Mom Advice: How to Fib About Gifts

A difficult problem grew easier to unwrap for author Patricia Volk after some reflection on her mother's guidance.

Jody HewgillIt was the best advice. It was the worst advice. My mother gave it using her favorite method, The Cautionary Tale: “On our first anniversary, I couldn’t wait to see what your father was giving me. I imagined the long flat box meant a necklace. Pearls perhaps. But when I opened it, there they were—sock stretchers, two wooden paddles the shape of a foot so his socks would dry without shrinking. My heart was broken, but I thanked him profusely. If you tell a man you don’t like a present, he’ll stop giving them. Never tell a man you don’t like his gift.”

In high school, taking her advice was a cinch. I loved the ID bracelet engraved HOLLAND (“Hope Our Love Lasts and Never Dies”) from Jeff. Stuffed animals, charms for my charm bracelet, and Evening in Paris perfume from Harry. Later, men would give me watches or paintings or rings or books and once a handbag I’d never have treated myself to.

Then I got married. When we lived downtown, he found antiques in the little stores that lined our street. Boulle boxes, a locket, silver frames. When we moved uptown, antique stores were no longer on his way home. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was. Turns out I married an On the Way Home guy, and for the next 27 years, every gift came from the Met shop—fake Faberge earrings, enameled ladybugs, Byzantine bracelets. Mesopotamian beads twice. Did I have to say I loved all these convenient gifts? I yearned to be more than an On the Way Home Wife. Should I have ignored my mother and been direct? I took almost every ersatz bijou back to the Met. The credits piled up.

Once I asked him, in the tenderest way, “Do you ever think of getting me something not from the Met?”

“I like Egyptian ankhs,” he said.

My mother stopped getting sock stretchers. She “trained” my father to shop at her jeweler, where she’d have visited earlier and picked out what she wanted.

“What do you think Audrey would like?” Dad would ask David.

“I think she’d like a diamond circle pin,” the jeweler would say. “What do you think of this one?”

Mom would open the box and squeal, “Cecil, you shouldn’t have!” It was their Gift Gavotte. He danced his part with love.

The last present from that husband was a Late Hellenistic choker. Again, I took it back. By then my credit was big enough to buy a William Wegman lithograph of Fay Wray in the tiny shop most people don’t know about up the steps in the back.

A present is a present, and what kind of curmudgeon isn’t grateful no matter what it is? If I’d loved that husband enough, I would have cherished a mop from him. My Met resentment was a symptom of something larger and darker: He was too hard to love presents from.

Patricia Volk’s memoir, How to Be a Woman: Elsa Schiaparelli, Audrey Volk and Me, is forthcoming from Knopf.

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