All I wanted for Christmas that year was a roasting pan. I had picked it out when my mother and I were shopping. It was 1992. I was 25, living at home with my parents again, flying the white flag after a lopsided, three-year battle with adulthood. In my mind at the time, the most adult thing you could possibly do was to roast a chicken. So the pan was a sign of self-sufficiency, a promise to myself: “I will get back on my feet and out into the world.” Or at least: “I will get my own place.”
I had graduated from college in 1989, one year before TIME branded my “Generation X” a group of under-ambitious slackers. I didn’t need a magazine to tell me that, given my education, I was underemployed. My French major had landed me a minimum-wage retail job, complemented by an unpaid internship at a local theater. Even when I later found something better—a job as an administrative assistant for a start-up software company—it was impossible to both save and pay my bills. So I moved back in with Mom and Dad. I was the anti-Mary Tyler Moore. Instead of tossing up my beret, I tossed in the towel.
“What is your five-year plan?” my mother kept asking me, a puzzling question that I could not even begin to answer. I had majored in French because I liked the language, the food, the snobbery, and the existentialist notion that life is meaningless.
I was still mulling my mother’s question about my long-term plans when Christmas rolled around and my other siblings returned home. My older brother had begun a PhD in philosophy. My younger sister was teaching in an elementary school and working on a master’s in education. I envied their aptitude for adulthood.
On Christmas morning, I watched my sister and brother rip through their gifts: sweaters, books, music, socks. I sat quietly next to my only present, the roasting pan, unwrapped and still under the tree. Clearly, there was a message here: nothing additional for those who can’t make it on their own. I tried not to cry.
Later, in the glow of the Christmas-tree lights, my brother said to me, “I noticed you didn’t really get anything.” I burst into tears.
My brother went upstairs, and a minute later I heard my mother shout, “Oh shit! Dick! Gifts are missing!” Turns out, since I was living at home, Mom had hidden my presents so carefully that she had forgotten them completely.
I don’t recall now what I actually received once my parents had scoured the house. I just remember my mother’s voice booming from above: “Gifts are missing!” The line rang in my ears as a metaphor. My gifts for employment and self-sufficiency were also at large. I was not the sort of person who wanted to take a big hungry bite out of life, who would march into a corporate office and say, I’ve got what you want! My biggest weakness is that I care too much! My other one is that I work too hard!
Rather, I was someone who liked to watch what other people were doing, listen to the way they talked, and wonder about their interior lives. And so, eventually, I went back to school, to study literature and writing, and found my company in a group of people who were also observers.
The economy right now is probably worse than when I graduated from college, but the impact is not much different. Employment rates are low for twentysomethings. Many are moving back home.
And so this story is my gift to them, a way of saying, Hang in there. You’ll make it. And of telling their parents, patiently waiting for them to fly the coop, not to forget them. When they leave, they will need socks.
Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”