Two Stories of Unique Mother’s Day Gifts That Won’t Be Forgotten

For many moms, a card or some flowers are perfect. These two unusual women demand something, um, special.

Mama, This Story is For You

By Helene Melyan
From the Oregonian

There is a country—I read about it once—where the local custom is that if you go to a house and praise some small possession, the owners feel obliged to offer it to you as a gift. I don’t remember the name of the country; the only other place I know of with such a custom is my mother’s apartment.

Knowing Mama, I have always been careful with my com­pliments, but that doesn’t stop her. Mama senses admiration far more subtle than what’s spoken. If she catches me staring at anything small enough to put in a grocery sack, she hands it to me as I leave. It would do no good to protest. “I was merely staring at that photograph of Mount Hood because I have one exactly like it in my living room.” Mama would only nod and say, “Of course. You were thinking how nice it would be to have a set. If a mother doesn’t understand, who does?”

Sometimes, while visiting Mama and trying not to say anything complimentary, I reflect on what might have been had she ended up in, say, the White House. “Here you are, Mr. Prime Minister, that nice picture of George Washington you were admiring so much, from the Blue Room. No, take it. You like it. What do I need it for?”

Being with Mama is like watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie: I never know what’s going to happen next. For instance, I have lasting memories of childhood walks with her. Mama noticed everything. We had to stop to admire a nice house, a nice tree, a nice flower. Mama regarded the people we saw (those who didn’t look like her relatives) as portraits in a ­museum—no matter if people stared back. “She was pretty once, but has seen tragedy,” Mama would whisper, or, “Such a handsome man, but conceited to the core.” Her sharpest epithet was “Minky,” reserved for the type of woman Mama thought would wear a mink to the supermarket.

mothers day illustrationJohn Hendrix for Reader's Digest
As far back as I can remember, Mama was telling people they were in the wrong line of work and suggesting alternative careers. If the landlord fixed the sink, she told him he should have been a plumber. If he couldn’t fix it, Mama would wait until the plumber came and then tell him he should have been a landlord. And if either one of them told her a joke, Mama would have to know why he hadn’t gone into show business.

My turn came when I grew up and became a house­wife. “You missed your calling,” Mama sighs, examining the doodles on my phone book.

“You should have been an artist.” Later, I tell her how I returned rancid fish to the supermarket and demanded a refund, and she amends this to lawyer. I know it’s horsefeathers, but I like it.

“You missed your calling,” I tell Mama. “You should have been a vocational counselor.”

“I know,” she sighs. “But that’s life. Maybe now that it’s spring …”

According to Mama, there is no problem that will not be a little bit solved by the coming of spring. I grew up believing that there was only one correct way to end a discussion of things unpleasant or troublesome: nod at the calendar, pat somebody on the back if possible, and sigh,

“Maybe in the spring …”

I could understand how certain problems—sinus conditions, chapped lips, sticking windows—would respond to the change of seasons. But I never tried to unravel the spring magic that Mama vowed would help me under­stand fractions or long division.

I was not the only target of Mama’s philosophy. At one time or another, Mama had several dozen people in the neigh­borhood waiting for spring to relieve them of indigestion, mice, domestic difficulties, and trouble with the horizontal hold on their television sets.

pull quote textSometimes, sitting in school during history (which Mama promised me I’d find less boring in the spring), I would day­dream my mother into other places and other times. Once I saw her patting Napoléon on the back, after he got the news from the Russian front. (“Maybe in spring …”) She was beside George Washington at Valley Forge, brushing snow off his epaulets. (“In spring, maybe, you’ll win the revolution.”) She was looking over Thomas Edison’s shoulder, comforting him in his early failures. (“Don’t worry; maybe in the spring you’ll try something new.”)

I have been worrying for weeks now about what to give my mother for Mother’s Day. For most people, this is a modest problem, solved by the purchase of a bathrobe or a box of candy. For me, however, Mother’s Day represents an annual challenge to do the impossible—find a gift that will make neither Mama nor me feel terrible.

Expensive gifts—which Mama defines as costing over $1.98—are out, because they make Mama feel terrible. (“This is awful,” she says, examining an apron. “I feel just terrible. You shouldn’t have spent the money on me.”) Inexpensive presents—under $1.98—please Mama, but they make me feel terrible.

There is always the danger that a gift given to Mama will bounce swiftly back to the giver. If I buy her something wearable, she perceives in an instant that it could be let in here, let out there, and it would fit me perfectly. If I give her a plant, she cuts off the top for me to take home and root in a glass of water. If I give her something edible, she wants me to stay for lunch and eat it.

Papa, a sensible man, long ago stopped trying to shop for Mama. Instead, on Mother’s Day, her birthday, and other ap­propriate occasions, he composes a short epic poem in which he tells of their meeting, courtship, and subsequent mar­riage. After nearly 30 years of poems, Papa sometimes worries that the edge of his poetic inspiration has dulled, but Mama doesn’t complain. She comes into the room while he is strug­gling over a gift poem and says, “It doesn’t have to rhyme as long as it’s from the heart.” These 16 motherhood quotes will make you want to call your mom ASAP.

This year, finally, I think I, too, have found a painless gift for Mama. I am going to give her a magazine article, unrhymed but from the heart, in which I wish her “Happy Mother’s Day” and tell her there’s nothing Papa or I could ever buy, find, or make her that would be half good enough anyway.

This story originally appeared in the May 1977 issue of Reader’s Digest.

mothers day illustrationJohn Hendrix for Reader's Digest

A Hymn to End All Hymns

By Alistair Bane
From The Moth

I’m from the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, but I’ve lived in Denver for quite a few years. I have a friend that also lives in Denver who is originally from Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation. We got talking about how homesick we were, and he suggested that we go spend a couple of weeks with his grandma.

