Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Really Stupid Gift

It was one of those typical years where my folks were, as they phrased it, “strapped for cash”. I was around ten years old; I had zero concept of or interest in the need to live within one's means.

My mother was an elected official at the time, making a stipend of $300 per month and my father was making mere scraps as a credit collector for a local energy company (read: small step up from repo man.) Their hard earned cash was going to the mortgage payment, bills, my brother's and my soccer sign-ups and dog food. That was about it. The holidays were fast approaching and my folks decided that Christmas wasn’t going to be the usual in the Brown family, which meant they were probably going to skimp on our gifts.

In order to deliver this harrowing news, of which my brother and I already suspected due to the noticeable increase in the Mac N Cheese dinners and “brown bag your lunch” pep talks, my father would wait until it was glaringly obvious and then call a family meeting.

He would order us to meet at the kitchen table in five minutes. “If you have to take a crap, hold it. This shit’s more important than your own right now.”

My mother was typically already at the table running her worried fingers through her hair, mumbling to herself about how she sure hopes we don’t have to “cut into the kid’s college savings to make ends meet”.

My father prided himself on providing for his family without spoiling his children. But we knew things were different this time around. Throwing threats of Christmas into the mix meant a whole new ball game.

“Alright, everyone take a seat. We are going to have to cut back on Christmas this year.” My father yacked on an on as if he were giving a power point presentation to a bunch of salesmen, “Now, in the beginning of this year, things looked good, but then we had to take a second mortgage out on the house to fix the roof,” (like we knew what a mortgage was anyway), “and we are putting money aside for your kids’ orthodontia.” Ortho-what? Hey, if Dad was giving me an ultimatum, either braces or Christmas presents, this wasn’t going to be a difficult decision for me to make.

“So, that means that you shouldn’t come to expect a lot of gifts at Christmas, okay? In fact, Mom and I aren’t going to exchange gifts at all.”

Obviously, this wasn’t the part of the family meeting they rehearsed in the bedroom.

“Tom, I am your wife. We will be exchanging gifts this year.”

“We’ll see about that one. Kids, go play.”

My brother and I retreated to our bedrooms, where we were forced to face last years’ useless, dilapidated toys. The heads of my brother’s action figures (dolls) were nowhere to be found, his snoopy nose was now a cat toy. My coloring books were simply colored, my soccer ball – nothing but a deflated piece of leather stuffed under my bed. We felt deprived, ripped off, desperate for a shedding of the old, and replenishing of the new. Christmas was spring cleaning for kids.

Come to find out later, my father’s ban on spousal gifts caused quite a riff between the two. They retreated to their non verbal avoidance dance for a better part of two days. That is, until my father relented.

They decided to tap into the creative. No gift was going to be over $20.. My mother’s requirement was that “… it can’t be anything stupid.”

And that’s how one little family crisis was diverted and another one evolved.

What lingers even today is the question: what really constitutes a stupid gift, especially if it’s thoughtful and personal?

Desperate times called for desperate measures, so my father conducted a nationwide search for the world’s stupidest gift. He started by calling his friends, Nutsy and Igor and Thomps. These are real names of my father’s real college friends with whom he disappears once a year on some grunt brained booze fest they call a golf trip.

Their suggestions were merely recycled versions of past gag-birthday gifts, a blow up doll here, a piece of fake poop there.. nothing seemed original. My father was becoming desperate and it started to show. As Christmas approached, he turned into a crotchety grump. Think: the Old Man in the Christmas Story.

One evening, on his hour long commute home from work, he was listening to KGO radio. They had a segment on “unusual gifts.” A sign from the cosmos..

And that’s where all of his answers came true. Getting The Gift did take some finagling. He had to call a company in Texas to have the gift shipped. He had to put it on the credit card. And since shipping and handling wasn’t included, he was going over his price limit by a few dollars. This took skills. And you have to hand it to my father. That isn’t a small feat when you have two bored and curious kids without any toys to play with.

The Gift fell into both requirements: cheap and stupid. When he phoned the company in Texas, he inquired about how The Gift was to be shipped.

The Gift arrived via UPS two weeks later in a pecan pie box. He was there to receive it. He hid it in an undisclosed location. Since us kids scoured that 1,400 square foot three bedroom two bath home, we figured he took it to work with him.

My father spent the remaining weeks before Christmas parked on the couch watching football on television grinning as if he had cracked the code . My mother, on the other hand was running around franticly, finishing up her last minute shopping, trying to decide what to get her kids for under twenty smacks. Does she go for the practical gifts like the Rag jeans and leg warmers, or the used Lite-Brite set? Typical household. Father is responsible for buying one semi sentimental yet totally cliche'd gift for wife, wife is responsible for buying gifts for kids, grandparents, neighbors, office coworkers, kids’ teachers and close friends.

To top off the Christmas that year, our tree resembled the rose bush in my mother’s backyard garden. Wait a minute, it was the rose bush in my mother’s backyard garden. It was disguised in homemade ornaments and cheesy blinking colored lights.

The gifts under the tree resembled the tree itself, camouflaged in fancy wrapping paper and bows. As any ten year old would do, I started tallying the to/from’s. I noticed I had three wrapped gifts, Jim also had three (leave it to my mother to never let on that I was her favorite child) and one gift in the very back for dad.

I asked my father where his gift to mom was located.

“Do I look that stupid? There is no way I’m telling you. You’re the family leak.”

