Gifts From My Father

Gifts From My Father

By Vivian Maguire

gifts from my father

I didn’t grow up poor, but my father did. When he told us stories about his childhood, I almost felt as though they had happened to me.

There was the time his father had found a magnetic screen at the city junkyard. He brought it home, and pressed it against the family television. The television flashed over from white, black, and grey images to glaring red, yellow, green, and blue vertical stripes across the glass. For the first time on their living room TV, they saw a rainbow.

Cambie el canal! Change the channel!” my father and his siblings yelled, believing that he had turned their black and white television into a color TV with his magic screen.

“No, no, no!” my grandfather said, laughing, “No puedo! This is all it does!”

One afternoon, at the park, his mother had forgotten their lunches. They were so far from home, she had had to buy hamburgers at a nearby stand. “The best thing we had ever eaten,” said my father, as he recalled how he, his three brothers, and his three sisters had chewed through the sandwiches of fried beef, mustard, pickles, tomatoes, and greasy lettuce on grilled bread. “When my mother got the bill,” he always paused, “it was for five dollars. She sat down and cried.” I would listen to this story and try to picture my grandmother, sobbing in the playground, with her seven thin children trying to console her, the taste of peppered meat still on their tongues.

My father did not tell these stories as fond recollections; the memories were integral to who he was, and why he worked as hard as he did.

Growing up, I would not know poverty and hunger as my father did, but he still wanted me to understand it. When we were out running errands or stopping somewhere to eat, my father would always hand me a few dollar bills to hand to a homeless person.

“Why don’t you do it,” I would whine. “I’m afraid,” I would say when he pressed me.

“So you’re not going to give them anything, because you’re afraid?” he would reply. I thought he was forcing me to give money to the poor because it made him uneasy. It took years for me to realize, that he was teaching me to see them. He wanted me to be uncomfortable, because he didn’t ever want me to ever be okay with just walking by people on the street, not if I had something to give.

My father found other ways to teach us too. When he bought us presents, he never gave us quite what we had asked for. My father always bought us toys that were close to what we wanted. For my sixth birthday, I had asked my father for a battery-powered car. I pictured myself in my pink, plastic convertible, with all of my friends watching me cruise down the block with matching pink sunglasses on my head, like Barbie. When my birthday came, I didn’t see a pink convertible. Instead, there was a brand new white scooter. “It’s not a pink car,” I told my father.

“Those things are too slow mi reyna,” replied my father. “You’ll be able to keep up with your brothers on this. Get on, try it,” he urged.

I set my foot on the flat base and pushed; it was fast. I thrilled and then laughed at the speed, the convertible forgotten.

Another time, I asked my dad for the Pogo Ball I had seen on television. My father bought me a pogo stick—an almost even trade, except that I almost broke my neck several times trying to balance on it long enough to even attempt a jump. Still, I enjoyed playing with it, until like my other toys, it was forgotten.

But one time my child-desire was nearly unshakable when I saw the Julie doll on television. In the eighties, she was a doll unlike any other that could sense when it was cold outside, her mouth moved when she spoke, she could respond to questions, and knew when she was being moved to another room.

“Are we going to get the Julie doll?” I asked my dad as we walked down the aisle at Toys R’Us.

“I found something even better,” said my father, and my stomach fell. I recognized those words. My father had other plans for me, and I would not get the doll I had been pining after. I had been thinking all morning of questions I would ask her, and now I knew that Julie and I would never speak to each other.

When we walked out of the store, I clung to the doll my father had bought me. She wasn’t Julie. She was Pamela. Her mouth didn’t move, she didn’t know that it was warm and balmy outside, she had no clue that we had left the store, and she only spoke when you pushed on certain parts of her body. “I see you!” Pamela said accusingly when I pressed on her blue, plastic eye.

When we returned home, I hugged my new doll to my chest. I took her to my room and laid her on my pillow. “I see you!” she said, as I pressed on her face, abdomen, and any other parts of her body that would elicit a response. “Muah!” her lips smacked as I pushed my palm onto her mouth. “Hee hee hee!” she giggled as my small fingers explored her belly. “I love you,” Pamela sighed when I pushed my hand onto her chest. I love you too, Pamela, I thought as I pulled her into a loving embrace. Being a child, I couldn’t help but believe that I would be hurting my doll’s feelings if I didn’t return her affection. I squeezed her to my body and whispered, “I love you, I love you,” until I began to believe it.

Over the years, I would receive many gifts from my father that would fall short of my expectations, but like the scooter, the pogo stick, and the doll, I would learn to love my father’s gifts more because of who they came from. Of course, I did not realize at the time that my father was teaching me a lesson that would extend into my adult life. Though I would be disappointed when events in my life did not turn out the way I planned, I would learn how to enjoy myself anyway, and to be thankful for the gifts I received, regardless of the form they came in. Like the gifts my father gave me, my life would not look anything like what I had wanted for myself, not even close. But, when I thought about it, I would see that what I had was even better.

Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog, 

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

Words Only A Daughter Could Love

By Vivian Maguire

wordsa mothercanlove

My mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her.


“Wow, your mother was really on a roll today,” my husband said as we unpacked the containers of food my mother had sent us home with. I knew exactly what he was referring to; my mother had been full of opinions during our holiday lunch. “Is this all the girls are wearing?” she said as she rubbed the fabric of my daughters’ sweaters between her fingers. She squeezed my six-year-old’s hands between her own, “They’re freezing!” she said. Then my younger daughter committed the ultimate betrayal and coughed. My mother’s hands moved to her hips, her eyes saying loudly, “You see?”

