I’ve always praised myself for being an extraordinary gift giver. From the time I was eight years old, I would save up my birthday and holiday money and use it to buy presents for my parents and sister. I valued the fact that it was MY OWN MONEY I was choosing to use to buy them something rather than myself. A martyr for no reason, or else the attention I garnered from giving a generous gift was more valuable than something tangible I could have bought myself. I also discovered early on, if I was spending my own money, no one else can tell me what to do with it.
The things I saved up for months to buy are the ones I savor most in the memory banks. The silver and gold Seiko watch I gave my mother in third grade; the sewing machine in fourth grade. Being a good gift giver defined me. I gave each part of the present detailed thought: the actual thing, the wrapping, the card, the envelope, the way I write the person’s name on the envelope. It all comes with a piece of my heart attached.
In the Russian culture, even for kids, birthday and holiday presents were customarily cash, brought inside a plain envelope, sometimes with an unsigned card, never sealed, and usually ended up in my father’s inside pocket because why would a little girl need cash when she got everything she needed from her doting parents. Rarely did anyone bring a toy, game, or even an article of clothing – and if they did, I still remember it (monetary value irrelevant).
Around age ten I asked my parents to stop giving me cash because it felt so impersonal. I wanted something they contemplated and planned and executed, not some green paper shoved in an envelope.
One year our relatives from Louisville came and brought me a rose-colored Polo shirt. I had never owned anything like this but she told me to wear it with the collar up because Kentucky fashion was coming to New York!
By the middle of sixth grade, I had made only three good friends at my immigrant public school in Queens. That’s when my parents moved me, in March of my “senior” elementary school year, to my new intermediate school in Staten Island. When my three friends finally came to visit, (ONCE), they bought me Starship’s We Built This City on cassette tape. Up until that point, I had never felt so included in a group. The fact they actually combined their funds and considered my likes blew my mind.
In high school, I had one best friend and we only gave each other birthday and holiday presents and since neither of us had boyfriends, we channeled the gifts we would have given them onto each other. We would get each other joke books, silver jewelry, sweaters from Benneton, Broadway show tickets and as we got older the stakes grew; fancy dinners and once she got me a helicopter ride around NYC.
When I was sixteen, my parents and grandparents chipped in to get me a Sony camcorder, which I desperately wanted. They sent me on a scavenger hunt around the house where I followed clues written in English with broken Russian spelling and I had never been so excited in my life; every Christmas morning fantasy scenario at once.
On our first Chanukah as a couple, my husband, on his way to visit his family in Kansas City, stopped the taxi at my house on the way to the airport to deliver eight gifts, wrapped in newspaper, for me to open while he was away. Elliot Smith CDs, a heart waffle maker, a silver necklace I later wore only when I dressed up to do face painting.
This year my sister printed every single blog I wrote (this is 339 if you’re keeping track) and bound it in a handmade book wrapped in black and white velvet damask fabric, secured with silver grommets.
These are the things I will take to the grave because they have become a part of me as much as it has for the people who gave them to me. The idea that someone spent their ticking time on conjuring a perfect present for me overwhelms me to this day. It is the same reason my engagement story meant so much more to me than the actual diamond ring (although I love my bling bling). It is the same reason a hand-written, well-articulated card means so much to me. I know how much I treasure the words I string together to deliver to someone; I’m happy to be on the receiving end.
While I’ve proudly worn my “Great Gift Giver” badge, crown, and sash, I’ve also often secretly felt let down by others. Not because they didn’t get me an expensive gift, but because they didn’t give it enough thought – and I’m one who even doles out partial credit for effort! (Sometimes I feel disappointed that maybe I’m just not worth the effort.)
I’ve been told many times that I’m impossible (really impossible) to buy gifts for – not because I’m one of those people who has everything, but because I’m particular about, well just about everything. So instead of a Barney Stinson-like “challenge accepted” attitude, people rather have me pick it out or buy it for myself. In the last decade, my mother even stopped giving me a card and just tells me to buy something for myself on her credit card. What’s better than that?
Nowadays my father gives me cash for my birthday and I’ve stopped trying to guess what he wants for father’s day or his birthday so I give him cash back. Last time I saved the $100 bill he gave me and put it back into an envelope for him. Who are we playing this monetary chess game for? It felt fake and fruitless; a sort of invisible present.
Many years ago my sister wisely said to me, “You don’t give gifts hoping to get anything in return. You give them expecting nothing back.” So I went back to OK-ing the cash gifts from my parents, but with a broke artist husband, two deserving kids and three adorable cats, rarely do I spend it on myself.