In the car for the 12-hour drive, we talked about everything we missed: fry bread and powwows and stomp dances and hearing our people speak our own languages. By the time we got to Oklahoma, I was so happy to be home. We were maybe three or four miles from his grandma’s house when he said there were a couple of things maybe he should tell me about.

The first was that his grandmother might not be particularly fond of Shawnee people. This was because of a thing that had happened between our tribes in the late 1800s. That might seem like a long time ago to some people, but she remembered.

The second thing was that she could be a little bit persistent about inviting people to go to church with her on Sunday. Right away I knew what he meant. In modern-day Oklahoma, Native people have an eclectic array of spiritual beliefs. Some follow our traditional ways; others have joined various congregations. I grew up with an Irish Catholic mother and a Shawnee father, and so I was very open to all kinds of different spiritual beliefs. But as I grew up, it was our traditional ways that had spoken to my heart.

pull quote textHowever, when I went back home I’d still get a lot of invitations to go to church. Although I really appreciated it, I usually politely declined because there was always an undercurrent of hoping that I might be converted, and I really don’t like to disappoint people.

I promised my friend that I could be diplomatic with his grandmother if she was persistent with her invitations, and I even thought that maybe I could win her over to liking Shawnee people.

When we got inside, he introduced us. I addressed her as Miss Myrtle to show extra respect. She was a strong-looking 75-year-old with roller-set hair. Her greeting was polite but not particularly warm. But over the next week I took her to Tulsa to run errands, I fixed her chicken coop, and I used all my best manners, and by that Friday I was winning her over. At dinner that night she said to me, “You know, Alistair, it’s been nice having you here. Now, you know this Sunday is Mother’s Day. Of course, at my age I never know if this could be my last Mother’s Day. There’s just one thing I want. I would like you to be my special guest at church on Sunday.” Then she said, “Of course, I know you are into your traditional ways. So if you don’t feel comfortable going it’s OK, as long as you know this could be my last Mother’s Day.”

When the invitation is put like that, there is really only one thing I could say, which was, “I’d love to be your special guest on Mother’s Day.”

We got to the church. It was a one-room country church. There were about 50 to 60 people, mostly elders from Miss Myrtle’s tribe. The services started, and they weren’t that different from the ones that I remembered my mom taking me to when I was young, until they got to one part. People could walk up the center aisle and put some money into this little wooden collection box, and that bought them the privilege of inviting somebody from the congregation up to sing a “Special.” A Special, it turned out, is a solo hymn. A few people walked up, donated their money, selected their guests, their guests all sang beautifully, and everyone was happy. And then Miss Myrtle started up the aisle.

mothers day illustrationJohn Hendrix for Reader's Digest
She was kind of elderly, so it felt like it took her a long time to reach the front. When she did, she carefully folded her money, put it into the box, scanned the congregation, found me, and said, “My grandson brought a friend with him from Denver. His name is Alistair, and he is from the Eastern Shawnee Tribe. But he is a very nice person. Alistair, I would like you to come up here and sing us a Special.”

I immediately began making shy “no” gestures and grinning, kind of the way my dog does when he’s eaten another sofa cushion. But there was an old man behind me patting me on the back, saying, “Go on up there and sing, son. I can tell by looking at you that you are a singer.”
That was the moment that I realized how true the old adage is that looks can be deceiving.

But my friend had grabbed me by the arm and was guiding me over his knees in the narrow pew. He said, “Grandma’s going to be so happy.”

And the next thing I knew, I was out in the center aisle, and it almost felt like there was some invisible force propelling me toward the front of the church. It could have been God. And I was hoping that, if it was God, when I reached the microphone, God would choose that moment to work a super-big miracle and make it so that I could sing—and that I knew any hymns at all.

I reached the microphone. I waited. It didn’t seem like any big miracles were imminent, but I told myself it was going to be OK. I did have some stage and singing experience. It was back in the ’90s, when I lived in San Francisco and I was in a Goth band called the Flesh Orchids.
And then I thought back to when I was real young and my mom had sent me to Catholic school. It was the ’70s, and there had been this hippie nun who would come out with a guitar at recess and sing hymns on the playground. She always sang “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.” And I was like, ooh, ooh—I did know a hymn! I turned to the organist, who was waiting patiently, and I said, “ ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,’ please, ma’am.”

pull quote textThe music started, and about the place where it felt like there should be some words, I started to sing. “Michael, row your boat ashore, alleluia. Michael, row your boat ashore …” It was about the time I reached the second alleluia that I realized that was in fact the only line I remembered.

But Shawnees have never been quitters. So I decided there can be different versions of the same song. There could be extended dance remixes, where vocals are looped repetitively. And so I thought I’d sing the line four times, give it a little bit of a rest, sing it four more. And so on for a total of 16 times, which seemed long enough to be a real song.

About halfway through I closed my eyes, because sometimes it’s better not to see your audience. And while I stood there singing, I had plenty of time for existential questions, like: Who is Michael? Why does God want him to row his boat ashore? And then, finally, I hit that line for the 16th time and I stopped. The organist, who was not quite sure what was happening, continued to play, but when she realized it was finally over, she stopped in kind of an abrupt way, and then there was silence, and in that silence I walked back down the aisle. I started to climb back over my friend’s knees. As I did, our eyes met and he just said, “Dude.”

I sat back down. Miss Myrtle was on the other side of me. She wasn’t making eye contact. And her posture seemed somewhat rigid. But once I was settled in my seat, she leaned toward me slightly and said quietly, “I don’t believe I’ve ever met someone that didn’t know at least one hymn.” There wasn’t a whole lot I could say about that, so I was just like, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

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