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Monday, Dec. 27, 2004
I always feel a certain chill when one of the D-Land heavyweights pays a call, as Dangerspouse did the other day.

Kinda like having Mike Tyson give you a quick lick in the ear. It’s those preludes, kids, life’s little preludes that make things interesting.

I mentioned my mother-in-law a few posts back. The one I typically see but a few times a year even though she lives a scant three miles from my house. I have respect for the MIL, as she birthed the lively youth who would become my bride, and she still houses two of her four children even though they are all wage worthy adults (although the two under roof are without question certifiably insane) right now.

But I worry about her sometimes. I might even be a little scared of her, at least once a year. Because my MIL at age 64 is a Christmas dork.

I think she’s always had a hankering to be a visionary artist, and be recognized as such. For certain there has been a long running relationship with photography, and art, occasionally with very nice results, but maybe not quite what you’d expect from a visionary.

She has a hobby fetish, always has since I first met her, but she can‘t seem to stay with any of them. Ceramics - she bought a kiln the size of an industrial water heater, and a backhoe worth of clay, worked the good earth for a year and then dropped it, never to return. Tapestry art - yards and yards of purple and green and glitter and schlock glued and drizzled. That was about a two year run. Garage Sales - she filled two rooms in a pretty spacious house with clothes and artifacts that she never used, never wore, and by all appearances, never had any intention of using. It was undeniably the Garage Sale kick that started the Christmas dork personna.

The first time I had an inkling that she might just have a problem was a Christmas before any of my kids were born (let’s just see, that may have been the year I traded in the Flintmobile on an internal combustion ride). We gathered at her house Christmas morning for a flurry of unwrapping. And she loves to give gifts, by golly. Everybody gets lots of stuff.

I may have gotten a sweater, and a shirt, both of which looked new but had that slightly handled look that you only get from garage sale/thrift store purchases. And I didn’t mind, really, utilitarian goods always get a nod from me. However, mildly soiled clothing wasn’t what she had in mind. She reached behind her chair at one point and brought forth the grand finale of gifts for me. Holding a cylindrical tube with fuzzy gold paper and an enormous bow in both hands, she minced over and nearly bowed to me saying, “This is special - this made me think of you and I’m so honored to give it to my dear son-in-law.” With that preface, I was (stupidly) thinking new bass rod or autographed poster of Kim Basinger.

No and no. It was a sword. An honest to Pete sword, complete with mild rust to indicate its’ authenticity. “Isn’t it something?”, she enthused. “I’m pretty sure it’s Civil War era, I mean look at the workmanship, and that handle is real wood, and feel how heavy it is Outfoxed!” I swished it a few times just for show, and made babbling remarks of a kind, and laid it tenderly aside the shirt with the frayed collar for further inspection later on (which revealed, by the way, that the handle was indeed wood, but I don’t think that Taiwan was exporting swords to the Confederacy during the Civil War). I never did display it over the mantle as she suggested, mostly because it was years before I even had a mantle, and somehow the sword passed out of my life a short time later, most likely as a donation to the local landfill.

Another year her final presentation was a two foot long chunk of ebony that had been carved (“By hand! Look at the detail, think of the time that took!”) into a series of dancing elephants. Mother in law is nothing without the romance of the tale behind the gift, and she extolled for quite a while about the African native, squatting in the dust outside his hut with only a Bowie knife for company and that chunk of ebony, his loincloth besotted with the drippings of sweat from an artistic brow. It’s not my nature to be confrontational with her, and in large part it‘s my occupational muse that made me notice, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her about the obvious machine markings from the industrial router/carver, or the machine’s placement pin holes on the back.

One year, I got baskets. Just . . . baskets, and to this day I couldn’t tell you what they were for. What a fully grown male does with small plain baskets is a leap of artistic interpretation that even the MIL was struggling to explain.

Ally on the other hand loves to get gifts from the MIL. In a curious turn about, the girls of the family receive a Christmas largesse of useful and beautiful clothing, jewelry and cooking utensils. All new and having the all important “Receipt so you can return it if it doesn’t fit!” I’ve never gotten a receipt for anything from MIL, and I’d be scared to see it if I did.

After many years of this, Ally and the kids have gotten positively evil about the traditional trip to the mother in laws’ on Christmas Day. Somewhere around mile 2 of the 3 mile trip, one of them will cackle, “So what do you think Dad will get this year?”, and they writhe on their seats in mirth as I sadly shake my head. Never fails to get a laugh.

