When I was in third grade, I found the perfect present for Mrs. Graham, my favorite elementary school teacher. I knew exactly what to get her! Every day when Mrs. Graham taught us cursive on the blackboard, she used a chalk holder to make four straight lines across the board so that she could show us how low and how high dips and swirls on various letters should go. (Yes, these were all important parts of classroom life when the dinosaurs and I were children.)
Every day, her old chalk holder dropped out pieces of chalk and she grumbled that she needed a new one. That’s where I came in, brilliant giver of Christmas gifts!
I told my mother I wanted to give my teacher a new chalk-holder, and my mother helped me find and buy it. We wrapped it up. When I gave it to Mrs. Graham, she was so delighted that she gave the class a little speech. “What makes this gift so perfect,” she told us with pleasure that both delighted and embarrassed me, “is that Meg noticed a need that I had. She paid attention to me! And then she got exactly what would help me fill that need! That’s what a good gift is!”
Then she had me write my name with a pen on the chalk holder. She said that every time she used it, long after I had moved on, she would remember me and thank me for it. Good gifts keep on giving!
That, I can tell you without hesitation, is the best story about giving a present I can tell to this day. I treasure that memory. Because it’s all been downhill from there. Truth be told, I am gift-giving-challenged.
I don’t know why I am so bad at gift-giving. I know people who are tremendously talented at it. My sister-in-law, for instance, has a knack for causing almost everyone’s face around the Christmas tree to look like Mrs. Graham’s. It’s not that I don’t notice people and what they like. It’s just that I can’t figure out, generally speaking, how to meet people’s preferences in life with material gifts. Sometimes, when I think I’ve got just the right present, it’s not.
I found a disco ball at a thrift store and was tremendously excited to give it to a particular friend. When she opened it, she startled me by laughing uproariously. “What a great gag gift!” she guffawed. Trying not to sound hurt, I asked what was funny about it and she looked at me with great incredulity. I’ve blocked out just why she thought it was so funny, but my hurt must have been visible. She sobered up quickly and stumbled around trying to find words of appreciation. Oh, sure.
Because I’m not very good at giving gifts, I’m also not very good at receiving them. Each “It’s perfect! How did you know?” that I utter out loud to my sister-in-law is accompanied by an unspoken thought: “Oh crap. Now my present to her looks even worse!” In fact, you may have noticed that she is related to me only by marriage. No one in my family of origin is very good at gift giving. My father gave up the game early on and presented us with us cash for Christmas, something I will say I was always happy to receive, even as a seven-year-old.
After we were too old to be riveted by any seemingly random toy that Green Stamps could be traded in for, my mother usually gave us practical stuff that she had to buy anyway; socks and underwear weren’t unusual. My friends and I spent hours at shopping malls buying random items on sale, the cheaper the better, for our siblings. Our favorite items on those trips were the items we picked up for ourselves.
Once my mother gave my little brother a quarter to buy me a Christmas present at Woolworth’s Five and Dime store (back when dinosaurs shopped there, too). He picked out plastic naked baby dolls, about the size of pencil erasers, which were two for a nickel. My sister told him they weren’t a good enough present and he began screaming at the top of his lungs, his anger echoing throughout the store. He was looking to keep the change.
My worst professional experience with gifts was when I went to Japan to represent then-president of the UUA, Bill Sinkford, in important conversations with interfaith partners. Gift-giving is central to Japanese culture. Every person I spoke with in advance of my trip emphasized the need for gifts, but no one offered to help me pick them out. They simply raved about how successful the amazing, hand-designed gifts were that Bill’s wife Maria had taken on previous trips.
I’ll just say it was not a Mrs. Graham-type experience in Japan. In my imagination, religious leaders in Japan are still hooting and hollering together after a few bottles of sake, exchanging tales about the pathetic gifts I took. “You think that’s bad!?” one will exclaim. “She gave me a bobblehead of a Red Sox player!” (In my defense, I’d heard he liked the Red Sox.)
Over the years, I’ve accepted this shortcoming about myself, and I mostly let go of the anxiety that used to accompany it. True, I’m not good at showing people how much I value them through material gifts. But I’m a great listener, I’ll laugh at anyone’s joke, and I love taking people to nice places that they’d appreciate.
In the great big world of energy exchange, giving and receiving wrapped gifts is a very small piece of the pie. At least that’s what I’ll be telling myself on Christmas morning!