Reflections on 2012: My Mother the Red-Headed Mrs. Claus and Why Giving is in My Genes


When I was a kid, I was always so embarrassed by my mom. It could have been because her hair was too red. It could have been the outlandish things that she said. But whatever the reason, her hair or her words, she waited all year … to spread her very own brand of holiday cheer.

We all know the story of the Grinch, whose heart was two sizes too small. What’s the opposite of a Grinch? It must be a Maya—my mom.

Everywhere she went during the holidays, she came toting gifts for all. She had presents for the ladies at the hair salon, the clerks in the court (she became a criminal defense attorney in her 60s) and, even, for my friends. I thought she was completely over the top and silly, and I focused more on the cheap gifts than her generous spirit.

She’d shop for Christmas all year round and must have been Customer Number One for online shopping. She especially loved finding something that looked downright extravagant in the catalogue but was “surprisingly affordable.” (I clearly remember the heart-shaped necklace she insisted had come from Tiffany. Perhaps it did—by way of China.) Some of her gifts were hilarious, others beautiful, many obscure, and all of them totally unappreciated by me.

Like a big hearted, big chested, big red-haired Santa Claus, around she’d go with her big bag of presents, handing out gifts to one and all. Why did I fret over that wonderful red-headed beacon of cheer? (And, yes, she loved the flashing holiday jewelry. Didn’t you picture that already?) It’s true—youth is wasted on the young, and I was living proof. Instead of basking in her generous spirit, I’d grimace and wonder … Where does she find this crap? Is it even legal to give presents to people working at the court? How can she possibly afford to give every person she knows a gift?”

And give she did, in so many ways. Each year she’d throw a big Christmas bash. MelandMomFor nearly 25 years she held it on Christmas Eve, and we’d get all dressed up for 6’ sandwiches from the deli and chili we made ourselves. Nothing fussy, and gratefully devoured by all. (Except for the leftovers, which she piled high into containers and sent every guest home with a “doggie” bag big enough for a whole kennel). When I met my husband and Mom learned that his family celebrated the holiday on Christmas Eve, she immediately moved her party to the 26th and told everyone she’d decided to celebrate Boxing Day instead. Not a selfish bone in her body. And, of the hundred people who came to her holiday party each year, fewer than 20 ever reciprocated by giving her the gift of their own hospitality. She took it in stride, never said a word, and kept on right on giving.

Maya’s heart was much more than two sizes too big, and I was certainly not that naïve little Cindy Lou Who. Looking back, I wonder why I couldn’t just laugh at the antics of “my crazy red-haired Mom,” or take pleasure in watching the joy she created for others. Perhaps it was I who was the Grinch.

Ultimately, she gave me the best gifts imaginable: making it so easy for me to care for her at the end of her life, and supporting me in launching a business—not surprisingly, one that focuses on women’s generosity.

I lost my Mom last year. I can’t tell you what I would give for the joy of seeing her again, spinning around town with her bag of gifts: a Whirling Dervish of holiday cheer.

Maya_stepsMelanieI also reflect on how those traits of hers, the ones I was so quick to scoff and dismiss as a child, have become an integral part of the adult me. I, too, think about creating memorable holiday traditions for my family and friends. Like Mom, I will find a gift for that special someone throughout the year and set it aside for later. Since this will be the first holiday that our children will celebrate in separate homes, I’m also thinking a lot about creating special memories for them, wanting so much to bring them laughter and joy after a year that’s been so difficult.

And as we know in the end, the Grinch really does love Christmas. I loved it then and still do. It makes my heart sing when my daughter, Kate, says that Christmas is her favorite time of year and she can’t wait to start playing holiday music. For me, it was a time of year when our small family (only three of us) actually got along and had fun. I hope for my kids it will be that, and so much more.

I can only imagine what my own kids will say about our holiday traditions, and their own crazy mom. I’m sure that Maya is up there having the last laugh.


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