When I go looking for a gift for my daughter I am so overwhelmed by the sea of possibilities that to avoid drowning I choose haphazardly. What I buy may be something I bought her last year or a book she told me specifically she didn’t want or had already read. My main goal when shopping for a gift is to end the shopping as quickly as possible in order to avoid further anxiety.
My daughter, on the other hand, never gets exasperated when shopping for gifts. She knows what she’s looking for and stays calm until she finds it. Her gifts always reflect the receiver ‘s desire.
My mother gave me pajamas and bathrobes. I received semi-annual sleepwear gifts on Chanukah and for my birthday in July. Chanukah was robes; birthday PJ’s. The PJ’s were usually white cotton with dainty pink flowers, a pink ribbon pinned to the frilly chest with a little gold safety pin. Pillows of white tissue paper held the soft dreamy sleepwear in a silver box, gift wrapped for a princess. The bathrobes were pastels of pink beige peach and green. Winter ones zipped up the front; summer robes buttoned.
More than once my mother bought the same robe for me, my older sister Emmie and herself. Even though we lived all over the globe, at holiday time in our respective homes we three women could bond through our robes. Buying the matching robes, I like to think, was my mother’s way of saying she liked being our mother,
Now, when I think of all this sleepwear, I wonder if she too suffered from the inability to choose a gift according to the receiver’s desire. Granted, I have always loved sleeping and rather wear robes than clothes, but still, why would a mother give only sleepwear? What was she telling me? That I should stay in bed? That dressing like Doris Day was good for sex? That nobody else would buy me a nightgown?
Fortunately, her repertoire expanded. When I was fourteen my mother and sister travelled to New York City. I stayed home, waiting for the big box from Macy’s with the little PJ’s inside. Imagine my surprise when my mother came home and gave me a book! At that time, nobody but my sister read real books in our family. My mother consulted books for cooking, knitting, gardening and golf. One real book sat on her night table—The Feminine Mystique—but I don’t think she ever read it. As my father aged, he read biographies of Abraham Lincoln and other historical males who walked far for hours to get to school.
My new book carried all the way from New York City was One Thousand Beautiful Things: A Collection of Prose and Poetry Chosen from the World’s Literature, “an anthology resplendent with beautiful things to enrich your daily life,” to quote the Publisher’s Forward (Spencer Press). The 456-page book begins with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “God’s World” (O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!) and ends with “In the Cool of the Evening” by Alfred Noyes, a poem about the Second Coming.
How I treasured this book. I imagined my sister Emmie had urged my mother to buy me a book rather than a bathrobe since I had begun relationships with William Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson. Maybe Emmie, too, preferred books to PJ’s. Over the years I have thrown out many books to make room for new ones, but I have never thrown out One Thousand Beautiful Things. I treasure it still because it reminds me that my mother was flexible enough to give a gift that answered the desires of the girl I was becoming.
This first book was followed my many beautiful things: books, art, jewelry, Judaica. One of my favorite gifts she gave my family in 1990 is Go In and Out the Window: An Illustrated Song Book for Young People produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a book of sixty-one children’s songs alongside images from the Metropolitan’s collection, a truly sumptuous collection of music and art. She gave it to us when my youngest child was eight. “For the Labensohn’s,” she inscribed in her graceful handwriting, “to enjoy, play the music and sing together….” This was a perfect gift, as it enabled me to share my American childhood with my Israeli children.
When I was sixty and in Cleveland and my mother had stopped buying gifts, I needed a summer robe. I went to the children’s department at Target, because I wanted to find a robe like the ones my mother used to buy. I found a cotton-polyester pink and green pastel plaid robe with pink ribbing on the sleeves and collar. Size 14. It was not as ethereal or regal as the robes my mother had chosen, but then, neither was I.
At moments when I miss my mother and want to feel close to her, who now lives in a closed ward in Cleveland due to Alzheimer’s, I wrap myself in this child’s robe and walk out onto the porch of my home in Israel. A morning mist covers the surrounding Judean hills in robes of pastels–pink beige peach and green. The High Holidays are in the air; memories of family and food bring tears to the eyes. In an attempt to hold it “close enough,” I melt into the landscape, grateful for all my gifts, among them–the thousand beautiful things my mother gave me.