For as long as I can remember, my elderly parents have always been enthusiastic participants in the related practices of re-gifting (passing on unwanted gifts as gifts to others) and the recycling of unwanted items as presents to other people. I remember my father giving me a bottle of Scotch for my birthday, once, that looked suspiciously like the bottle I had given to him for Christmas. One Easter, I caught my mother re-gifting to her nephew a box of Turkish Delight I had recently given to her. But over the last few years it seems that my parents have elevated the practice of recycling presents to a whole new level of intensity. Perhaps, they have suddenly become aware of the limited time they have left in this life and resolved to clear the backlog of their things unused; things they have kept around the house in secret drawers and cupboards for years. Perhaps past success in this pursuit has increased their confidence and contributed to greater profundity.
My Maltese parents have always suffered from what I call the “Maltese Frugal Gene”, which means that nothing can ever be thrown out that has even the slightest potential of usefulness in any universe, known or otherwise. This not only includes all past unwanted gifts, but even the wrapping paper they come in as well. So, the concept of passing on unwanted items as a birthday or Christmas present to someone who might just possibly use them one day, is a very natural and comfortable fit to their character; this, along with a ferocious aversion to spending any money that could in any way be avoided. The problem is that re-gifting, when combined with their advancing age and the subsequent increased propensity towards forgetfulness, sets the stage for some potentially embarrassing scenarios. Sometimes, things that have been known to be in their possession for some time end up as gifts to others. It has not been unknown for a gift to be re-wrapped and inadvertently returned to people who have given the very same gift to my mother or father at an earlier time.
This last Christmas just gone by, my father gave me an electric shaver as my present. On the surface of things, a reasonable Christmas gift you may suggest. The odd thing is that it was wrapped in combination with a box of green tea and a packet of gourmet coffee sachets. The first clue that all was not quite conventional here, is the simple observation that an electric shaver has very little to do with green tea or coffee sachets. In fact, you could argue that these quite diverse items constituted such an incongruous gift as to suggest that one or other of them were at the very least, an afterthought, and most probably an opportunist attempt to divest the giver of something which was really unwanted and simply laying around, taking up space. The next clue was that the electric shaver did not come with an instruction booklet, nor was it packaged in a box. After the unwrapping, it just appeared loose, in a black, felt, string bag; hmm… Things started to appear a little clearer when I saw the sheepish look on my dear father’s face when he turned and slowly walked away as I upturned the wrapping while obviously looking to see what, if anything else, was in the package. I mumbled a confused and surprised “thanks Dad”, trying to look pleased with my used shaver, green tea and coffee sachets, and enthusiastically suggested that I could take this treasured bounty to my apartment in Malta on my next trip. I suddenly remembered, how, about a year earlier, my father had shown me an electric shaver that he had bought “duty free” in Dubai, and which he said he tried once but did not like very much. Now, I could not accurately remember the exact appearance of that said shaver, but it did not take a great deal of imagination on my part to realise what had become of it. In fact, it occurred to me that this particular shaver was most likely to be in very close proximity at that given moment. I started to understand the significance of the additional items of green tea and gourmet coffee when I remembered my parents’ habit of giving multiple gifts in order to defray attention, and cancel some of the guilt that came from giving one or more used items as presents. It’s as though they believe that one or two new items in the package would distract the receiver from the dud gift in the first place, as well as make up for the miserly lack of expenditure; a cunning ploy! Of course, my father would no sooner think of buying green tea or gourmet coffee as fly to the moon, so they were almost certainly unwanted gifts he had received from someone else. Dare I say it, probably from some other Maltese person from his church or social club. I started to wonder exactly how many times the tea and coffee had been recycled as gifts and determined to check the use-by-date when I got home. I should mention that this situation had by now become quite amusing to my two sisters who were watching this pantomime with more than passing interest. Their time would come.
Somewhat apprehensively, I began to slowly unwrap the Christmas gift I had received from my mother.
It was the usual assortment of underwear and socks; very practical and useful. But what was this other item in there? Well, how even lovelier, it was a handtowel and facecloth boxed set!
“Very nice. Nice cream colour isn’t it. And the lace around the edges makes it all look quite attractive”.
My mother missed the ironic tone but my sisters tried rather ineffectively to suppress their chuckles.
It belies any logic or reason to think that any living mother would not even suspect the inappropriate nature of a gift like a cream coloured handtowel and facecloth, with lace edging, boxed set, to her middle aged son; who is not Gay. I can only assume that the Maltese Frugal Gene kicked in so strongly on this occasion as to totally obliterate any semblance of common sense my dear mother might posses. Her passionate desire to somehow find some use for this clearly useless gift was so strong in her mind, that it had obviously overridden any and all of the cognitive awareness and understanding that she had accumulated over her eighty odd years on the planet. Holy smoke!
My loving mother has an uncanny talent for giving me unwanted items as presents. The strange thing is that this happens even when I try to avoid disappointment and hint at what I want. Sometimes she overtly asks me what I would like as a gift for Christmas or my birthday and in my ignorant naivety and pathetic optimism, I describe what I might need, only to invariably get something I didn’t expect. The bespoke gift arrives in a garish colour, or a different brand or exhibiting some other variable which totally defeats me. My theory as to why this happens is that, once my resourceful mother is armed with a basic description of the desired present, she scours the entire retail district of Greater Western Sydney to find anything that is in any way similar and that is also on sale or discounted for some reason; the Maltese Frugal Gene in action again. So, I always get something out of left field and something which is not quite right. One time I let her know that I could do with a new beach towel. I don’t know how she did it or where she got one from, but it must have been the only towel in the world that does not dry when you try to use it. Where on Earth do you find a towel that does not dry? Scientific organisations should employ my mother as a researcher. I don’t know what material it was made of, but I am sure it would have been a great scientific discovery had it been found in some serendipitous experiment somewhere in Eastern Europe. The towel, or one like it, will probably be used in some bizarre application in outer space one day. One thing is near certain however- I bet it was on sale.