We got all dressed up to go Woodies.
At Christmas, my mom would get us all dressed up to go shopping downtown in D.C. As a kid, this little corner of Washington was a wonderland to me. I remember pressing my nose up against the department store windows – bedazzled by animatronic snowflakes, snowmen, and Nativity scenes.
We’d go to lunch in the tearoom where we got to sit on Santa’s lap. We’d ride the elevator to every floor and at every stop — notions or housewares or lingerie — all of the clerks greeted my mother by name.
“Mrs. Peacock, how good to see you. How may I help you?”
At Garfinkels, Woodies, and Hechts she would charge up her Washington Shopping Plate. It was Christmas after all – time to load up on socks, mittens, and gloves. Time to splurge on fancy talcum powder and Christmas cologne, pierced earrings and cultured pearls, Instamatic cameras and baseball bats.
“Put it on my account,” she would say.
In my teenage years, my mom converted to catalogs. Long before online shopping or the Home Shopping Network, Christmas catalogs clogged our mailbox. I remember them being piled high in a basket in the family room by the couch. And I can see my mom sitting there — clear as day – leafing through them: LL Bean, Orvis, Land’s End, Sharper Image, Harry & David’s Fruit of the Month Club.
Armed with just a telephone and a credit card, my mom would shop until she dropped. Sometimes she would buy so much stuff, she would forget that she had bought it and buy it again. Sometimes she bought so much stuff, she would hide it in the attic or the trunk of her car. She would bring it in little by little – hoping that my father would not see.
Until the bills came, of course, and the sh*t hit the fan and my father hit the roof.
We always got tangerines and toothbrushes in our stockings – but it was the stuff under the tree that was the measure of my mom’s moods.
Unwrap a box and you would peek into her soul: bright on the outside, dark and disorganized on the inside.
One year she did all of her shopping at the drug store. She gave me a man’s thermal undershirt, a meat thermometer, and hot pads. Another year she did all of her shopping at the country club pro shop. I got golf balls, a golf glove, and a yellow sweater embroidered with golf clubs and putting greens.
I do not play golf. I have never played golf. It did not compute.
And that’s the point. A manic-depressive mind has no use for math. Bipolar brains are no good at budgets. That would require calculated decisions, measured judgment, and impulse control. Such minds have no concept of living within one’s means.
My bipolar brain included.
In my married years, I abdicated all my financial responsibilities to my skinflint ex-husband. I was the breadwinner and he was the stay-at-home dad. I made the lion’s share of the money but he managed it. He did all of the grocery shopping which was a blessing. He bought everything on sale including cornflakes and he would not buy a new box until the very last flake was eaten.
It wasn’t’ until I was on sabbatical in 1999 that I had my very own checkbook — for the very first time. I was 45 years old.
Now my money was mine to manage. A middle child, I sought to drive a middle course. But I am not a very good driver; I am my mother’s child. My finances too can be tracked by my moods – or is it the other way around?
In my dazzling days, I have charged up my credit cards.
In my dark days, I have neglected to pay my taxes.
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.
I am embarrassed to bear this broken part of my bipolar soul. And I have worked very hard — for years — to balance this part of my brain.
My car is paid for.
My mortgage is small.
I am on an all cash diet.
I use a debit card whenever I can.
I pull out my credit card only in emergencies.
At least, I try.
Honestly, I still struggle daily to live within my means – especially at Christmas – so many shiny things to stuff into stockings and pile high beneath the tree.
So today as I write – on Black Friday — I am doing my best to sit on my wallet. On Cyber Monday, I will try to stay off of my Mac. And on Giving Tuesday, I will try to be as generous as I can without going into debt.
After all – generosity — is the reason for the season, right? At Christmas we celebrate the Holy One, born poor in a stable; the Holy One, homeless with no place to lay his head; the Holy One who preached good news to the poor; good news for those dirty shepherds who worked the late shift and watched their flocks by night.
He scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He puts the mighty down from their thrones and
He exalts the lowly.
The hungry he fills with good things and
the rich be sends empty away.
And so I pray this Christmas,
That where my heart lies, so my treasure will be,
not just in the stockings and under the tree,
but spent for those in need,
for those in want and poverty,
spent in generosity.