Nice and Ugly

Original story published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas.

I was 15-years-old, opinionated and fashion-minded. Daddy decided I was his weapon of clothes-buying instruction.

Dad knows mom only wants one thing for Christmas: clothes. My poor father, try as he might, would get the right pair of jeans but the wrong size; the right dress but the wrong color; or sometimes, it’d be a blouse fit for a teen, but not so much a middle-aged mother. The year prior to dad’s idea to bring me along for his shopping trip had been a particularly rough Christmas present-opening. Mom had returned nearly every present.

Dad wanted the next year to be different. Our shopping trip was going smooth. We dropped credit card bombs at department stores across the city. I taught him name brands and mapped out mom’s favorites. We made a whole day of buying clothes mom would love.

Then dad saw the display of Christmas sweaters, some red and green glittered and others depicting cute, fuzzy forest creatures in the snow. He insisted his one success every year with one of mom’s presents was the ugliest, gaudiest Christmas sweater he could find. Against my pleas to leave the hideous sweater on the rack from which it came, dad purchased one with a Christmas Tree that lit up and played music.

“Clothes are for wearing not singing,” I murmured. He ignored me.

On Christmas morning, dad and I exchanged eye contact as mom began to open the ugly sweater. She gasped and I thought, Ah ha! I knew it! I smirked at my father, giving him that teenage I-was-right glare.

“How cute!” mom said, and lifted the sweater from the box, holding it up to her chest for sizing. She swooned when dad showed her the button that lit the tree up and played the “O Christmas Tree” tune.

My mom with one of the last Christmas sweaters dad purchased for her. Sadly, the dancing snowmen were not captured on film.
My mom with one of the last Christmas sweaters dad purchased for her. Sadly, the dancing snowmen were not captured on film.

Dad grinned at me and winked.

Mom loved all her presents that year. The pants fit. The dresses were the right color. The blouses were age appropriate. So every year thereafter, my father and I would hit the malls together and spend the whole day shopping for mom’s Christmas presents. As I got older, married and had a child of my own, our tradition still continued. This was an annual father-daughter date.

Years after that first Christmas shopping trip for mom, dad and I stood, yet again, in the department store arguing over Christmas sweaters. I had spent every one of the last eleven years attempting to persuade my dad from buying the things and my mom from wearing them.

“Your mom doesn’t think they are ugly,” he would always say, and purchase one anyway.

“That sweater looks like a kindergarten teacher’s dream, dad. Please, no,” I pleaded.

This time, I had found a black button up cardigan, away from the display of sweaters depicting dancing polar bears. The silky cotton was embroidered with small red and green beads forming a beautiful pattern of poinsettias on the right shoulder. It was elegant. It was expensive. It would look beautiful on my mom. Try as I might, my father insisted on the sweater featuring a patchwork of snowman he held before him. It looked like six different multicolored fabrics sewn together with a different dancing snowman on each color block. The only thing Christmas about it was that one of snowmen was wearing a Santa hat and another was wearing a sparkly green and red vest. I’m sure my mom would ask him if she could borrow that vest were it made in her size.

“That sweater looks like a kindergarten teacher’s dream, dad. Please, no,” I pleaded.

“Tell you what. You buy your fancy-smancy sweater, and I’ll buy this one. She will open both and we will see whose sweater she likes best,” he proposed.

“Deal,” I said, confident I wasn’t losing this bet. Surely those tyrannical snowman, barely Christmas, would not win mom over the stylish button-down I had picked out, I thought.

On Christmas morning, my family arrived at my parents’ house to celebrate and eat. The time to open presents came, and we gathered around the Christmas tree. Mom opened my present first.

“It’s nice,” she said and smiled. “I love the material.”

I threw a smirk at my father, who pretended not to catch it.

She opened dad’s. And gasped.

“It’s adorable! Where did you find it?” she exclaimed. She stood up and pulled the dancing snowmen on over her shirt. She looked down at the red, orange, purple, yellow, black and blue color blocks, the snowmen appearing to dance to celebrate their victory.

Dad smiled and winked. Words were not needed. I knew I lost. I didn’t know this woman better than this man. They were married 35 years.

Dad passed away from cancer before the next Christmas. Mom still wears all her ugly Christmas sweaters dad bought her, and somehow they don’t appear as ugly to me as they once did. I smile when I see her donning the sparkly green argyle, the kitten popping out of the present, or the multi-colored snowmen, and simply say, “You look nice, mom.”

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