My mother has six daughters so certain things were always bought in bulk. Most people immediately think of toilet paper and Tampax. Yes, but no. I am referring to presents. Gifts. Specifically, Christmas gifts. My mother bought gifts in bulk and has done so since the ‘70s. It is the same concept as buying a shirt in every color. If it fits and you like it, by god you’re getting six. This shopping tactic was most likely borrowed from her grocery buying habits trying to feed a family of ten. She didn’t just buy two cans of everything, she bought a whole case.
At a certain point when we girls were older, I know for a fact my sisters and I would have gladly taken money at Christmas instead of matching sweatshirts with embroidered deer on them, but cold, hard cash didn’t sit well with my Mom. “Too crass,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Besides, your father wants you to have actual Christmas presents. He didn’t have anything as a boy you know.”
And he didn’t. As the oldest child in a Depression-era broken home, Dad was lucky to get a spot in the soup line in LaCrosse, and often begged at the back doors of restaurants for leftovers. For Dad, the idea of Christmas was non-existent. Later, with his own family of eight kids, Dad saw to it that Christmas was a two-day present pile and cookie-fest.
To expedite my Dad’s Christmas wishes, Mom was his little shopping elf. I cannot imagine how exhausting that must have been, buying multiple presents for eight kids, but she did it, and beginning on Christmas Eve the pile of packages under the tree was delightfully obscene.
When we started leaving home for college and jobs, the idea of buying individually selected Christmas presents for all of us girls was starting to sour on Mom, so Gifts in Bulk! was born in the Broihier household.
For some reason, Christmas is a holiday that compels people to dress their children in tartan plaids like a bunch of bagpipers. This is fine for small children, but we were adults when Mom decided it was time she dressed her girls like Scottish sextuplets. That first year we all lounged on Christmas day in matching plaid flannel sleep shirts. Sedated by Christmas cookies for breakfast, we were too lazy to object, and frankly, some of us were glad to get new pajamas. Mom must have been pleased because the next year all six girls swept through the house like silent monks in black plaid floor-length bathrobes the size of teepees, collecting dust bunnies as we swished down the hall. I used mine as a blanket when I got back to college after Christmas break.
With these successes, Mom’s gifting mechanism was in place and became the giftus modus operandi for many years. It must have been liberating to think of just one gift for all us girls, and then send it across the country with carefree holiday abandon. Over the years I received Christmas boxes with an array of creative items, often with a decidedly food-related theme. In addition to a few dozen sturdy cookies, there were ceramic coffeecake pans and shiny red Panini grills, wrought iron kitchen shelves and miniature lemon trees, handmade Mexican salad tongs and heavy glass ice buckets. Mom was Williams-Sonoma’s dream customer, buying often and in multiples.
When my two brothers married, their wives were added to Mom’s gift list. There were eight of us girls across the country, from Portland Maine to Seattle, Washington, wearing identical white sleeveless summer robes with blue piping on the collar, feeling very much like Grace Kelly at the Cape and all juicing oranges with our identical new electric Braun juicers.
It was a long standing Broihier tradition for my parents to give us books on Christmas Eve, carefully selected for each of us by my mother during a marathon shopping excursion to Marshall Fields on State Street in Chicago. When I was seven, I remember getting The Runaway Bunny and The Ugly Duckling, both of which sent my little head spinning with embarrassment. What did Mom think I was, a baby? Runaway Bunny? Who is she kidding? That book immediately went missing under my youth bed. The Ugly Duckling was no better. I could not get over the title of that one, which hit too close to home for this plain girl to extract any further message from the story. Although the books represented my mother’s thoughts about each of her girls, I remember wondering why I always got the bland books about girls in the wilderness, while my older sister got Animal Farm and Harriet the Spy.
Thankfully, Books in Bulk! began just after Gifts in Bulk! was an established success. It was almost a relief knowing I was no longer singled out as the recipient of books about quiet girls with hidden strong constitutions. The new titles reflected my mother’s tastes at the time. During Mom’s ‘70s psychology phase (which followed her Zen phase), we all got an Alfred Adler book, which looked important on my dorm room bookshelf but to this day I still haven’t read. We also received The Family of Man in hardback and The Meaning of Life. And after a spurt of marriages in the family, we all got Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, which was soon followed by What do you Really Want for Your Children? by Wayne Dyer. More recently we received Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer since Mom is now a vegetarian.
As the years went by there were a few gifting snafus. “Mims dear, did you get a cookbook last year on casseroles?” I must have had a confused look on my face because Mom scooted down the hall to her bedroom closet to forage through a large green plastic bin full of surplus gifts. She emerged with the missing cookbook and another one on desserts. Part of a set. I had Appetizers and Salads to look forward to the following Christmas.
It is a nifty thing having a stash of gifts in your closet. If any of us was home for an extended visit and looking a little bored, Mom would say “I have just the thing!” Navigating her sturdy black shoes to the bedroom, she’d rummage through the green bin for something to delight you like a child easily amused with a small toy. One interminable summer day she placed a small box on my lap that held a ceramic bowl in the shape of a tomato from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello gift catalog. “It’s for ketchup,” she said, one of her favorite foods. I smiled. I found it was best to play along and look thrilled with whatever I got. Not all of my sisters can pull that off.
On my last visit back to Michigan, I acquired yet another cookbook from the green bin plus an embroidered white Orvis Christmas sweater, as tasteful as a Christmas sweater can possibly be. Having generous parents means you must be a gracious recipient, so I marveled at how pretty it was and packed it into my bag. As I headed for the car, Mom felt I didn’t have enough stuff yet, so she tried to give me another Christmas coffeecake pan, but there are only so many of those a person can use. I gently mention that one of my sisters must not have gotten hers.
A few years ago Mom started giving us money for Christmas and birthdays, apologizing profusely for this modern blight on gift-giving. She simply could not keep up with buying gifts, packaging them and then hauling boxes to the post office for all her children. Who could? I would need a spreadsheet to organize what Mom has done in her head for fifty years. It was always her job to figure out whose birthday was that month and what was on everyone’s list for Christmas. I can barely do this job for two, let alone ten. It was the end of the gold-standard of gift-giving, the end of Gifts in Bulk! and the end to the Christmas box from home.
My siblings and I are all very different and have followed various paths in life. At one point we were anchored at the four corners of the continent, from LA to New York, Florida to Seattle. But the Christmas box, filled with ancestral cookies and well thought out gifts, would always be sitting on my doorstep when I got home from work on a deep December afternoon. It was a connection I had to my family, which I would only see once every two years or so. It was a confirming feeling that I was not forgotten, no matter how many kids they had.
Thanks to my parents and their insistence on creating Christmas memories and treating us like children despite our ages, the Christmas box not only held the delight of a gift, but provided a family structure when I was alone and far away. It reaffirmed my lineage and reminded me of who I was when many of those heartless days when I was just starting out would brutally challenge my idea of humanity and my place within it. With a cookie and a gift I would remember that I come from generous parents who hail from the great Midwest. I am one of eight children and one of six sisters. Because of my father, who overcame immense poverty, and my mother who was creative and efficient, I knew I was loved, I was part of a tribe, and I always knew what the others were getting for Christmas.