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  • Writer's pictureJustin Shaw

The Great Exchange

There are many words I’d use to describe my Mom, such as provider, caregiver, and joker; however, the word ‘fighter’ is not one that immediately springs to mind. That is not to say she exhibits a lack of strength; she simply knows that some things are just not worth the fuss. She will sit on a powder keg of frustration or cling to a grenade of anxiety before letting it blow up and, God forbid, ruin someone else’s day. Because of my Mom, I learned a person’s strength is not measured by the fights they win, but by the things they choose to fight for. Every so often, I am treated to a brief glimpse of moments where she chooses to pull the pin and let the fury fly.

These moments tend to occur around Christmastime.

Grocery shopping with Mom around the holidays is a liberating experience. Most times, she will make the trip to Sobeys with the weekly flier in one hand and the shopping cart in the other. Regardless of whatever might be on the grocery list, she hunts for the flier goods first. Sometimes she wants items that have been marked on sale or buy-one-get-one, but her eye goes to the coveted prize: the Air Miles points.

If there is any possible chance of increasing her Air Miles collection, Mom will always take it – even if it means buying things we don’t necessarily need. There are items that have been purchased for the sheer sake of five extra Air Miles and have made their way into the kitchen pantry and still have yet to see the light of day. That pantry has become a museum of sorts, exhibiting Air Miles promises of days past. There is one shelf dedicated to the splendor of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, another to an artillery of Kraft Dinner and Rice-A-Roni, and in a dark corner lies a solitary bottle of Heinz EZ Squirtz Coloured Ketchup.

Shopping during the holidays is the closest thing to a vacation Mom will ever take. Every December, she cashes in her Air Miles points in exchange for grocery money. The day of The Great Exchange is not one selected idly – it is premeditated and precise. The date is circled on the calendar months in advance in anticipation of when she will be on the precipice of the highest amount of points she could hope to accumulate for the year. And when the day of The Great Exchange comes, she rolls that shopping cart through the produce section as if her last name was Rockefeller. The grocery list in December is perhaps her greatest, if not her solitary, indulgence.

She would use her Air Miles to invest in a quantity of groceries that could feed an army battalion. With the holiday season comes family and friends coming for visits, and she didn’t want her pantry to be caught unawares. Family would arrive on December 25th, and it seems each year if the quantity of grandchildren didn’t increase, their appetite did. Friends would arrive throughout the month and drop-off a generous parcel, and Mom would always have a box of Pot of Gold chocolate or a tin of Quality Street at short disposal.

While shopping with Mom on a recent trip home, a collection of holiday-decorated tea-towels caught her eye. Frosty the Snowman was adorned on one, and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer upon the either. My guess was that Jesus and Santa must be on the collector’s edition. Mom selected these ugly kitchen miscreants from off the shelf and tossed them in the cart next to the Butterball.

“Are you sure about buying those for yourself?” I asked. “What if Santa already got you those for your stocking?”

“Those aren’t for me,” she replied. “Those are for Cousin Shirley.”

Cousin Shirley.

The closest thing to a sworn rival my mother has is embodied in the sixty-five year old eighty-pound framed Cousin Shirley. They were both bound by familial ties neither one of them chose nor wanted. With these ties, comes the obligation of a holiday gift exchange. Despite their true feelings for one another, Mom and Cousin Shirley knew they had to offer some kind of gift to each other each year. Each year, Cousin Shirley would deliver a Christmas gift for my Mom. Not giving a gift would be rude. However, she would arrive at a time when Mom was at work, so the gift would lay adorned in a plastic Sobeys bag on the doorknob to the house. Cousin Shirley would leave before receiving her gift in exchange.

The gears of conspiracy were well at work in Mom’s mind.

Mom knew in her heart of hearts that Cousin Shirley was well-aware of her work schedule and knew if she wanted to drop off the gift for a proper exchange, she would. Therefore, in Mom’s mind, Cousin Shirley would continually dodge her holiday receipt in an effort to imply that Mom was an unthoughtful person.

For seven years this routine continued, and for seven years, after seeing the dangling Sobeys bag on the doorknob, Mom would be so spurned by the gesture she wouldn’t even make the five-kilometer drive to her house to deliver her gift. The damage was done.

As Mom handed the Frosty and Rudolf tea-towels to the cashier, she muttered to herself in a warlike trance: “not this year.”