Before we sat down at my mother’s table my mom ran her hand down the front of my dress. “Is this lump from the dress or your tummy? You need to do some crunches. Let me show you.” During our meal, my mother pressed me to eat more, forgetful of her earlier comments about my stomach. After we ate, my mother stuffed spoonfuls of food into plastic containers and sandwich bags despite my protests. “That’s more food than we could eat in a week Mom! Honestly, I can’t eat all of that.” I reminded my mother that I hadn’t had much of an appetite lately. She paused momentarily before reaching into her cabinet and withdrawing a suspicious-looking bag of herbs that she pushed into my purse. “This is yerba buena, it will make you feel better. Do you need a tea ball? You can steep these with a small strainer. I hope you have one! Are you taking probiotics?” I told her I was eating yogurt. She shook her head for a full five minutes in every direction as if trying to shake off a stubborn fly.

Back at home, my husband shook his head. “I couldn’t believe when she started rubbing your stomach!” I threw my head back and laughed, my husband’s eyes growing wide with concern as I giggled until I started wiping tears from my cheeks. I knew I was not reacting to her criticism the way I should, the way I used to react.

I remember snapping into a scalding fury early one morning when I was twenty, and still living at home. My mom had come into my room looking for something that she immediately forgot about when my t-shirt grabbed her attention. “Are you wearing a sports bra or is the shirt making you look flat?” She wondered aloud as she peered at my chest up-close as though she could see through the cotton. She raised a crimson, polished finger to poke at my front when I ducked out of her aim. “That’s quite enough!” I yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders and gently but firmly steering her out of my bedroom. “I’m just asking!” my mother said, throwing up her manicured hands in a gesture of innocence. She is always “just asking.”

But I’m not twenty years old anymore, with an ego that can be cut into bits from a few sharp remarks. And my mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her. It is easy to listen to my mother, and think that she is just too much. I know how she sounds to my husband when she comes over, hugs me hello, and then starts weaving her fingers through my hair, grasping at the grays like spider webs and asking when I will color again. I know how my friends must have imagined her, when I told them that she would ask almost daily if I was still breastfeeding, and shouldn’t I cut the cord already? I can tell that my husband thinks I am intimidated by my mother, when I am cleaning the house from top to bottom, and even scrubbing out the toaster lining before a visit. “Who is going to look in the toaster, Vivian?” I don’t answer, but I know. My mother, my mother will.

When I behave compulsively like this, or when I talk about the things my mother says, I can see in people’s faces that they think my mother drives me crazy. But, the thing is, she doesn’t. These days, when my mother puts in her two cents, I sigh, I smile, I usually laugh, but I am not angry. And that’s because, she has always been like this, she has always had something to say, but that is not all she is.

When I see that pitying look in people’s eyes that says, “Oh, you’ve got one of those mothers,” I want to give them some of the other pieces too. Like the night when I delivered my first child, I had encountered a series of complications over the course of fifteen hours. My labor was not progressing, the Pitocin I was given pushed my contractions to unthinkable levels of pain that would spike until I would lose consciousness, only to be brought to again by the next contraction—screaming myself awake. When it came time to push, there was one voice in the room that I remember with razor-clarity. “Bear down, Vivian! Bear down!” I didn’t know what she meant, and my husband would later ask, “Was that even helpful?” It was. My mother’s voice was the solid anchor that pulled me down from my heights of terror in that moment when death felt so possible.

Later, my daughter’s squeak-cries filled the room as I lay perfectly still in my stirrups, so my doctors could sew me back together. My body felt melted; I could not lift my arms to hold my first child. But, I knew she was safe in my mother’s arms. My mother held and rocked her, her eyes bloodshot from the long night, and her nose a matching pink from the sinus infection she had been fighting. She was ill and exhausted, but she never left my side.

Eight months after that, my husband was accepted to graduate school in Austin, and we packed up our house for the move. To our surprise, my mother packed her up her house too, “I want a new beginning.” She had said, referring to her separation from my father. A few days later, she was hired as a counselor at an elementary school just blocks from the school that had just offered me a job. She moved into an apartment four minutes from ours. “Call me anytime,” she offered. “I’ll be here whenever you need me.”

I called her when I had to leave work early one day with a bad case of mastitis. “Will you pick Amelie up from daycare?” I whispered, my head throbbing so hard with fever, I could barely speak.

I called her when I was weeks away from defending my thesis. She came to our apartment many times to stay with my daughter, while I studied for hours in hers.

I called her when we had to go into the hospital to deliver my second child via C-section. She washed, fed, dressed, and entertained my older daughter for four days, while I recovered in the hospital with her second grandchild.

Over time it began to occur to me, that while there were things my mother always said, like, “You’re getting too thin; The girls should be taking vitamins; You might want to put on some lipstick,” she never said, “I can’t right now; I’m busy; Can someone else help you?”

At some point I came to understand that my mother’s well-meaning comments were exactly that; she wanted to help me. And when I think about all my mother has done for me, I realize that I can never, ever repay her. So no, I am not angry when my mother makes comments about the things I do, or the way that I do them. She is as hard on me as she is on herself. She is the voice in my head, the strength in my hands, and the mother I dream to be.

Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog,