The Alchemy of Time and Presents Past


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Susan writes picture books. Her latest, "Piper and Purpa Forever," concerns a little girl who doesn't want to outgrow her favorite sweater. She enjoys writing for Short Edition, especially when the ... [+]

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Everyone receives gifts they neither need nor want—bath salts for people who only shower, a frilly nightgown wrapped up for someone who sleeps in sweatpants, that 27th tie . . . Sometimes we return them; sometimes we pass them on (a practice so common the word regifting was invented); and sometimes we toss them in the back of a closet.

That's what I did years ago when my mother gave me a screamingly bright fuchsia shirt for Christmas. The hanging tag dubbed the eye-popping shade raspberry, but no bush ever grew a fruit that color. My mother wrapped the present in a gold box that had once contained a gift set sold in tandem with her favorite Estee Lauder perfume. The strong, sweet scent lingered.

That shirt reflected my mother's love of the vibrant, the exuberant, the joyous splash that stood out in a crowd. What it did not reflect was my personality.

Not only did the color seem to shout, but the shirt was more snug-fitting than clothing I usually wore, hugging curves I preferred not to accentuate.

I thanked her as I refolded the fuchsia sleeves and tucked the shirt back into the cosmetics box, knowing that I would never wear it. My mother had enclosed a gift receipt, but for one reason or another—the chore of returning it to a department store I rarely visited or being overtaken by work, single parenting, and everyday life—I never exchanged the shirt. It lay untouched in the back of my closet.

It was still lying there the following Christmas, a few months after my mother had unexpectedly died, the event slicing through my life as sharply as a line drawn between epochs.

By the strange alchemy with which death can imbue the most mundane objects, my mother's passing transformed that unwanted gift from a remnant into a sort of shrine where I could seek solace.

When melancholy overwhelmed me, I lifted the lid to breathe in her perfume, letting it envelop me like ethereal arms.

When I figured as the family villain in my teenaged child's eyes, I peeled back the green tissue and smiled that my mother had considered me a vibrant woman who should never hesitate to stand out in a crowd.

And when I simply wanted a more tangible connection with the past than old photos could provide, I buried my face in the shirt and inhaled my mother's essence woven into the cotton knit.

A decade later, the hurt has faded. My daughter's and my relationship has evolved into a less confrontational dynamic, and I more often think of my mother not in moments of sadness, but when I hear a funny story that would have made her laugh or watch a new film that we might have enjoyed together.

But my shrine to gift-giving and holidays past remains, still secreted in the closet. The gold box gleams, even if the tissue paper within has crumpled and torn like time-frayed fabric wrapped around a reliquary. My mother's chosen scent perfumes the air like incense. And, occasionally, when I wrap presents alone in my bedroom, I perform the ritual of once again unwrapping one of my own: the lid rises, and I slip back into the role of a daughter, sitting beside the tree with her parents on Christmas morning. Waiting for me, nestled inside shreds of green paper, lies the best unwanted gift ever, from a mother who believed her child could pull off anything, even the color raspberry.
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