When I called to wish my mother a Happy Birthday last night, something momentous and earth-shattering happened (and yes, her visit here was lovely. We ate like it was going out of style and gossiped about everyone in our extended family and went to the Spy Museum where she was an incredibly good sport and crawled through the ducts to "spy on Castro").
My mother asked for my advice.
My dad is both a notoriously late shopper and an impassioned gift giver. This means that he wants to give the girls in his life things they will love, but, because he doesn't have a clue where to start shopping, he waits until the last minute and then calls someone else in the family for advice while standing in a pool of his own panicked sweat in Marshall Field's.
Since the advent of online shopping, gift-giving in our family has become a remarkably impersonal yet efficient process. We email one another the exact links for items we find desirable with the exact color, size or amount indicated. Family members then coordinate amongst themselves exactly what they will give one another. True, this system does limit the surprise factor (like the time my sister chose to mark the birth of Christ by giving me a DVD of Superfly), but it also limits awkward moments and ill-advised purchases (like the time Dad inadvertently bought all of us sex toys).
So the system generally works. Dad isn't as big a fan as the rest of us, and he does tend to try to spoil our mom. To her credit, she does not encourage this. In fact, she will sometimes attempt to gently tell him that while she loves the thought, she simply does not have use for another Lladro figurine. Her interests in frugality, however, sometimes trump timing and decorum. This is exactly what happened when he gave her her birthday present.
To be fair, this was partly my fault. I'd told him to wait to buy something for her so that I could collect data from this weekend. True to form, she hauled me into Ann Taylor and pointed at a purse. "That," she said, "is perfect. Tell your father that he can get me that for my birthday." Subtlety is wasted in my family.
I informed my father and he dutifully went to Ann Taylor, credit card in hand. However, they were sold out. Thrown by this wrench in the machinery, Dad went next door to Kay Jewelers and purchased pearl earrings. Then he went back to Ann Taylor and special ordered the bag.
I learned all this when on the phone with my mother yesterday. "He gave them to me and my first thought was 'I already have two pairs of pearl earrings! Who needs three pairs of pearl earrings?' I mean, I only have two daughters, and you don't even have pierced ears!"
"And you said this to him when he gave you pearls?" Pleasnopleasenopleaseno--
"I know, I know. I don't think it was the right thing to say. What do you think I should do?"
"Go back in time and graciously accept the nice gift from your husband? Was he hurt? Is he giving you a hard time?"
"Well, not really, but when he took them back--"
"Wait, he took them back? Right after he gave them to you?"
"Well, they were expensive and I don't need them! So yes. And he didn't seem devastated, but he looked a little hurt. Believe me, I'm beating myself up enough for the both of us."
"OUCH. Well, you could..."
I proceeded to rattle off a list of suggestions informed by a lifetime of women's magazines and mediocre relationship milestones of my own. Buy him something, leave him a note, tell him how inspiring their oldest daughter found it that they could go through a significant and awkward moment that involved money and emerge just fine from it, laugh about it, get it out in the open, etc.
I could tell none of these were sticking and she was growing more anxious about the whole thing when my dad walked in the door and she put him on the phone for a second.
"Dadman, heard you all had a little incident last night."
"Shoot, yeah. Oh well, it's just stuff in the end." He sounded upbeat and genuinely happy to be having this conversation.
"So you're not hurt or anything? You should just know, Mom feels really badly about how she handled it."
"I was DEVASTATED." Uh-oh, he's in community theater mode. "I was torn to pieces; how could she love me and treat me in such a way?! No honey, of course not. Shoot, she made me take them back and now I can buy her a fifteen dollar bottle of wine and sock the rest away for a golf trip. Now, I'm gonna go take your mom out to dinner on her birthday. And, I may even kiss her a little bit."
So really, my only advice should have been: marry a great partner and the rest will take care of itself.