by Karen Topakian
At holiday time, my mother shouldered the Christmas shopping responsibilities. She took great care to find the right gifts for my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. But every year, she struggled with ideas for one family member – my paternal grandfather, Grampa K.
Grampa K, a mild-mannered man by nature, didn’t know that he caused such consternation. He wasn’t a fussy man just a man of very simple needs who often lamented the consumer culture pervading America.
“Boys,” he said to his adult sons when they helped him empty his barely filled wastebaskets. “America is drowning in trash.”
His lack of need or desire for material things may have stemmed from his emigration from Turkey to the US at the age of 16, to escape conscription in the Turkish military. After leaving everyone and everything behind to make a new life in the US, he learned to live on very little.
Or his lack of need or desire may have appeared after seeing his life almost end at age 49 when he suffered from his first of several heart attacks and then retired. Regardless, he lived a quiet life with my grandmother, Liz, who co-owned the family business, General Plating, with her two sons. He spent his days volunteering for Armenian Church organizations, gardening, reading books about Armenian history and culture and teaching himself French on educational TV.
His sedentary life didn’t require much stuff. Because he was retired, he didn’t need work or professional clothes. He rarely needed or wanted anything.
The two gifts that offered him the greatest joy and pleasure were flowering houseplants to supplement his indoor garden of robust African violets that occupied every window ledge in his two-story home. And cow manure for his vibrant outdoor vegetable garden. He could barely contain his delight every spring when my father drove up the driveway with a station wagon full of steaming bushel baskets from the local dairy.
His lack of want or desire for anything else presented a great challenge to my mother. And every year she struggled. My father offered little assistance.
“Armen, one last gift. What should we buy your father?” asked my mother as they walked into Macy’s Men’s Department
“I dunno,” answered my father as he faced a display of men’s dress shirts.
“Give me some ideas,” begged my mother. “He’s your father.”
“Ok. A shirt,” suggested my father.
“We bought him one for his birthday,” responded my mother.
“Then a sweater?” shrugged my father as he touched a wool pullover.
“We bought him one last year,” answered my mother putting down her heavy shopping bags for a moment and rubbing her wrists.
“You always say they don’t turn up the heat and their house is cold. Maybe he needs another one to stay warm,” said my father holding up a pair of corduroy pants to his waist.
“It’s just so boring,” lamented my mother as she wandered past a row of sport jackets and suits.
My father drifted toward her.
“Armen, think of something?”
“I’m drawing a blank.”
“Look around. Maybe something will come to you.”
“I doubt it,” muttered my father under his breath as he returned to the stack of corduroy pants.
“Ah hah! This is perfect. Armen, what about this?” asked my mother holding up a charcoal grey v-neck sweater vest. “It will keep him warm but it’s not one more sweater.”
My father gestured two thumbs up and walked back towards her. “Good idea. How did you think of that?” asked my father.
“It came to me,” she said pointing to a table piled high with them. My mother couldn’t wait to wrap it up and hand it to my grandfather.
Though my mother sought a unique gift for Grampa K, he never seemed to mind receiving the same gifts. Grateful for any present, large or small. He always smiled followed by a thank you, which erupted slowly from his thin lips in his slightly high-pitched and melodious voice tinged with an Armenian accent.
“Lizzie, look at this,” he would say holding up every gift for my grandmother to see.
That Christmas day, like every year, we spent eating breakfast with my paternal family at my grandparent’s home in Cranston, RI.
After enjoying a hearty meal, all 11 of us relocated from the dining room table to the living room to open presents.
First, he opened up the gifts from his wife, smiled broadly and said, “Thank you, Lizzie. How did you know I needed more socks?”
My mother proudly handed my grandfather his present. He carefully unwrapped the red and green paper without ripping it. Folding it neatly, so it could enjoy a second life. He gingerly opened the box, peeled back the tissue paper and removed his gift.
Holding up his sweater vest for all to see, he smiled and stated, “It would be nice, if it had sleeves.”