Grumpy about the holidays – day 4 (In-laws. Sigh.)

I have a love-hate relationship with my in-laws, who are pathologically practical. Christmas gifts are one looming aspect of that cycle.

Gift-giving in my family has always been something of a free-for-all. You get what you get, based largely on whatever inspiration moves the giver, and that’s part of what makes Christmas magical and awesome. Duds? Doesn’t happen. A gift can never be a dud; just comedy. We embrace the gift of the giving as much as the physical gift itself, because we know which matters more.

Anthony’s family is at the far opposite end of the whimsy spectrum. When we were younger, the Cross clan would go to an outlet mall in New Jersey on Christmas Eve day. We would walk into shops and point to desirable things (clothes, shoes, socks) in line-of-sight of a witness, who would in turn go find the gift purchaser and tell him or her what to buy. We were required to make like it was a secret. Then we’d all drive back to Anthony’s parents’ house and wrap the gifts (secretly) to place under the tree. On Christmas morning we slowly opened them one at a time, feigning surprise and saying things like, “oh how lovely. It’s exactly what I wanted.”

When Anthony and I stopped being available for the shopping expeditions, I was required to tell Anthony’s mum what I wanted for a gift, in awkward telephone conversations. It made me feel like I was nine, sitting on creepy Santa’s lap — but I tried my best to offer legitimate options. It always got mixed up.

One year I asked for “kitchen sheers.” Mum seemed to think that was odd. I didn’t get her reaction until I unwrapped the gift and discovered chicken sheers. Hearing loss can make for complications.

Frequently mum would answer my requests with dismissive comments like, “Hmp. I don’t know where to get that.” Or her best comeback ever: “No. I don’t want to shop for that. I won’t get you that.” (Imagine these words with a deep-throated English accent for best effect.)

It wasn’t about what I wanted after all. It was about what she would enjoy shopping for. So it turned into this strange chore: what could I tell Anthony’s mom to get for me that she would like to get for me?

Eventually it grated on me so badly that I told Anthony I refused to play the game any more. I would tell him some stuff I could actually use, and if he felt like it he could deal with his mom. Or not. Whatever.

One year I had nothing, no ideas, but I always like kitchen tools so I suggested an immersion blender. In his diplomatic role, Anthony reported back that mum had one that she received as a gift, but which she had never used. She wanted to know if it would offend me to receive a re-gift? Of course not, I told him. I don’t need her to spend money on me.

Christmas morning came. I opened the gift from my in-laws. Sure enough, there was the immersion blender. “Never used” was apparently idiomatic. The tool was used. Parts were missing, and whatever remained was haphazardly shoved back in the box. It was visibly unclean, with food stains and all. I guess I was put in my right place with that gift.

Meanwhile, mum has perfected the art of gift-asking. Duds are not allowed. She apparently spends significant time selecting the gifts she will receive. One year she gave me the catalog name, PLU number, color and size of the clothing item she wanted. All I had to do was go on line and enter the information. She even gave me the URL. It was like a middle school computer lab exercise. Another year she wanted a personal training session. She gave Anthony the gym phone number and the trainer’s name, and the exact amount of money to expend for the amount of training she sought.

Bah. I think I need to get on the bandwagon this year, for diplomatic reasons. I think I know what I want. I want a small saucepan with rounded sides, stainless steel or copper, so I can make sauces and such without having to root around in the corners and seams of my current saucepan options. Now all I have to do is shop heartily for it, find a URL and a PLU, and have Anthony invite mum to go for it. If that doesn’t work, I can always order it myself, send her the receipt and seek Christmas reimbursement. The check will come in 7 to 10 business days.

grumpy about the holidays – day 3 (humbug to thankfulness)

Everyone wants to talk about giving THANKS this time of year, being thankful for this and that. It’s the HOLIDAY SEASON, let’s all pretend the world is better for the next 20 to 30 days than it really is! People are actually awesome!

At the tae kwon do studio, they’re making a thankfulness chain. Every time we go, we’re supposed to write something we’re thankful for on a little strip of paper, and then they’re making a linked paper chain that goes around the wall. Jesse’s really good at it. She can always come up with something she’s thankful about — friends, family, moments of patience, the weather, life. Nick — who is pretty darn happy most of the time — not so much.

“What are you thankful for today, Nick?”


“I don’t know.”

“What does that mean?”


We’ve always worked hard to help Jesse see the brighter side. She was born a sad, self-critical, tortured little thing inside, an old soul who sees all the hurting around her, the misfits and meanness that seem to give so much ugly shape to human relations. She was full of a story recently about a little boy Dan (not really, but I can’t use his real name) at her school who she says is autistic. I don’t know how she would conclude that; but I know from observing him and chatting with his mom that he does have some differences and disabilities. Dan wanted to play with Jesse and some other little girls at recess one day. Jesse was totally fine with it; she includes, and she’s untroubled by differences (she has her own, though they don’t fit well in a DSM niche). Jesse noticed right away that the other girls were “irritated” by Dan’s behaviors; he was crunching the crust of snow all wrong and saying the wrong things. So Jesse reached out even harder to include him and help him be confident joining in whatever make-believe game they were working their way through.

As Jesse told me the story, I sensed that she was pretty disappointed by her friends. There was a time (not so long ago) when this would have really laid waste to Jesse for days,  as she struggled to understand why her friends were “bad”, if she was “bad” for playing with them, if she should have called them out, turned them in, done more to stand up for Dan.  But she’s turned a corner for now. Even more than disappointment, she felt some small pride in herself, which was a beautiful thing to see. And there was a nice epilogue, which Jesse told me in a way that suggested a punch line, a moral lesson. At the end of the school day, Jesse was walking down the hall with all her stuff when she heard someone call her name from behind. It was Dan, running to catch up with her.

Jesse instinctively knows that this is something to be thankful for, though the reasons why may still be just an inchoate idea in her heart. She connected with a little boy who lives in an alienated place, who doesn’t quite fit in, who gets made fun of and bullied. She’s the same as him, just more high-functioning. I think what filled my heart the most about her story was that she didn’t seem to be patronizing Dan. She was just pleased with herself for bringing another kid a spot of happiness, and she was glad to have a new friend whose smiling face lifts her up a little. Now that’s something I can be thankful for too.