Christmas on the cheap: Pam (Bonus Post)

(I had written this post before the "Baby, It's Cold Outside" brouhaha got to me. It ran along with that post yesterday. I took it down, but it returns, because I think it addresses other issues relevant to women.)

As Christmas approaches, I always think of Pam H.

Home, ca. 1962
On Christmas Eve, 1962, around 8 p.m., our front door buzzer announced a caller. I opened the door to see Pam, wife of Jimmy, whose family owned a large nursery and landscaping business. Jimmy had a profitable side gig plowing driveways, which in a Northern Michigan winter was profitable from November to mid-March.

I was puzzled. I'd never seen her at our house before, but she stood on the porch and commanded: "Your mother."

Mom showed Pam into the kitchen, and seated her in the breakfast nook. Something was said in that choice: not the barroom with its mural and harlequin floor, not even the living room's squashy sofa, but the kitchen, a cozy, female domain.

She was madder, as Mom would say, than a wet hen, weeping into a glass cup of nutmeg-dusted, rye-spiked eggnog, with Mom holding her hand, saying, "I know, I know." I was allowed to pull up a chair and have a "minor's version." I guess Mom figured I'd listen in from the top of the staircase anyway.

Jimmy and Pam had an early Christmas Eve dinner; they set out a few toys for their toddler and presented each other with their gifts. Then, Jimmy went out to plow so that families could get to church services or parties. After he finished, he'd head over to his brother's for a beer and a shot.

So Pam already had her gift, and produced it from her handbag: one pair of pantyhose, still in a J.C. Penney bag; no card, no wrapping. She inferred a message just the same: that she was not loved, appreciated or even seen: the pantyhose were Small and Pam was definitely not.

Pam had waited till Jimmy Jr. was soundly asleep, did the dishes, and headed three blocks over to our house, intending a 20-minute visit. Mom assured her that Jr. would be fine and topped up the cups. ("Can't fly on one wing" was another of her aphorisms.)

When Jimmy rolled in at midnight, he too had a visitor—Dad—who explained why Pam was sleeping off the eggnog in our guest room, and why Jimmy better shape up—unless by next Christmas, he wanted to be one of those sad sacks down at the Elks Club nursing a beer by himself.

Pam could have walked home safely (the town was a hive of deep social rest), but that time out was a useful intervention.

I rail against the overdone mania of Christmas spending, the ridiculous notion of going into debt because of a date on a calendar. But here's the thing: a cheap man is a dreadful partner. (Or woman, or non-binary: cheap knows no chromosome.)

Cheapness is paucity of generosity, and when habitual, a surefire predictor of a bleak future. (The inverse is true too, I've seen wildly lavish gifts given with no heart behind them.)

Frugality is fine and I suppose cheapness is a modus vivendi if both parties sign on for it; some couples find one another and pinch pennies to the end. But Pam's situation was different. On the lot, she worked side by side with Jimmy and his brothers; I see her still, hauling shrubs to trucks—and then put in a second shift of homemaking and child care. And that's why Mom found Jimmy unconscionably cheap.

That evening was the first time I saw how little women's work was valued; tiny seeds of feminism found soil. At fourteen I could not articulate it, but knew she deserved better.

Pam walked home at dawn. Mom suggested she leave the gift and its bitter memory behind, and said, "Give him another chance, you have a beautiful family."


That was far beyond cheap, or frugal. It was thoughtless. It was almost as if she had become some kind of utility to him.

Many people now decide not to exchange gifts in reaction to the "stuff" overload, but usually enjoy experiences of some kind together. In Québec, many extended families draw lots so that, in principle if not always in practice, one is buying a gift for a single family member.

By the way, this is also a splendid "short-short story".
JohnInWI said…
What a charming photograph! It perfectly evokes Christmases past.

