The holidays can be rife with stress about gift giving and endless lists. Dr. Natalie Mariano writes to us about her Christmas shopping list. It's a short one.
I have a three-by-five scrap of yellowing lined paper sitting in my wallet. It’s been folded so many times it’s ready to fall apart. On it, my father’s shirt and pants sizes are listed in my mother’s handwriting. “16-inch neck, 33-inch sleeve, 36 waist.” Though my parents have been gone for years, I can’t give up this piece of my Christmas shopping history.
I could always count on my mother to know what to buy for every member of our family. Aunt Sadie loved anything purple, Aunt Millie loved earrings, Aunt Gloria loved chocolate. The only person my mother couldn’t buy anything for was herself.
On Friday nights in my childhood, my father would drive us to Zayre’s, and my mother would push a shopping cart through the store. She’d pick out a blouse or two, maybe a pair of slacks, and throw them into the cart without trying them on. As we went through housewares and the children’s departments, the cart would begin to fill.
Walking toward the check out, my mother would start putting things back. The blouse she didn’t really need, the slippers she could do without, and by the time we got to the cashier, the only items left were for my brother, for me, or for the cleaning closet. My parents didn’t buy things for themselves; they saved their money for their kids’ education.
They never talked about it in front of us. All I understood was that my mother couldn’t have what she wanted.
When I graduated from medical school, I gave my mother a gold locket, and my father a gold pen. Each was engraved with two words: Thank You. With the first of my own earnings, I could finally give them some of the things they would never buy for themselves. At Christmastime each year, I got another chance.
I had shopped with my mother long enough to know what she liked. Pastels to give her color, wash and wear fabric, tops with a pocket over the left breast where she’d had surgery. On Christmas Eve, I’d stack her presents around her Charlie Brown Christmas tree so high that all she could see was the star poking out of a pile of gift-wrapped boxes. Like a child who’d waited for fifty years for a visit from Santa, she couldn’t wait until Christmas morning to open her presents. She’d rip through each package, shrieking in delight at whatever she found inside, whether it was a winter coat or a jigsaw puzzle. “It’s perfect, I love it, it’s just what I need!”
My father’s pile of presents was more modest. A new white shirt and tie to wear to church on Sunday, and a half-dozen books he’d tear through within a few weeks. He’d always say: “You kids shouldn’t do this, I already have everything I need,”
Watching my parents open presents on Christmas Eve became the highlight of my Christmas. The child in me wanted to believe that a bundle of presents could repay them for all they had given me. But I knew better. Just as I knew the money they spent on my education didn’t pay for the most important lessons of my life.
My Christmas shopping is easy these days. I write out a check to the Service Center, and on the memo line, I write, “In memory of my parents.”
Dr. Natalie Mariano of West Falmouth is a retired physician - most recently from the Veterans Administration in Hyannis.
This essay was edited by Viki Merrick and produced by Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole