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The Birthday Gift

Today’s guest post comes from Sarita Rich. Sarita is from Kotzebue, Alaska and moved to Utah in 2003, convinced that she would save lives as a graduate from BYU’s College of Nursing. But instead Chem 101 intervened and she changed her major to English Teaching. When she is not fighting the urge to correct grammatical errors prominently displayed in public places, she can be found reading young adult novels and setting off the smoke alarm by making crafts that involve burnt fabric. Until a few days ago she taught middle school English in South Jordan, UT, but her husband is relocating her to Rhode Island where she will teach college English.

Someday it’s bound to happen to everyone. Maybe it takes years to figure out, or maybe you realize it instantly in a sudden epiphany. But the realization always comes: at some point in your life, you know that there is something wrong with your parents.

I’m nine when it happens. I come home from school one day in 1993, secretly thrilled to have an invitation to Byron’s birthday party. The invitation is covered in football decals; it’s his favorite sport. At recess he’s the only boy in the whole third grade who can throw a football all the way across the playground. And he’s cute.

I want to buy a shiny helmet with his favorite colors—blue and silver—or get him a new football. I want my gift to be cool, but utilitarian. Something he’ll bring to school to show off at recess.

But Mom pulls something else out of the closet. She wipes off the dust of a box like the others in a stash kept for occasions such as these: Steve Urkel Fashion Plates. The box is plastered with flaming orange 75% off stickers partially covering the big letters that say, “Ages 4 and up.”

“Mom!” I wail. “I can’t give him that!”

“Why not? What’s wrong with it? It’s a toy. There’s a boy on the cover,” she says, looking closer at the box. Pointing at Urkel she says, “That’s a boy, right?”

What’s wrong with it? Besides the pink and purple box? I think. What’s wrong with it?!

I know what’s wrong with it because I watch T.V. Old reruns of Family Matters on cable television at my friends’ houses. Steve Urkel is everything that is un-Byron. Steve Urkel has nicknames like “Urk Man” and “Jerkel” and “Urkie” and he’s clumsy and has relatives called Myrtle May and Oona and Cleotus and he does science experiments in his “transformation chamber” and builds his own cloning machine and speaks fluent Japanese in a voice like the frantic squealing of baby mice. He even wears suspenders.

How could someone think he would sell fashion plates?

I have my own set of TOMY’s Fashion Plates, a collection of raised texture plastic plates of heads, torsos, and legs dressed in different outfits. When aligned on the plastic frame and covered with paper, rubbing crayons over the paper creates outlines of women in girly poses wearing pantsuits and clingy shirts and miniskirts. Although TOMY’s tries to market to boys with New Kids on the Block and superhero (and Steve Urkel) fashion plates, the toy is for GIRLS.

If I try really hard I might convince Mom that giving Byron Urk Man fashion plates will doom me to a premature death of social suicide. I could say several things: a) Byron probably never used crayons after kindergarten; b) sweater vests—a staple of “Urk Man’s” wardrobe—are fashionable for grandpas in 1973; c) regardless of new age marketing strategies, fashion plates are NOT unisex toys.

Mom is deaf to my pleas, and Dad can’t be bothered with such trivial matters. She wraps up the box in last year’s Christmas wrapping paper—another faux pas of American gift-exchange. It’s still September.

Do I understand where Mom is coming from? No. Do I remember, in this moment, that the gifts any of us (my brother and sisters) give to friends at parties are gently used? No. I forget that our secondhand board games always look new, except for the plastic coverings torn off the boxes. Byron makes me forget that Mom grew up poor in the Philippines, immigrated to the U.S., and without her own disposable income promised to instill in her children a sense of fiduciary modesty. When I think of Byron and football I don’t remember the way Mom solves the problem of the missing plastic. I forget that once, I watched her carefully place pieces of Saran wrap over a game called Sorry! and seal the edges with the flame of a lighter to make the game look like it had just come off the shelf of the toy aisle. Who would have guessed we paid .50 for it at DI?

When I wake up on the Saturday morning of Byron’s party, I find that overnight I’ve mysteriously developed Crohn’s Disease, “a contagious affliction we just learned about at school,” I tell Mom.

I’m stuck in bed all day. My parents still—even after my best impression of bowled-over-with-stomach-pain groaning—insist on hand delivering Byron’s Steve Urkel Fashion Plates. My suspicions are confirmed: they can’t be my real parents.

Byron doesn’t bring the toy to school. And if I just imagine, every day I see him on the playground, that I’ve still got a raging case of inflammatory bowel syndrome I won’t have to talk to him for the rest of the year.

Is there anything your parents did when you were young that you understand better now as an adult? Do you do anything that embarrasses your children?

16 thoughts on “The Birthday Gift”

  1. My mom once wrapped a gift for my 4th grade girlfriend's birthday party in a blue Tampax box. The box was light blue with little star-looking shapes all over it. "No one would ever know" except that it had white TAMPAX letters across the lip of the lid that was nicely hidden when the lid was closed, but open to worldwide view otherwise. UGH! :0

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  2. My mom used to send us to parties with our gifts wrapped in really nice expensive gift bags. She also insisted that the bags were not part of the gift and we better bring them back home with us or else! It was really embarassing (in middle school especially) to have to ask for the gift bags back.

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  3. Ok, my mom didn't do this to me, but I will never ever forget when my sister was celebrating her 5th or 6th birthday party and the neighbor boy gave her homemade panties. I'm sure he was thinking the same thing about his mom–like she was from another planet. Looking back, we realize that the family was very poor and did the best they could. But homemade underwear, really????

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  4. This made me laugh–partly because I could have written something very similar! Growing up we didn't have lots of money when we were young, so my mom always kept a box of clearance-priced presents for birthdays and Christmas. When I was about the same age (9 or 10), I got the boy I had a crush on for the secret Santa exchange. Like you, I hoped to find something cool to give him. Instead, my mom pulled out a pair of bright orange swim flippers. I was so embarrassed, I didn't even put my name on the present (as most of the other kids did–secret Santa or no). Not quite as embarrassing as Steve Urkel, but still.

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  5. Growing up I'd only get one present from my parents, and it was usually dollar store sort of stuff that wasn't even close to what I wanted. Turns out that Mum just has no clue when it comes to present giving.

    I try not to embarrass my kids with the gifts they receive and give. I find thinking way outside the square (particularly if money is tight) makes giftee and gifter very happy!

    Thanks for the laugh filled post!

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  6. My parents embarrassed me the most by having their seventh baby just before I finished middle school. Besides having such a large family in the Boston area (which always elicited the question "so, are you Catholic or Mormon?), I was old enough to know exactly how babies were made & I was therefor embarrassed whether anyone else knew about it or not. I had trouble looking at my parents without cringing for quite a while.

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  7. Dear readers, thanks for your comments! I want to know more about all the gory details–Tiffany, "homemade" panties?! Were they crotcheted (pardon the pun, is that how you even spell that word)?

    Roberta, a TAMPAX box, nice. At least it wasn't for a boy's birthday party, right? But still…

    Bridget, I almost feel your pain. I think at our house it was the other way around, nothing was expensive.

    Michelle L., thank you! I'm glad I hated chemistry. Do people say that picture of you reminds them of Meryl Streep–whom I love, love, love for her beauty and talent? The photos on your blog are exquisite.

    Rosalyn, we could be friends!! Orange flippers sound cool, of course, this is from an adult perspective. My husband would like your story, because he has Secret Santa stories he'd rather forget. I think in elementary school his gift came from a kid who brought him a bag of microwave popcorn.

    Hi Katie! I won't tell Jackson you changed his diaper in public. I went shopping with someone at the mall the other day. Her baby's diaper was so ready to be changed and was leaking all over the place. She just kind of set her baby down on the carpet and changed it right there, then set the dirty diaper on a shelf with a folded t-shirt display for a moment while she recovered from the experience. At least she didn't leave it there on the shelf!