We don't really "do" gifts anymore. Charitable donations to the in-laws, maybe a little hand-made gift for siblings, and the kids get cash (starving college students). My husband takes care of us all year round and that's gift enough for me <3. -Lily
Gretchen said…
I had a cheap husband. He’s a wonderful human being and I actually like him, but I never was a priority. This sounds like a horrid situation for Pam-it would be fascinating to hear what followed after this episode...did things get better? Did her son learn to treat women well? And an aside-I adore that house. It’s so much like one I always wished were mine.
Ellen said…
I had wondered what happened to it. It was a great read and good commentary. I'm glad you re-posted it.
Duchesse said…
Gretchen: It's a craftsman home built in 1905. I was able to tour it two years ago (after 45 years) and the current owner has invited us to stay next time. Not sure I could bear it. The inside has been heavily "updated" but the outside is exactly as originally built. A bit of trivia is that this was also a childhood home of Katie Brown, the cookbook author. The Browns bought it from my family.

re Pam and Jimmy: The landscaping business has stayed in the family, through three generations. Dad told me decades later that Jim's father had beaten all three sons as "discipline". I suspect Pam and Jim stuck it out, because I looked up their address and both names are still listed as residents. People can learn and grow at any point in life and I hope he did.
Kim said…
Oh, poor Pam - such a painful situation. We all come from our own families and however our Christmas was celebrated, is what we bring with us to our marriages/partnerships. I've been married almost four decades and it took years to get some balance between what we each wanted/expected. My family was more generous/extravagant and I found it difficult that my husband and his family weren't that way. They used to say "It's the thought that counts" when clearly there was no thought at all. It took years to get some balance. You can tell I'm not bitter at all.
Madame Là-bas said…
If you care about people, you share what you have and you take time to select a gift that shows that you know the person. We all want to be appreciated and valued.
I'm glad this story has reappeared, and think it has a great deal of resonance for many.

I was laughing about thoughtless gifts and it morphed into "bad-taste gifts", and noted that Canadian Tire of all the staid places was featuring a toilet plunger with the business end in the shape of a ... turd. Franchement... This is in their latest flyer.
LauraH said…
Beautifully written.

Many men, not all by any means, are not good gift buyers. They don't lack the will, they lack awareness perhaps. So they need you pointed out in a previous post. And I have known some women who so little value themselves that they give a message I don't want anything, I can't think of anything. Years of that and then the explosion when the lousy gifts become too much. Not blaming Pam at all, that 'gift' was the lowest of the low. Just saying that sometimes people need strong clear signals about what you would like to see under the tree.
Unknown said…
I had a friend whose boyfriend gave her for her birthday, I think, a magazine on weight loss, with a torn-out ad. I was so furious that I had a telegram sent to him (when they came over the phone with a loud voice) saying "No self-respecting prig would sit next to you, you pig!
Duchesse said…
Kim: I agree that family background is a major influence, and when customs differ, it takes work to reach a mutually comfortable position (or agreement to not let it matter). A friend's longtime boyfriend, whom she eventually married after twenty-five years, would buy the same identical gift for his two teenaged daughters from a previous marriage, and her. He thought he was "being fair".

LauraH: It all comes down, in my mind, to whether he 'gets' the notion of giving, not in the material sense, but in that, too. Some partners just hate the idea of 'legislated giving' such as Christmas, Valentine's Day etc. OK, I see the point. Then I watch to see if the person is using it as an excuse, or enjoys giving at other times.

Another friend's partner took her to a concert of the kind of music he knew she loves, jazz, even though he is not a fan. A thoughtful, loving gesture.

Unknown: There is a message in that gift, and I'd like to know what she did. I had forgotten how telegrams could be used!

lagatta: Oh no. I'm surprised that was in an ad.

Lily: Many persons I know have discontinued Christmas gifts, and made the holiday a out caring for others, which is wonderful. And if you are going to give a gift, I think it should be one given with thought. I've written many posts over the past ten years on the deep and ancient rituals attached to giving. Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" is illuminating.

"Gift" also includes sharing one's talents and work. This blog is a gift. Every now and then someone says. thanks, which is lovely.
materfamilias said…
Such a rich post in so many ways -- the seeds of feminism remarked, retrospectively, in their planting. . . and I agree with Lagatta that, while non-fiction, this reads as a wonderful short story. You're such a good writer.
JohnInWI said…
Duchesse, you are so right about a gift "given with thought". It is sickening to see harried shoppers filling their carts with junk because they "have to" get a relative something. Nothing beats the feeling when you find the perfect gift for someone. Some people are more thoughtful gift givers, I guess. -Lily
Sisty said…
"A cheap man is a dreadful partner." Couldn't have said it better myself. And cheap people seem to pride themselves on it, too. Generosity of spirit and generosity with money go hand in hand, in my experience. My husband, from whom I'm amicably separated, was always a generous giver, with tipping, with refusing to nickel-and-dime the check after a night out with other people, with his time, and with his attention. That said, he wasn't particularly good at figuring out the perfect gift, but would gladly take a suggestion and then cheerfully go out and get it.

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