nevertheless, when I first really saw the words printed on the box and the beautiful picture accompanying them, I felt like the child who has asked Santa for an impossible gift, and then wakes Christmas morning to see it beneath the tree. It was the most shocking Christmas gift anyone had ever given me: a KitchenAid mixer. They honest to goodness, really got us a KitchenAid mixer! I began babbling incoherently and weeping convulsively, and everyone laughed again as I accosted my reserved in-laws with my wet face and broken words of gratitude while stumbling toward them for a hug.
December 26th we prepared to drive home from that holiday visit with a car full of stuff, the mixer carefully packed in the trunk. None of us had room to move in the car, held hostage by the gifts, luggage, the lunch cooler and even some bagged dirty laundry crammed down by my feet in the front seat. Matthew's mom giggled at the sight of our small vehicle stuffed full as if it were Santa's second sleigh. She smiled and waved as we drove away…fuzzy Elmo slippers on her feet.
Afterword: We did indeed ship the socks, along with an old iron we found at an antique shop (his parents collect them), but, well..some Christmases must go down in infamy, so we can appreciate the merry years all the more. And, really, that year wouldn't have been so terrible if I hadn't taken each and every opportunity to dig myself into a deeper holiday "Bah, Humbug!" hole. The best we all can do is hope that, at least to those who love us, it's not really about the presents. Nevertheless, I can personally attest that as an unexpected gift, a KitchenAid mixer rocks.