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. In fact, if re-gifting was an Olympic sport, I would go as far as to say that my parents would be definite gold medal contenders.
I remember my father giving me a bottle of scotch whisky for my birthday one time that looked suspiciously like the bottle I had given to him for Christmas just a month before. One Easter, I caught my mother re-gifting a box of Turkish Delight to her nephew that I had recently given to her.
Over the last few years, it seems that my parents have elevated the practice of recycling presents to a whole new, esoteric level. Perhaps, they have suddenly become aware of the limited time they have left in this life and resolved to clear the backlog of things unused and unwanted that they have kept around the house in secret drawers and cupboards for years. Perhaps their past successes and lack of detection in this pastime have increased their confidence and contributed to greater proclivity.
My Maltese parents have always suffered from what I call the “Maltese Frugal Gene”. This means that nothing can ever be thrown out that has even the remotest potential of usefulness in the future. This not only includes all past unwanted gifts, but the wrapping paper they come in as well. So, the concept of passing on unwanted items as birthday or Christmas presents to people who might 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 possibly be avoided makes for a dangerous combination.
The problem is that re-gifting, when combined with the advancing age of my parents and their subsequent increased propensity towards forgetfulness, sets the stage for some potentially embarrassing scenarios. Sometimes, for example, things that have been known to be in their possession for some time end up as gifts to others who recognise said gifts. It has not been unknown for a gift to be re-wrapped and inadvertently returned to original giver.
Last Christmas, my father gave me an electric shaver as my present. On the surface, 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, was the simple observation that an electric shaver has very little to do with green tea or coffee sachets. It is quite a bizarre combination. In fact, you could argue that these quite diverse items constituted such an incongruous gift as to suggest that one or other of the said items was at the very least, an afterthought, and most probably an opportunist attempt to divest the gift giver of something which was 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 unwrapping, the shaver simply appeared loose, in a black felt drawstring 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 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 welcome bounty with me to my apartment in Malta on my next trip. I suddenly remembered how, about a year earlier, my father had briefly 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 particular unappreciated 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 the exact same shaver was most likely to be in my very close proximity at that given moment.
I started to understand the significance of the supplementary items of green tea and gourmet coffee when I remembered my parents’ habit of giving multiple gifts in order to defray attention, and perhaps, annul some of the guilt that came from giving used items as presents. It’s as though they believe that one or two new things in the package would distract the receiver from the main, dud gift, 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.
The 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 then began to slowly unwrap the Christmas gift I had received from my mother.
It was the usual assortment of underwear and socks. A very practical and useful gift. In fact, I can’t remember ever needing to buy underwear or a pair of socks for myself in my entire life. I was pleased with that. But what was this other item in there? Well, how even lovelier. Secreted under said underwear was a handtowel and facecloth boxed set.
“Very nice”, I chirped. “Pretty, powder blue 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 on Earth would not even suspect the inappropriate nature of a gift like a powder blue 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 possess. 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.
My loving mother has an uncanny talent for giving me unwanted articles as presents. The strange thing is that this happens even when I try to avoid disappointment and hint at what I would like as a gift. Sometimes, she overtly asks me what I would like for Christmas or for my birthday and in my ignorant naivety and pathetic optimism, I describe what I might need, only to invariably get something I did not expect. The bespoke gift arrives in a garish, unuseable colour, or of a different and unwanted 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. 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 do not know how she did it or where she got one from, but it must have been the only beach towel in the world that does not dry up seawater when you try to use it on your body.
Where on Earth do you find a towel that does not dry? Scientific organisations should employ my mother as a researcher. I do not know what material it was made from but I am sure it would have been a great scientific discovery had it been found in some serendipitous experiment somewhere in a secret laboratory. I imagine a scientist somewhere in communist Russia trying to develop a textile that will not smell of body odour when used, only to have discovered a non-porous towel.
“Hey, Ivan, look what I accidently discovered! Our KGB comrades will be pleased.”
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.