It was useless to try and explain that I was merely looking for the wrapped present, that I wasn’t attempting to break into Fort Knox. I gave up that goal about two weeks prior, after I had wasted four hours of precious Saturday outdoor time combing through my father’s closet.

“Can we eat it?”

On Christmas Eve night, my brother and I stared at the unopened pie box in the fridge.

With a swoop of his bear paw, my father shut the fridge, almost severing our little fingers. Funny, this guy would dust off an entire German chocolate cake without even cutting it into pieces. One fork, one plate.

What made him have sole propriety over this pie?

This little shift in behavior set off a fact finding mission that my brother and I dove into with gusto. We stalked, cajoled, begged, threatened and tantrum’ed our way until my father had enough.

“Stop harassing me about that damn pie. You’re not getting any. It’s your mother’s gift.”

Huh? But why a pie? Why?




Why a pie, dad?


That's not a very thoughtful gift.

Why a pie?

Cuz that would be stupid if you got mom a pie for Christmas.


Why a pie?

“You kids redefine annoying. Go to bed.”

Well, Christmas morning came without much additional fanfare than that of the pecan pie wasting away in our fridge. Jim and I, as usual, woke up at around five a.m. and encouraged our folks to do the same. We all gathered in the family room for our obligatory gift exchange.

And so it went. Christmas was a total bust. I got clothes, and maybe a stuffed animal to add to my tattered collection. Jim too received clothes, and perhaps a baseball glove. My father received the usual – a tie.

Leave it to the lackluster response from two materialistic and somewhat spoiled preteens to brighten the Christmas spirit. We turned to our indescribable ceramic animals that we made in art class that year and handed them over to our parnets, unwrapped but half expecting them to be displayed as centerpieces for Christmas dinner.

And when all the gifts were unwrapped, my father sat on the couch still donning that cracked-code smile. He pointed under the rose bush and nodded for my brother to retrieve our mother’s pie box. It should be noted here that my father prided himself on waiting until he was last to do anything. His sole motivation in doing so was to torture us kids. These acts included but are not limited to: opening gifts, eating ice cream, redeeming circus tickets, throwing water balloons.

Jim grabbed the pie box from under the rose bush trying hard to avoid the thorns. He read the card, “To Cath, Love, Tom.” He then handed the gift to my mother as we all sat still and looked on.

This better be a God dang good pie.

“Now, wait a second,” my father said, “Tell me how much you love me, Cath.”


My mother opened the pie box and help up what appeared to be a hairy leather purse. “Oh, what the hell is this?”

She lifted the purse up to the light, examined it closely. She even put it to her nose and took a long slow sniff inside.

“It smells like dead animal.” My mother was disgusted.

My father was overly joyed.

“That’s because it is a dead animal. It’s a dead animal’s gonads. What you have there, my darling, is a genuine bull scrotum purse.”

My mother dropped the “purse” and screamed while my brother and I scampered to the floor to get a closer look.

We didn’t dare touch the bull scrotum purse.

After the initial shock of receiving a bull scrotum purse for Christmas, and countless hours of hand sanitizing, my mother grew rather fond of it. So, she hung it on the wall at eye level in the living room. She did this, of course, while wearing dish washing gloves that were disposed of immediately afterwards.

That purse hung on the wall for years after that dreaded Christmas morning. In fact, every time we went to the garage through the side door, we had to look at it, hanging there, reminding us that it once was the sack around a bull’s testicles.

It became something of a novelty; a show and tell of sorts. My mother began showing it off to people who visited our home. She was not selective. Everyone who entered our humble home was shown the purse.

My mother would tell our guests what it was very in a very bourgeois tone, as if she were describing a Jackson Pollock piece. “This is a present given to me by my dear husband back in ’82. It comes from the ruins of Texas. It resembles the huntsmen of a generation ago where bulls were sought for their meat for food, their skin for warmth and their scrotums for containers to hold valuable items. Why yes, you would be right. It is a bull scrotum purse.”

Oh, how proud my mother was of her heirloom.

And then the unthinkable happened. It was July. I was fifteen.

I remember distinctly my mother yelling throughout the house that someone had stolen her purse.

My father asked why she had left it in the car with the window open, just assuming that’s what happened.

“Not that purse, my bull scrotum purse. Someone has taken it. I knew I shouldn’t have left it out in plain sight on the wall for the world to see.”

And her incessant chatter about it. No wonder it was gone.

Everyone wants a bull scrotum purse.

But since that stinky old ball sack was so important to my mother, we all hunted for clues. We began a search and rescue effort of the entire property.

I was relegated to the backyard. I walked the parameter of the lawn while my 70 pound lab, Motaygus followed. I searched the long grass more to avoid the poopy mine fields than to find bull scrotum clues.

Then there it was: the leather straps to the purse. Tattered, chewed. And then I found a patch of gnawed ball sack five feet away in the bushes.

Yep, this sucker’s been eaten.

I looked down at Motaygus, who avoided eye contact. Guilty. Bad dog.

The suckiest part of this whole drawn out saga was that I had to be bearer of bad news, that Motaygus had put his front paws on the wall, grabbed the purse with his teeth and proceeded to eat the remains outside.

I mean really, what’s a dog to do? I am surprised it took him five years knowing that the smell was probably driving him nuts.

Nuts. Literally.

Oh, and as for my mother, she received a bull scrotum candy dish the following year for her birthday. It is prominently displayed on her kitchen counter where it holds several pieces of Almond Roca… wrapped, of course and out of reach of all domesticated pets.

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