“Should we move some of the Christmas presents to the closet?” Andy asked last night.
Flynn isn’t old enough yet for Santa, so there’s no need for a big reveal on Christmas morning. Because of this our tradition for now is to place gifts under the tree as they arrive in Amazon boxes or care packages from grandparents. They serve as our holiday decoration.
As the pile of wrapping paper- and ribbon-covered boxes grows into a mound, we’ve both started to feel a little uncomfortable about it. We can’t help but see it through the eyes of the two Beninese women who work in our house every day and are watching it grow right alongside us. Marie, Flynn’s nanny, helps open up and then break down the boxes. Bernadette, our housekeeper, is careful not to disturb the presents as she mops the floors. Both women have children themselves, and while I don’t know what Christmas mornings look like at their homes, I’m fairly confident their piles of presents are a little different.
Last night before she left for the day Bernadette made a comment about the gifts. I think she said something about it being a lot of presents for one little baby, but I couldn’t totally understand her French over Flynn’s crying and Abbey’s barking. I asked her to repeat herself but by then she thought better of it. Instead she just shook her head and said never mind, that see would see me on Monday.
It was after I told Andy about that exchange that he asked if we should maybe move some of the presents to a closet.
We’ve never been entirely comfortable being on the more fortunate side of the “have” and “have less” divide. There’s a lot of guilt. When I feel sorry for myself for working long hours, I remember that however long I work, Marie, who is taking care of Flynn while I’m gone, is working longer. And her salary, while generous by local standards, is a miniscule fraction of mine.
Now I feel guilty about the presents too. While the pile isn’t necessarily excessive by American standards – especially since my mom readily admits she went for quantity over quality, and that many of the gifts are garage sale finds – it must seem ridiculously extravagant to Marie and Bernadette. (And just wait until they see the finished pile; there are an embarrassing number of packages still on the way.) I imagine they consider their own children and think it’s not fair.
I agree. It’s not fair. In my opinion, little about wealth is. There’s a small element of intelligence and hard work that factor into the mix, but I believe luck of the draw in terms of what position in society you are born into and what breaks you get in life play much bigger roles.
While I was living in New York City I tutored a young boy on Manhattan’s notoriously wealthy Upper East Side. His parents, while smart and hardworking, were no more smart and hardworking than me. Yet they were born into a very different faction of American society than myself, raised in a small farming down in the Midwest. After our sessions his mom would make small talk with me, trying to treat me like a peer. She’d compliment something I was wearing and ask where it came from. “Oh, T.J. Maxx? I love that store!” she would say. I knew perfectly well that nothing in her closet came from T.J Maxx. People who live in 10 million dollar townhouses don’t shop at T.J. Maxx, and that’s okay. It didn’t make her a bad person. If I were in her position I would probably shop wherever she did too. It wasn’t that she had money that irritated me but that she tried to pretend that she didn’t.
The other thing I remember about that mom is that she was generous, but not to a point that felt like pity. When it came time to calculate my hours and write me a check, she always rounded up. When the holidays rolled around, she would think of me in her gift-giving, offering a present that was special and not something I would or could have bought for myself, but also not embarrassingly extravagant. I appreciated that.
Come to think of it, I had been modeling that mom’s behavior in my treatment of Marie and Bernadette. I round up when calculating their overtime. I gave holiday bonuses and have ordered gifts to give their children, things my Beninese colleagues suggested the kids would appreciate – a doll for Bernadette’s young daughter, a Nerf gun for her young son, and nice backpacks for Marie’s two teenagers.
But unfortunately I now see that I’ve also been modeling the less-than-ideal behavior of that mom, trying to pretend like we are all in the same boat. I should stop asking them for suggestions about restaurants or weekend activities; I’m probably not going to go to the same places they do, and I should stop trying to pretend otherwise. I’m not fooling anyone. And I wouldn’t be fooling anyone by moving Christmas presents to the closet. This is my reality right now, and as long as I’m generous and kind to those around me, that’s nothing to feel guilty about (or so I keep telling myself).
Besides, wealth is relative. Marie and Bernadette both have food to eat and roofs over their heads, which makes them a lot better off than many. In certain situations perhaps they feel guilty for having so much. As for me, while I’m on the “have” end of the spectrum today, that could change quickly — as quickly as receiving an onward assignment to, say, Paris.