But wait. The other shoe is about to drop.

We were seated in the den with the outrageously decorated tree (hand carved ornaments, natch) and the passing of gifts commenced. MIL made the comment, as she often does, about “How hard it is to shop for you men” while I gripped the armrest of the sofa in grim fashion and steeled myself for the inevitable.

Ally’s youngest sister has a husband whom I happen to like, and he was sitting close by (part and parcel of the ‘shop for men tribe‘, I guess), so it was easy to see that the three gifts we both were handed were exactly the same. I mean wrapped the same, same shape and all. He’s been through this before too, and we looked at each other a tad uneasily.

A quick tear open, and we breathed a little easier, if not a trifle on the puzzled side. We each got three flashlights. Three. One of them could be affixed to the head, coal miner style. It was just quirky enough to give acknowledgement to our beaming mother in law and I think we both figured that as Christmas goes, we did reasonably well in the embarrassment department. I mean, it was a big step up from the year I got an authentic Roman shield (“To go with the sword, Outfoxed, do you see?”).

So I was feeling somewhat relieved about it all, until my son happened to speak up from the fireplace where he wore a puzzled expression.

“Um, Grandma, what is this ?” He had a carved wooden box in his hand, and it was open, and he was peering inside. I’d already froze up when I saw the carved box and couldn’t imagine what terror lay inside of it.

“Aahhhhh, Ben! I’m glad you asked”, his Grandmother said. “Come closer and I’ll show you.” And Ben dutifully slid over so my mother in law could ‘splain.

“Now this is a crucifix, I found this at the mumble/random art warehouse/mumble and I think it’s European, you can tell by the wear marks in the metal, see? Here and here . . .” and Ben got a glazed look on his face, one that I knew quite well from years of practice. And I realized that I was the only one listening in on this conversation as everyone else was busily tearing open gifts and exclaiming thanks so I made an effort to distract myself and check in with Ben later.

Later turned out to be at my house, with Ally and a beer and with kids already flown out the door to various friends houses, when I found her sitting on the sofa with Ben’s box and a transfixed look on her face.

“Hey, isn’t that your mother’s present to Ben? Lemmee see, gotta see.”

Ally handed over the crucifix, and it was metal, sure enough, and had the wear marks too. Jesus was set in the familiar pose and it even had the lettering above his head. But what caught my eye was the skull and crossbones at his feet.

“Skull and crossbones? What is this a Harley Davidson crucifix? Your mother, I swear. I mean for Christ’s sake . . .” and she shushed me from further blasphemy, and pulled something else from the box. It was a piece of blue stone, or crystal, or something. Maybe azure, I have no idea, but it had a yellow fleck in the middle like an eye. “Let me guess, this is some symbolic representation of the evil eye, right?” I was on a roll by that time.

“Who knows,” Ally said. “You know how she gets carried away with these theme gifts. Wait, there‘s one more thing in here.” And the sense of drama was palpable.

Ally drew forth an ordinary plastic vial, like a large prescription bottle, bearing only a single simple label. “Earth from the Holy Land,” she breathed. “Wow. She went all out this year didn’t she?”

I snagged it, pried open the lid and indeed, there was some reddish soil inside. I’m not sure where it might have come from though, could well have been Georgia, though I was a bit sullied when I found the “Packed in China” label on the bottom. But then, my mother in law never was one for checking labels too closely.

I had a thought, and a delicious feeling of liberation was stealing through my bones as I shared this moment with my wife. “You know what? I think the torch has officially been passed. I’ve waited for this day for 25 years now.”

“What does that mean?”, she asked.

“Well isn’t it obvious? Your mother has run out of junk to foist on me, and she’s handed the reins to our son. Man, this is so cool.”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous. She always says she has a hard time shopping for men, and she really puts a lot of thought into these things, there’s a lot of symbolism and mysticism and . . . oh, you know. You know how she is with Christmas.”

Yes indeedy I do. My son got a Gothic fork, a rock and a bottle of dirt.

And as traditions go, this is one I’m absolutely delighted to hand off to him.

Visitors to the Guestbook should note that this story will be lovingly retold for days at the Watering Hole, and I’ll even wear my coal miner’s light for that authentic look.

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