    She-bop: nicely said. I doubt you are as embarrassing as you think!

    Selwyn aka Kellie, I would love to know more! What kinds of outside the square gifts are we talking about?

    Ok, Bekah, I'm sorry it was so traumatic, but your comment reminds me of when my mom played a joke on me at a surprise 15th birthday party. I was having a sleepover and she decided to wrap a bunch of items that I'd already seen before that had been lying around the house. One of them was a book titled "Where Did I Come From?: The Facts of Life Without any Nonsense and with Illustrations" by Peter Mayle. Lovely, eh? At least my friends laughed and took turns passing it around. It turned out to be the party's greatest hit–accidentally fabulous.

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  8. I have endless stories like this. My mom was (is) a terrible gift-giver too. As a matter of fact, she just left a wrapped pair of earrings on my pillow last week, just because. They were really cute and I was so surprised because she is such a notoriously awful gift-giver. When I called to thank her she replied, "they came with a necklace I bought but since I can't wear pierced earrings I was about to throw them away. But then I decided to give them to you!" It was me or the garbage?? Wow, Mom, way to ruin a gift!

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  9. Admittedly, my story is pathetic compared to yours (which I loved by the way). It may or may not help if I explained more (I have a problem with brevity). I grew up in an affluent area and went to school with a lot of rich kids. My parents were barely making ends meet so we could live there and go to the "better" schools. The gifts inside the expensive gift bags were never expensive, just the bags. My mom has always had a thing for pretty wrapping but obviously couldn't afford not to reuse it! I don't think other kids would have known the gift bags were expensive and since I already felt like the poor kid I felt that ask for the wrapping back made me look more pathetic. I always just wished she'd wrap the presents in something else (although a tampax box would have been worse!).

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  10. Even though I knew my Dad was an OB/GYN I had no clue what that meant or what his work entailed. Then in eighth grade some neighborhood boys started to make crude jokes about my dad and his line of work. Upset by what I thought for sure were lies, I asked my dad about it. To my surprise and horror he explained what was true about those boy's jokes. At that point I became extrememly embarrassed by my dad's work and would never tell anyone what he did for a living. But the embarrassments never really went away. At school I found that all the neat little notepads and pencils my dad had given me were actually pharmecutical promotions with some form of the word vagina on them! And I had been carrying them around and using them in class! Whenever I had friends over for dinner my dad would inevitably answer a phone call at the table and ask gross questions like, "what color is the blood?" and "how many pads are you soaking through in a day?" Mortifying for a 12 year old! I could go on and on about the many times my dad's work embarrassed me.

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  11. My grandma gave me a book she bought at a yard sale. It was obviously used, plus it had someones name written in the front.

    One time she gave my 25 yr old brother a sewing kit from the dollar store.

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  12. Now, I am scared. I don't think I will ever give my children another gift because I know that it will end up on someone's blog as a life-changing mistake. Especially that bugle I got for……..

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  13. My mother was SO bad at gifts. The one that scarred me the most happened when my period started, several months before my 13th birthday. When I asked her how I was going to carry the supplies I would need at school, she got all excited, ran to her closet, and pulled out something that she explained had been meant as a gift for my birthday. It was a purse, but clearly (to me, anyway) a child's purse–meant for a 9 or 10 year old. I was already a socially awkward teen, and I KNEW there was no way I was ever going to carry that purse to jr. high. I'm sure I handled it with no sensitivity whatsoever and I regret that now.

    It took me until well into adulthood to realize that if there was going to be a skill to lack, gift-giving was not bad. My mother probably never really gave a really good gift in her life. (Well thought out, appropriate, etc.) But she excelled at loving people–both my family and many others around us. Whatever other difficulties there were in our childhoods, we ALWAYS knew that our mother loved us. There are 10 children in my family. Six boys, four girls. Six missionaries, ten temple marriages. I have no doubt that her ability to love us so well played a major part in that, and was an amazing gift to be blessed with.

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