I’m a lousy and reluctant gift-giver. As every school or sports club my children have attended knows, I am very generous with my time. Ask me to be on a board or a committee and I’ll say “yes.” Need me to pick up your children? Yes. Can I run an errand for you? Yes. Would you mind proofing or writing something for me? I wouldn’t mind at all.
But gift giving. . . . That’s different. It’s not that I’m cheap, although I am kind of cheap. It’s just that I don’t seem to have a knack for intuiting what people would like.
I know that I’m bad at gift giving because I’m so bad the people in my life are not shy about pointing out the failings in the gifts I give. As far back as I can remember, my mother would always say, “Thank you so much, sweetie. You’re so sweet to have given this to me. Thank you.” Then she’d wait a beat, or an hour, or a day, and ask rhetorically, “You don’t mind if I return this, do you?” Well, no, of course not. I clearly gave you something so wrong you can’t keep it, so naturally you should return it and get something you really want.
Others in my life tend to say things like, “Why did you give me this? You know I don’t like this kind of thing.” Or “I can’t believe you were so cheap. My best friend got X, Y, and Z.” Or “You never give me what I want.” Or “Yeah, I liked it at Joe’s house, but that didn’t mean I wanted it for myself.”
Mr. Bookworm further complicates the whole gift-giving dynamic, because he doesn’t really do gifts; he does rewards and punishments. So I’ll buy things for the kids and, if he thinks they don’t deserve the things, he either returns them before I give them, or takes them away after I give them.
You can imagine, therefore, why gift giving is so fraught for me, and why I avoid it whenever possible. (But just remember, even if I won’t give you a gift, I will drive you all over town if you need help, proofread your child’s college essay, clean your kitchen, and write a promo piece to raise money for your organization.)
Things have simplified a bit now with my mother, because she lives in a single room in a skilled nursing facility. There is nothing I can give her that doesn’t create clutter. So, as always, I give of my time — shopping trips, doctor visits, money management. I probably dedicate a full month out of every year to taking care of Mom’s needs.
When Mom comes to my house, I tend to make nice cold lunches for her: German Schwartzbrot, expensive cold cuts, Dutch cheeses, deviled eggs, etc. This Christmas, though, I decided to do something different. Rather than running from store to store to assemble the ingredients, something that’s always a challenge during the Christmas season when every other person in Marin is at one of our local malls, I decided to make a full Christmas dinner for her: roast turkey, stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, sautéed carrots — the whole megillah. After all, she’s complained forever that the food in her facility is inedible (although not everyone there seems to have the same perception).
I got up this early and started preparing — I put the turkey in a brine; I chopped all the onions, celery stalks, carrots, and herbs; and I blended the dry seasonings. With all that up-front work, tomorrow, I just need to cook the food, not prep it. The three hours of prep work were made pleasant by the fact that my sister, of whom I am very fond, called. She and I chit-chatted about friends, family, food, and all sorts of other entertaining subjects while I did the prep.
Shortly after hanging up from the call with me, my sister called placed her daily phone call to Mom. During that call, she told my mother about all the work I was doing to make a lovely Christmas dinner for the family. My mother knew what to do. When that call ended, she immediately called me.
“Hi, sweetheart. Your sister tells me that you’re making a big turkey dinner for Christmas.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, I have a hard time eating turkey. [This is news to me, since she made turkey every year for Thanksgiving and routinely eats turkey cold cuts.] Is it possible [her voice starts breaking here] . . . can you get me some cold cuts? I’ll bring a Boost [one of those drinks in a can] in case you can’t get me anything.”
Boom! It is true that can’t make the leopard change her spots. My clever mother has now turned to preemptive gift rejection. I’m impressed, frankly.
And in case you’re wondering, I did get her the cold cuts. At her advanced age, if she wants to be a PITA, she gets to be a PITA.
What are your best and worst gift stories, whether as the one who gave or the one who received?
For the record, I believe my sister may have received one of the worst gifts ever. We had truly dreadful family friends who always invited themselves to our Christmases. When my sister was a fresh and lovely 15-years-old, the woman showed up with a shabbily wrapped package for her, inside of which was a used girdle. No fooling. The woman was hefty, and she’d stretched out the seams.
Now you get to try and top that story!