Anything special you want for your birthday?" my mother asks.
I have no immediate response. The question seems strangely monumental. The birthday is next week. Shouldn't this be an easy question?
"You know what? I don't have time to want anything," I say, finally.
"Oh," she says. "Well, that's wonderful!"
Wonderful? To be too busy to know what the heck you'd like for your own birthday? This is not a case of the person who has everything. I am a person who does not, for instance, have enough socks. I don't have time to shop for socks. Or fancy clothes, for that matter. Or anything in the cool iPod line. Or so very many gadgets that, if I had time to sit and think about it, I would definitely put on my wish list. Books -- there are a lot of new books I want. And didn't Neil Young just come out with a new CD? But see, already, just even barely opening the window here, I'm getting overwhelmed, and I must stop. Must not go there.
"I'm not sure it's wonderful," I say to my mom. "What do you mean, wonderful?"
"If you're too busy to think about wanting, it means you're leading a full life," she says.
Well, that's an optimistic view. I'm not feeling optimistic. "If you're too busy to think about wanting, it means . . . you're too busy," I say. "It's not good to be too busy. People need downtime. People need to remember to play, smell the roses and all, like that."
"A lot of people are very busy wanting," she says.
Hmm. Maybe. Why is she hammering this point? Is this some sneaky way of getting out of buying me a stinkin' birthday present?
No. My mother doesn't sneak. And she loves to buy presents.
"People spend all their time wanting more and more," she says, "thinking that's the answer to happiness. But you know that the wanting train goes nowhere. That's why I'm proud of you."
Oh, brother. She's got me elevated way beyond my original point. I wonder if I should leave it here. A mother likes to think her kid is . . . special. Superior. That the kid picked up and ran with all those smart mothering moves she made. It makes the mother feel good about all her hard work.
Yeah, well, I can't leave it here. I just can't.
"Mom, I don't have the energy to get on the wanting train," I say. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I do!" she says.
"I'm saying that in order to open the ol' boxcar of personal desire," I tell her, choosing my words very carefully so as not to be misunderstood, "I'd have to find a way to stop this barreling locomotive I seem to have gotten myself on."
"You have always been so good with metaphors!"
Oh, my God! Is she listening? Are we having the same conversation?
"I never got you very many Christmas presents," she says, ridiculously veering off, as a mother does, to mother-guilt. "I'm sorry. I just didn't want you kids to grow up thinking that
material goods were the answer."
"I always wanted more Christmas presents," I tell her. "I always wanted more."
"But look at you now!"
Oh, dear. "Let's get back to my birthday," I say, finally. "I'm thinking precious gems. I'm thinking 24-carat gold." In a matter of seconds I've run up a list worth many thousands of dollars, and I'm not done. "I'm thinking a trip to a remote island where they have tan men who could serve me fruity drinks and beefy women capable of deep-tissue massages."
"You have always been a dreamer," she says, but not even ironically. "That's your gift, you know, that's your gift!"
"Oh, my God!"
"Why do you have to take the Lord's name in vain?"
I give up. Because there's no sense arguing with your own mother over the point that you are not quite as swell as she has made you out to be. It would be like your dog trying to
convince you that it's not the most adorable little pooch to walk the face of this Earth -- a waste of that dog's slobber.
And I know how this works with mothers. All the good things my mom sees in me are things she sees, or wants to see, in herself. Accomplishing, moving forward, is good. Sitting idle is bad. Sitting around wishing you had more material wealth is really, really bad. Get out there and do! Make something of yourself! This is how she has the world figured out. Nowadays, her feeling good about herself is, like many a mom, largely dependent on seeing that her philosophy got passed on.
"Well, you sure did a good job raising me," I say, because we should probably all give our mothers a present on our birthdays.
"I never got you enough Christmas presents," she says.
"Let it go, Mom. You did a good job."
"I did. Thank you."
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.