My grandmother always loved a bargain. She would spend hours perusing yard sales and dollar stores in search of treasures, and she found them in abundance because her definition of ‘treasures’ was broader than most. She always came home with carloads of mismatched dishes, outdated toys, inexplicable holiday decorations, and clothing that was either shabby or so egregiously tacky that it had never been worn before.
Some of her finds were packed away in her home’s commodious closets, but most of them were magnanimously redistributed to the rest of the family. Every time we went to visit, we went through the same dreaded ritual: the unveiling of the gifts.
She would have them laid out when we arrived, in boxes and bags and heaps that we eyed apprehensively. “Now,” she would say with relish, “be thinking of nice things to say,” and she would begin doling out her largesse.
“You girls will love playing with these,” she would tell my sister and me as she handed us a pair of naked and battered Barbie dolls. Or,
“This should be just about right for you,” and she would pass my petite mother a pair of XXL pants.
Criticizing an unwanted gift is impolite in every part of the country, but in the South you are required to do more than merely abstain from negativity. You must praise the gift at length, remarking upon every wondrous quality and wondering aloud how you could possibly have survived so long without it. Anything less is considered rude. Then, once the gift-giver has departed, you are free to dispose of it.
My father, a Yankee by birth, never fully acclimated to this custom. He would watch my mother folding up clothes to take to Goodwill and say, “But I thought you loved that jacket!”
And Mom would look at the jacket, which the day before she had greeted with cries of joy and declarations that it would henceforth be the crowning jewel of her wardrobe, and say, “Are you kidding? It’s hideous!”
“Hideous” was usually accurate. Over the years, Nanna has tried to give me a pair of too-small high heels with massive, multicolored flowers engulfing the toes; a moth-eaten purple velvet hoody; a hugely oversized denim jacket with shoulder pads, drawstrings, and inexplicable patches of Velcro; and a pair of pink fluffy pajama pants that might have fit me in the second grade. I was in college at the time. Often we didn’t even bother to unload the car; we would just leave everything in the trunk until we passed a Goodwill drop.
This catch-and-release method of handling gifts was not without its risks. For instance, there was the unpleasant incident of the plaid jacket, which Nanna gave to my Aunt Sharon. Sharon accepted it with the requisite oohs and aahs, and as soon as Nanna left she disposed of it with a light heart and the satisfied feeling of a job well done. Unfortunately, she was too efficient for her own good: Nanna showed up on her doorstep again just a few days later.
“Sharon, I’ve found the perfect skirt to go with that jacket,” she announced. “Go get it and try them both on.”
Sharon attempted evasive action, but she is an honest soul and deceit is not her strong point. She was eventually forced to admit she had already gotten rid of it, and the coolness that ensued between mother and daughter lasted for several months.
Then there was the time that Nanna opened the trunk of Carrie’s car and found it full of gifts she had given her two weeks ago, waiting forlornly for the thrift store. That story actually has a happy ending, as Nanna declared that Carrie was unworthy of her treasures and demanded them all back.