When did I first consider myself successful?
Around the time my first play started touring and I was able to support my mother financially. I thought it was time for her to retire from her job at the Jewish community center where she had worked for years as a teacher’s assistant. She loved the children, but it was terribly exhausting, especially after she became ill. When she was finally able to rely completely on me, I felt I’d made it in a way that really counted.
Around the same time I was able to start carrying her burden, Christmas presents from Mamma to me became an ongoing problem. My mother loved Christmas and loved giving gifts, and she’d bring it up during our telephone conversations — a lot.
“Junior, you’re so hard to shop for,” she would say. “I just don’t know what to get you for Christmas.”
“No, no … you know, Mamma, I have everything I need.”
But she insisted. “Yeah, I know you have everything you need and everything you want — that’s the problem!”
“You can, too! Anything you want, Mamma, I can make sure you have it!” That response would get us laughing like two kids over a school joke. Of course, I was serious I would have given Maxine anything.
But I understood. She really wanted to buy me a Christmas present. The holidays meant a lot to her, and not knowing what gift to get me was driving her crazy.
The next time we were together at Thanksgiving, I gave her my answer. “Mamma,” I said. “You know what? I’d really love a pair of flannel pajamas.” She looked back at me as happy as one of Santa’s elves, eyes bright with delight. Problem solved.
Every Christmas, for the next four years, she would go to Walmart and buy me a pair of plaid flannel pajamas. And every Christmas when the family was gathered together at her house I’d see the gift under the tree, pretend to be surprised, and smile inside and out. “Exactly what I wanted!” I’d bellow with full-blast enthusiasm.
Just to give you a quick peek at my mother’s priorities, she didn’t put a lot of appreciation or energy into wrapping gifts. That wasn’t her style. When I was a kid, she wouldn’t wrap a thing. Christmas mornings the family would walk into the living room and our unwrapped toys would be laid out under the tree. Mamma would say, “That’s for you … and that’s for you … and that’s for you,” pointing to the gifts and their recipients.
Her philosophy? “I ain’t wasting no damn money on wrapping paper!”
Back to the pajamas. Needless to say, over the years I collected a nice pile of PJs that were in all ways too small.
The tops were so short the sleeves were almost to my elbows, and the bottoms were several inches above my ankles.
One morning, a few years after my mother died, I was getting ready for work at the studio and looking for something. I’ve forgotten what it was, but the search led me to open a drawer in my closet where I kept all those ill-fitting pajamas. When I found them my heart flew open as if it were a bird suddenly taking flight. It released the memories of Christmas mornings right from my soul and reminded me of my mother and how all she’d wanted to do was give. I also remembered how Christmas was one of the few times in our family’s life when we were at peace under one roof.
Later that night, when I came home, I actually put on a pair of those flannel pajamas and wore them to bed. Short sleeves, high waist — I didn’t care. Those PJs reminded me of my mother’s soul and made me warm and happy.
Those pajamas were among the most precious gifts I’ve ever received because they came from my mother’s heart. A gift that comes from the heart is more valuable than the most expensive present in the world. And though this might sound like a cliché, the biggest, the best, gift is love. When you feel true love, when you know love, you’ve been given everything. It’s not the pajamas per se; they didn’t matter. What my mother was giving me was the reminder of how much she loved me.
Opening that drawer and seeing those pajamas made me feel that love all over again, even though she has passed on. It was like a soothing balm. When I wore those flannel PJs, I experienced the warmth of her hug. It was amazing.
It doesn’t really matter what gift you give someone, or whether it has fancy bows, satiny ribbons, or flashy paper around it; when it’s wrapped in love, it’s the best — the most valuable — present you can give someone.
Excerpted from “Higher Is Waiting” by Tyler Perry. Copyright © 2017 by Maxines Baby Inc. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.