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My mom’s imperfect Christmas gifts taught me some priceless lessons

Sometimes Christine Wong would open her Christmas presents from her mom and feel the crush of disappointment. Now, as a parent facing the same inability to get the gifts her son wants, she’s come to appreciate her mother’s tenacity.

Whenever I put pressure on myself to buy every item on my son’s wish list, I remember my mother

A child opens a present with Christmas wrapping.

This First Person column is the experience of Christine Wong, a freelance writer who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My mother was in a store Christmas shopping when her water suddenly broke.

It was Dec. 5, 1970. A few hours later she safely gave birth to me at Hotel Dieu Hospital in St. Catharines, Ont.

Though many women would be rattled to go into labour under such chaotic circumstances, my mom Mary was an old pro at the baby thing. Before me, my parents had already adopted two babies and she had given birth to four more. I was the seventh baby in the Wong clan which, after my brother's arrival in 1973, would eventually consist of eight kids — six girls, two boys.

Five decades later, as I now set out to do my own Christmas shopping, I think about my mom's grace under pressure on that day back in December 1970. I'm also astounded that every Christmas she shopped for eight kids (in person, not online!) with a 16-year age difference between the oldest and youngest.

Mary Wong had no same-day delivery options on Amazon Prime. No algorithms to recommend gifts based on her browsing history. No online customer reviews to scroll through. No Siri or Alexa to order gifts at the command of her voice.

There was no mobile app to keep track of her Club Z points, no Google Calendar to remind her of approaching Bay Days. Instead of racking up credit card debt, she shrewdly amassed wads of Crappy Tire money, the Canadian currency of poverty and patience.

Somehow, despite having eight kids to raise, little money and no driver's licence, my mom summoned the fortitude to shop for presents at Kresge's, Kmart, BiWay, Woolco and Zellers. She zigzagged across the city (by foot, bus or a ride from my dad in our burgundy Chrysler K-car) and trekked hundreds of kilometres across the tiled floors of department stores like Eatons and Sears.

With the patience of a saint, she even filled out order forms at the catalogue store Consumers Distributing with tiny pencils that looked like they'd been stolen from a mini-putt course.

A boy holds a toy truck while a woman in glasses looks on.

However, I didn't always appreciate my mother's efforts. Shameful as it is to admit, I was sometimes crestfallen on Christmas mornings when I tore the wrapping paper off the presents she'd bought for me. Although she mostly hit the mark, her diciest gift selections were those in the fashion realm. Hideous sweaters. The "wrong" brand of jeans. A bright red, two-piece terrycloth jogging suit instead of the bitchin' side-striped rugby pants I longed for as a Grade 8 student in 1982.

Opening presents was not a foregone conclusion of wish fulfilment.

These days, things are different for many kids. My 13-year-old son sends me a curated list on Google Docs with digital photos and website links for every item he wants for Christmas.

But growing up, my seven siblings and I never expected to get what we wanted for Christmas. We were poor. Poverty kills predictability and erases expectation. For us, the miracle of Christmas morning wasn't about getting exactly what we hoped for. It was about the excitement and suspense of getting anythingat all.

So my mom bought us presents that sometimes fell short of our dreams. When I was really young, that frustrated and disappointed me. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I started to understand the economic constraints she faced and began to appreciate everything she put into her gift giving. The effort, the care, the thought. The love.

She did her best, every single year, to make Christmas special for the eight of us.

Christmas heartbreak

It's a wonder my mom loved Christmas as much as she did. During her own youth, it was often a season filled with heartache and loss.

Just five days before Christmas 1942, my mother's brother was killed in the Second World War when his plane was shot down over the Isle of Wight. He got shipped off to England for air gunner training in May and was dead by the end of December. He was 21. My mom was only 14. How do you celebrate the season of giving when you've just suffered such a profound loss?

A newspaper clipping of a soldier from the Second World War.

My mom's family unravelled shortly thereafter. My grandmother, still grieving the death of my grandfather three years earlier, was completely broken by the loss of her eldest son. My mom and some of her siblings were removed from the family home in Vancouver and put into foster care. For some reason, the kids were not kept together but placed with different foster homes scattered across Western Canada.

My mother was bounced between assorted foster homes, spending every Christmas of her teenage years separated from everyone she had ever known and loved.

I think about that now when I shop for my own kid at Christmastime. Whenever I put pressure on myself to buy every item on his wish list, I remember my mother, whose youthful Christmases were more tragic than magic. I remind myself that the greatest gifts I can give my son don't come wrapped in paper or loaded onto a gift card. And when I'm on the verge of whingeing about supply chain hiccups or lamenting the pandemic PS5 shortage, I imagine my heavily pregnant mother, trudging through the snowy streets of St. Catharines in galoshes, searching for gifts for her huge brood of kids.

Through her imperfect present selections, she gifted me with some priceless realizations: we don't always get what we want — and life is about more than ticking off items on a never-ending wish list.

And guess what? This year, I won't be able to buy my son most of the things on his curated Google Doc wish list. Like so many Canadians, I'm feeling the pressure of skyrocketing prices and soaring interest rates on my household finances. I simply can't afford to spend money I don't have on Christmas gifts – just like my mom all those years ago.

A boy sits cross-legged on the floor and looks at a lit-up Christmas tree.

She died when I was just 27. I wouldn't be surprised if her spirit ascended to heaven on the escalator at The Bay, laden with bags full of holiday bargains, headed for a glorious afterlife where every morning is a snowy Christmas Day.

I also try to spare a thought each December for the unlucky clerk who was working in the store where my mom's water broke on that day back in 1970. I glance skyward on my birthday and silently thank them for heeding the call every retail worker dreads to hear: "Cleanup in aisle nine!"

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Christine Wong

Freelance contributor

Christine Wong is a Toronto freelance writer who has specialized in technology coverage since 1995 — when Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school.

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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