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The Ungiveable

Coming to terms with the most difficult person on your gift list.

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Illustration by Peter Arkle  

My mother is impossible to shop for. And, frankly, I blame her entirely. She is an anxiety-filled gift-giver herself. Ever since her parents, so out of touch with her poodle-skirt-wearing teenage life in the Bronx, saved up to buy her a crystal vase for her 13th birthday, she vowed to never, ever give something that hadn’t been preapproved.

It’s a dysfunctional system that takes every ounce of fun out of gift-giving. Still, it would work if both parties agreed to play the game. Problem is, when it comes time for her to fork over specifics, she cops out: “Don’t get me anything.” It is enraging. It is also not that simple. One year I did, in fact, get her nothing. It turns out “Don’t get me anything” really means “At least get me a card! Or something from a store with a good return policy.”

So the next year, I regrouped. I wandered around different boutiques looking for something personal and particular to her. I saw a cashmere cardigan in her favorite color, cherry red. “Thank you, sweetie,” she said. “But I’m starting a diet. So there’s really no point in getting me clothes.”

Another year I tried the sentimental route. My father suggested we team up to get her a watch from Tiffany’s. She liked it. But she liked the kind with the date window better. It went back in the blue box.

Pretty-smelling hand soaps? “I’m allergic.” Wine? “It puts me to sleep.” A bathrobe? “But I still have the one I got at Altman’s!” I gave her a gift certificate for a massage— a classic Manhattan-mom gift. She said she knew someone who had a massage and then had a stroke. “So why waste the money?” Though she hates expensive almost as much as she hates waste, money is not the real issue. Becoming an Ungiveable has simply turned into a point of pride.

When my husband came into the picture, he was horrified by our routine. As crazy as it sounds, I think I’d learned to respect if not love the challenge. What’s the fun in getting a gift for someone who will like anything you tie a bow around?

But now that I have my own children to shop for, I am growing tired of the legwork. A few weeks ago, as the weather started turning—my cue to start mulling over a shopping strategy—I thought about floating the idea of a new cell phone. One with a camera, so she could take pictures of her grandchildren? But I could already hear her answer: “Why should I get rid of a perfectly good phone?” It sounds silly, I know, but after all these years of fussing over someone who didn’t want to be fussed over, but who more than anything didn’t want to be forgotten, I finally got the message. I made her an offering: a calendar with days pre-circled and an IOU for a few mother-daughter date nights. “Let’s just go see some movies together, Mom,” I said. She didn’t say no.

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