It’s not as if I’m some genius empath among gift givers. Items of clothing I have bought for girlfriends include a plaid flat wool cap, such as an Irish cabby would wear; a black jacket with tails like a stage magician’s; and a pair of mink earmuffs. Now I mostly stick to books.
Buying clothes for someone is intimate, and parents are in an awkward position, being on formerly intimate terms with us: They’ve nursed us, bathed us, wiped our noses and bottoms. But part of growing up is establishing your physical autonomy and boundaries, insisting on privacy, yelling at them to at least have the courtesy to knock before barging into your bedroom. It must feel a little like a breakup to them, being suddenly cut off from a body you used to be so fondly, matter-of-factly familiar with. Giving clothes is perhaps a kind of proxy for this lost physical intimacy, a way of touching your child through the transitive property.
But to choose clothes or accessories for people that they’ll actually like, you need to know them — not just their size and shape, complexion and coloration but also their aesthetic sense, their idiosyncratic style. You have to get them. The resentment or embarrassment you feel at receiving clothes that seem custom-tailored for someone who isn’t you, at least not anymore, is the anger and sadness of not being seen. Which is, of course, partly your own fault for having hidden yourself from them so successfully.
Sometimes gifts are evidence of misplaced hopes or ambitions for you. At a time when I was employed drawing cartoons for a local alternative paper for $15 a week, my parents bought me a very fine soft leather briefcase, with a lot of complicated pockets and folders. Since I had no important documents to convey anywhere, I tended to use it as an overnight bag. At the time it was stolen from the trunk of Boyd’s car, while we were drinking in Fells Point in Baltimore, the contents of the briefcase were one (1) pair of Batman underwear.
My father also gave me several increasingly nice watches over the years, all of which I drunkenly lost or smashed more or less immediately. This felt particularly damning of my competence and maturity, since a watch is, or used to be, a symbol of adult responsibility: It’s the accessory that men who have to dress identically for work use to signal their relative wealth and status, the sign of a man with places to be at very precise times, who cannot afford to be late.
But not only had watches largely been made redundant by cellphones by my adulthood; it also turned out I never really needed to be anywhere. I tried to make my watchless wrist into a symbol of freedom and independence in my own mind, as if I were too wild to be yoked or branded, man. To this day I don’t wear a watch, less because I don’t need one than because, on some level, I don’t think I deserve to.
I started to write this essay a decade ago, in the thick of the socks and khakis crisis, but I knew I would have to wait until my mother died before I could publish it, lest she learn I returned the sweaters and did give all the underwear to bums. It did not occur to me then that once I was free to publish it, it would become a different essay. I can’t pretend I wish I had worn all the sweaters Mom gave me now that she’s gone; I still have one in a drawer that I’ll continue not wearing until I die. These objects haunt us; there’s no returning them, not really.