The Gift




My grandmother had the worst taste in the world, which meant that she was always fun and easy to shop for. Consequently, she always got the lion’s share of my gift-giving budget. She was the kind, in a certain age, who would’ve fit very well in Miami. She always decked herself out with too much makeup and jewelry, bright and gaudy colors, favoring the brightest blue eye shadow, so much that my mother would tell her that she looked like a streetwalker. She wore the loudest clothing she could get her hands on, and if it was lamé, all the better. Her over-the-top purses, always big enough to carry an entire carton of cigarettes, would be considered tacky in some circles, but that didn’t stop me from coveting one which bore multi-colored dead, stuffed birds nestled under clear plastic. I was thrilled when she gave that to me.


I thought she looked beautiful.


There was a time when I thought her house was exquisitely decorated, even if her idea was to buy out an entire department store window “because you get an interior decorator for free that way.” Consequently, I never had to buy furniture at any stage in my life, because there was always a progression of furnishings from the living room to the den to the rumpus room of their split-level house to the weekend house to mine. I still have never bought living room furniture that I was able to pick out for myself. It saves on hiring a decorator, you know.


I thought her house was beautiful.


When I was 8 years old, we went to Tijuana to do some shopping, probably over Thanksgiving weekend. I always knew that my November allowance would take a big hit, since December meant my grandmother’s birthday as well as Christmas. I bought her a little tray which bore a design of a bird with real feathers under glass, signed “Mexico.” At $2.50, it cost me an entire week’s allowance, but it was worth it. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I could afford, and I knew she’d love it. My mother thought it was the most hideous thing she’d ever seen, but she said “Mama Jean will love it.”


I knew who had the taste in the family. The next year, I would buy my grandmother $10 silver earrings, because she appreciated fine quality. Those, too, came from Tijuana.


As the years went on and I lost my sense of good taste, I’d snicker at the little tray, always displayed in her rumpus room, the room which bore the latest in 1960’s interior design: electric and green blue shag carpet, coffee and end tables painted green with a hint of gold, the black patent leather chair, wrought iron home bar finished in black with touches of gold, the swag lamp filled with turquoise and bright green diamonds, and a wall telephone with a cord that retracted right into the wall. The King Kamehameha wicker chair. And the zebra skin ice bucket. The little tray almost looked a little out of place amid the sophistication and glamour of the rest of that room. My grandmother didn’t put that little tray out there just for politeness’ sake; she knew fine art when she saw it.


My grandparents would furnish my first law office in 1977 with desks from my grandfather’s office and a reception room comprised of yet more castoffs. My mother swiped the little tray from Tijuana from her house, suggesting that it might repose on the reception room coffee table “because it’ll appeal to your migrant worker clients.” Embarrassed by the horror of it, after a while I tossed it away into a cabinet, and somehow it got moved to the next office and the next, and then somehow it ended up right here in central Mexico.


Anyone normal would think of the little tray from Tijuana as something that just wouldn’t die. Until only a few months ago, I hadn’t seen it for at least 30 years, and I almost broke down and cried when I discovered it. And you know something? It is beautiful, in a kitschy kind of way, and ones just like it are going for $50 on eBay right this very moment.


It’s not for sale.

14 comments on “The Gift

  1. says:

    Good gift to us, that little bit of important rememberances. Those memories are what life is made of. I rever my Grandfather for reasons from the other end of the scale…his quiet simplicity, practicality, work ethic and personal humility mixed with toughness and ideas about what is right being right. Thanks for sending.


  2. loulou bateau says:

    That tray is a ‘keep forever’ thing.


  3. Carole Kocian says:

    I have children who are doing minimalist decorating of their spaces. That means I am custodian of a lot of silver, furniture and china which no family member wants. There is a website called Everything But The House in the midwest of the US. They take estate stuff to put on their website up for bid. I look at that site often and can identify with just about everything that sells in groups for a $1 bid.


  4. Rolly Brook says:

    Delightful story!!!


  5. The zebra skin ice bucket is what catches my eye.


  6. John Calypso says:

    You had me at the green blue shag carpet! I loved that stuff until I started viewing those commercials with ALL THE STUFF living in your carpet – strictly a tile person now ;-) Merry Christmas.


  7. babsofsanmiguel says:

    Indeed, a fine eye for design. I laugh because I have two arte de plume paintings. At some point I tried to sell them, but no one was interested. One of those artesans lives in Michoacan to the northeast of Morelia. The other one is in Tepotzlan. It is a dying “art”. LOVE your recollections. Made my day.


  8. Steve Cotton says:

    Before I start decorating the new house, I should let my light fingers take another tour of your living room. A lot of styles work with Mexican contemporary. Starting with the plumed wonder of Tijuana.


  9. Ted says:

    Great memories, great story, Merry Christmas.


  10. What a beautiful story! It touches every corner of the heart. Felicidades!


  11. Ginger says:

    I love it, what memories about a wonderfully flamboyant woman. I’m in envy. However my grandfather Kid Hughes was a bootlegger in dry country in West Texas to the chagrin of his family.


  12. Virginia Nash says:

    I loved this, that we could all enjoy life and make our own personal statement without worrying about criticism or what people would think. This granny was truly a treasure.

    Sent from my iPhone


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