Many Happy Returns


My mother is a wizard at returning merchandise. Like a builder who gets more gratification from demolition than construction, she seems to enjoy returning more than acquiring.

When I was young, I’d often come home from school to find her tentative purchases. She’d pick up several items when I needed one, and as I tried them all on we’d choose the keeper. Then she’d dash back to the store and return the losers. She performed the same home service for my brothers and dad, but she always got more kick and merchandise from the girls’ departments.

It wasn’t fun. She was pushy about the process and her comments could wound. But it was better to endure her return service than to accompany her to the store. Nothing was more embarrassing than shopping for clothing with Mom. She thought she could tell in ten seconds whether the stock was interesting enough to tempt us. If we entered the store she was quick, uninhibited, and judgmental to the point of humiliation.

“Lydia,” she’d instruct loudly with her doubtful face, as she scanned my body for flaws, “you just can’t wear separates that cut you like that. You have to remember to choose one-piece outfits and vertical lines.”

It was worse when she summoned help. I’d be stuck in the overwarm dressing room, and she’d stand with one foot in the cubicle and one foot out, so anyone passing by got a shot of me in undies. She’d clearly loudly insist that we needed a bigger swimsuit bottom for me, to wear with the smaller-size (sighs) bra top.

But that was when I was young and embarrassable. If there’s one thing my brothers and I had to learn from hanging with our mother, it was to get over embarrassment.

Mom still returns. Sometimes the centerpiece of her day is to take something back to Macy’s or Nordstrom. At the least, she’ll threaten to return and rebuy something she’s purchased in the last month, in order to get an adjustment to the current sales price.

What’s troubling me lately is how she’s taken to giving back gifts. Not to the store, but to the giver. Or worse: refusing them, in a sort of preemptive return.

Like when her neighbors came by with Christmas fudge. Fran and Bill are twenty years younger than Mom and act filial. They showed up in matching seasonal sweaters and Santa hats. They chorused “Merry Christmas!” when Mom opened the door, Fran holding the holly-decorated plastic plate in front of her like a trophy.

“Oh honey, thanks,” my mother reported saying. “That’s so sweet. But you know, I don’t eat fudge. I’d hate to see it go to waste. Why don’t you give it to someone else?” I know about this because Mom described the scene to me over the phone. She seemed satisfied, proud even, to suggest a better home for that fudge. I imagine Fran’s dismay at this needless rejection, and I marvel that my mother doesn’t have a clue.

And that was Mom trying to be sensitive. When she gives back my gifts, sometimes she uses words like “stupid” and “nonsense” to argue how senseless it would be for her, well-meaning as she is, to suppress her opinion about keeping the item.

I can’t think of a time I’ve given my mother a gift that she’s kept. I thought I’d finally succeeded last year, when I presented her with a comfortable warm jacket. I’d bought the same style for myself and I knew how perfect it was. For her I selected different colors than mine, neutral tones like she always favored (Mom is the queen of beige). She seemed charmed when she opened the box. Grateful even. It was at least a week before she confessed to me that the jacket didn’t really suit her. She loved it but wouldn’t be wearing it, and she was sure there was someone else I knew who could use it. She brooked no argument. She pushed the garment into my hands and changed the subject.

I found a home for the jacket, around the torso of an old friend. But I noted how much it hurt when she returned it to me.

This year I may have carved an inroad. My younger brother came up with an idea for something we three offspring could give her together. Mom asserts that her hearing is fine, except that she builds up wax her otologist removes every three months. She claims that she only uses the closed captioning on her TV set when she’s watching BBC: to understand those accents. But every time we visit, there the captions are, on sports, news, whatever. And both of my brothers (technophiliacs like Dad was, scrambling to acquire the latest in entertainment equipment) assert that her TV audio is poor. So first one brother and then the other recommended that we get her a new auxiliary speaker, designed to improve TV audio quality. I leaped aboard that plan.

I don’t know what made Mom suspicious, but she raised objections. “You kids don’t have to buy me anything,” was the sweet opening. But then: “That’s stupid.” And “I told your brothers I don’t want that nonsense.” And finally “You’d better not.”

I felt my dander rising. But I got control of myself. I still can’t believe it, but instead of reacting as she pushed that old button, I said, “Oh come on, Mom. That sounds ungracious. And you’re not an ungracious woman.”

She went silent. As in: receptive.

Encouraged, I said, “I don’t know what you think we’re up to, but why are you resisting? Obviously we’re talking about some sort of equipment. Are you concerned that you won’t have space for it? Or that it will be another item to learn to control?”

“That’s it,” she said. “I have enough remotes. You know, Lydia, I’m not a youngster any more. I don’t want to learn another system.”

“I hear you,” I replied. “Remember when the boys bought me that Amazon TV thing? It must have been three years ago. They’ve taught me how to work the device at least once a year. It’s still sitting on my side table. I’ve never used it. I kind of hate it.”

Suddenly we had rapport. By the time we ended our phone conversation, she was using terms of endearment. Believe me, it isn’t often Mom calls me Honey.

My brothers and I are proceeding with the speaker gift. But they’ve agreed to set it up as an automatic accessory that Mom never has to control or tweak. We’re cautiously optimistic.

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