That afternoon, as we unpacked the groceries, Mom examined her receipt. Even though she paid for the groceries with a year’s worth Air Miles, she still accumulated Air Miles in the process. If the Air Miles conglomerate is a multi-layered Ponzi Scheme, then Mom is Ponzi herself. As Mom scanned through the receipt, her eyes widened in horror. She had been short-changed her Air Miles points. The tea-towels were to be worth double their original sticker value of points, but it was not reflected on the receipt. Mom immediately took out her Air Miles card, hunted for the fine print on the back to search for the number of the head office. Nobody was going to stand in the way of Mom and her well-earned Air Miles, on the day of The Great Exchange, no less. Especially for the matter of twelve points.

Mom paced around the house with the phone in her hand as she waited on hold. This act was possible because length of the phone cord was roughly the same length as our driveway. The groceries were long since put away, and the receipt was in shreds of anger in her hands and she paced to the tune of “White Christmas” that was occasionally-interrupted by robotic interjections of “Please stay on the line, your call is very important to us. You are currently … 17th… in line. Thank you.” It didn’t matter how long she’d have to wait because she wasn’t just fighting for what she was owed, she was fighting for her family, she was fighting for Christmas, and she was fighting for justice. It was Chinatown.

In what was her second (or perhaps third) hour of being on hold, Mom pulled the length of the phone cord to its utmost extremes as she attempted to fill the cat’s dish on the doorstep near the backdoor. As she opened the door, her heart fell to the pit of her stomach. A Sobeys bag was on the doorknob.

Her impulse at the moment was to scream from sheer shock but worried that’d be the moment that an Air Miles attendant would pick up the phone. Mom stifled her feelings of abject horror and began searching for answers. How? How on Earth could Cousin Shirley have pulled off such a heist from under her nose?

Mom ran to the front door to see if she could spot Cousin Shirley’s burgundy Buick making its way down the driveway. What she saw instead was the Buick parked at the end of the quarter kilometer driveway and making her way walking through the snow to the parked Buick was none other than Cousin Shirley.

The gears of conspiracy spun faster than usual. Cousin Shirley had clearly parked at the end of the driveway so she could walk to the house undetected, drop off the gift, and quietly exit without making a sound. It was a sleeper cell mission of holiday proportions.

As Bing Crosby crooned in Mom’s ear, she dropped the receipt to the ground and repeated her war-mantra: “not this year.” The retaliation had begun.

Still tethered to the wall and now ninth in line on hold, Mom ran to the closet and pulled out a laundry basket filled over the brim with seven years’ worth of backlog Christmas presents. Seven years’ worth of gifts bundled together with love and passive aggression, topped off with a set of tea-towels hastily thrown in a Sobeys bag. Phone in one hand and gift basket in the other, Mom ran out on to the doorstep and bellowed not “wait!” or “come back!” but a menacing “I see you!” Mid-way down the driveway, Cousin Shirley froze in her tracks. She slowly turned around and saw Mom waving her down.

“Sorry!” yelled Cousin Shirley, as she sheepishly made her way back up the driveway. “I didn’t know you were home!”

“I booked the week off work,” replied Mom, with a sobering silence as she glanced to the family car very obviously parked next to the house.

Mom was prepared to lay into seven year’s worth of pent-up frustration. Seven years of retribution. Seven years of her character drawn into question. Just as Mom was about to billow from the pits of her soul, she was met with a cheery voice on the other end of the receiver. “Air Miles Canada, how may I assist you!”

Mom gasped wide-eyed. She tossed the basket to Cousin Shirley’s feet and barked “Merry Christmas!” and slammed the door in her face. Frosty and Rudolf slid out of the Sobeys bag onto the snow looking dumbfounded, but nowhere near as dumbfounded as Cousin Shirley.

Mom settled her business on the phone in a matter of minutes. In that brief moment knowing it was her turn and literally dropping everything to address the situation, it was clear how much it meant to Mom that she got her 12 points. Those were 12 Air Mile points that would begin her next year’s journey. Typically, someone collects Air Miles to save for a trip on an airplane. For Mom, it was, and always will be, about feeding her family. Every single choice she makes is for her family – including knowing what battles to fight.

Earning her 12 points, conquering an old foe, and succeeding at The Great Exchange, Mom treated herself to a much-deserved glass of wine. She figured no harm in opening her gift from Cousin Shirley. As she sat on the couch holding her gift, she realized the only thing worse than not repaying a gift would be regifting a gift to the person that gave it to you. She sat on the couch, sipped her wine, and wiped her lips with her new Frosty and Rudolf tea-towels.

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