My mother shocked the hell out of me this Christmas: she actually gave me a present that I love and will love to use: a vintage 80s Calvin Klein coat: thick black wool, heavy satiny lining, delicately padded drop-shoulders. Her act of gifting was shocking because Christmas is usually a time for her to assert her maternal domination.
Her Xmas presents to me and my sister are always things of comfort—thick socks, booties, pajamas in soft loud colorful stuff. This is not so unusual; plenty of mothers give ugly Xmas gifts. But the difference with my mother is that her gifting is not a result of cute motherly oblivion. My mother, my sister and I are all quite obsessed with clothes and discourse about it with each other all the time. Thus, her buying her kids ugly pajamas or bathrobes is not from some dottily misguided sense of cute clothing: she knows better. Besides which, this is the carol I sing every Christmas morning: “MA I HATE PAJAMAS AND I DON’T WEAR THEM STOP BUYING ME GIFTS I DON’T WANT BECAUSE IT’S A WASTE OF MONEY ANYWAY!” She ignores this and trudges over to the Macy’s sleepwear department, which might as well be Siberia to me. For my mother, Xmas gifting is a performance that completely ignores her children’s desires as individual adults. The gifts allow her to render her weird, unwieldy kids into manageable pocket-sized tots. In her mind, the ugly warm gifts function quite effectively as textile reincarnations of breastmilk.
I’ve hated those pajama gifts not only because they were ugly but because they didn’t represent the mother I know and love. My mother is not a typical Korean mother, and in many ways, not a typical mother, period. She is not, and has never been, the kind of cookie-baking, stay-at-home mother who micromanages her kids’ psyches. She has always been interested in perfecting her own psyche (As every mother should be, I believe). Having no room or time here to catalogue my mother’s feminine-maternal idiosyncrasies, I will only say that she is an artist who welcomes being called “Mommie Dearest” by her children (fully aware and proud of the Joan Crawford reference...although I think she thinks of herself more Faye Dunaway in the film rather than the character of Crawford), and give you this description of Mrs. Yepanchin from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot as proxy portrait:
Looking at her daughters, she was worried by the suspicion that she was continually ruining their future prospects, that her character was ridiculous, disgraceful, and unbearable, for which, of course, she incessantly blamed her daughters and her husband, and quarrelled with them for days on end, loving them, at the same time, to distraction and almost with a passion....What worried her most was the suspicion that her daughters were becoming almost as “eccentric” as she, and that there are not, and ought not to be, girls like them in society. ‘They are growing into nihilists, I’m sure of it!’ she kept repeating to herself every minute.
My mother is a self-aware and proudly nihilistic woman who worries that her daughters will become nihilists, gloriously denying her own part in creating those nihilistic daughters. But perhaps this is why she goes a bit crazy with crazy-printed flannel come December: it’s her time to be a normal kind of mother.
But this year, giving me the gift of the vintage Calvin Klein coat that made me look like the babynihilist that I dream of becoming, she was able to be a normal kind of mother in her own abnormal way. A week before Xmas, my mother and I were elbow-deep in musty old clothes at a particular charity shop in San Francisco. This store is a favorite of my mother’s because they sell hoards of old designer duds from rich bitch closets at tax-free cheap prices (they benefit some Catholic school or another). I’ve grown to love the shop also, because on that particular day I’d found a wool Ungaro jacket with little gold buttons in the shape of beans.
The Calvin Klein coat that became my Xmas gift was purchased at this very same shop. In reality, I’d found the thing myself, last summer. I loved that the coat was big but rounded, and with its dropped shoulders, did not give such a boringly masculine, military silhouette. But it always feels weird buying a winter coat in summer, and its tagged price being a bit too high ($175!!) I let it go, but asked my mother to keep an eye out for it during the shop’s mega-sales: “Buy it if it comes down 70 percent,” I ordered. “It’s the one with the drop-shoulders!!” In the interim months, my mother lost sight of it and we figured, that was that. So it was a little Christmas miracle when the coat reappeared during our jaunt. I bought the Ungaro, my mother eyed a narrow mink coat, but we left the Calvin Klein on the rack. Its price was still $175, and the sale was only 50 percent. The old Korean lady in me came out and I refused to buy it for 80 some dollars.
So when my mother surprised me with the coat it was touching because it was an acknowledgement of my desire to create my own idea of my bodily self—drop-shouldered and all. For once, she thought about my body as I thought about it rather than her uterus thought about it. But I realize that it was still a kind of a maternal assertion, because the thing is a coat. It is a thick motherfucker, so thick that wearing it just over a t-shirt makes me break out into a bit of a sweat. She still wants to stand for comfort after all.