Giving good gifts is an art. The trick is to imagine what the recipient would love, not what the giver would love. It never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t have the ability to think like this, to stand in someone else’s shoes. They are practically in the same category with cats. I say this because of that proverbial image of the cat that brings their beloved owner a dead mouse as a gift. It’s a gift the cat values. My cats become so confused when I scream at the sight of the dead mouse, or the eviscerated bird, or the wriggling snake. My scream is not the reaction they planned. I am anthropomorphizing. Cats are not known for planning ahead. I wonder if they misinterpret and think I am screaming with joy. When I refuse to let the cats bring their gift inside (if they appear at my glass sliding door to the deck in back) or slam the door in their faces (if they appear on the porch in front), I imagine them turning to one another, spitting the feathers out of their mouths, and saying (in Meow), “That went well.” Then they devour the gift as hors d’oeuvres.
I am such a particular person, and apparently so difficult to figure out, that I seem to attract gifts that are entirely wrong for me. I try to accept these gifts graciously, recognizing the loving spirit in which they were given, often when I feel like doing the dead-mouse-scream instead. I could seriously do without polyester sweaters, the Beet Gourmet Cookbook (see my blog post entitled “My Kryptonite is Borscht”), yellow school bus pajamas, house plants (I have a yard full of plants, I don’t need them invading my house), novels about genocide (so cheerful), plastic lawn furniture, a worm farm, earrings (my ears are not pierced), a gift certificate to a seafood restaurant (I don’t eat fish), or a porcelain ballerina with a barometer where her stomach ought to be.
Last week I attended a friend’s birthday party at which her daughters gave her an art project. What a perfect gift for this friend! They provided the paints, brushes, canvases, etc., and organized the guests to contemplate and paint their mom’s favorite walnut tree in the back yard. Thus their mom wound up with a dozen different renderings of her beloved tree. Later, as we ate cake (homemade from scratch by someone as her birthday gift to my friend), I pointed out to the group that the only guy at the party who attempted to paint the tree was my husband. Everyone else who participated was female. The other guys protested that they lacked artistic ability. We cheered for Ron, who commented that he tried to paint the tree, but it came out looking more like a naked woman. That says a lot about how guys perceive the world, but I’m proud of him anyway for painting.
My friend also received an unusual shiny black rock and a polished piece of wood that had grown naturally in the shape of a heart. One of the reasons why I love this friend is that she cherishes these sorts of gifts. I have often given her wood, rocks, shells, feathers, and other natural found objects as presents. Once, when I offered to bring her some wood to throw on a bonfire she was planning to have in her yard, she asked me, “Is it interesting wood?” Thank goodness for friends who appreciate “interesting wood.”
Gifts deeply reflect our values and provide a measure of how much our friends and family share our values. Once, when I went to a family gathering at the home of an elderly distant relative, I brought her herbs from my garden. I gave her bunches of lavender, rosemary, oregano, mint, basil, dill, and thyme. I should have known better. This woman does not garden. She has a gardener come once a week to maintain her yard and she is unable to recognize any of the plants grown there, not even rhododendrons. She does not know how to cook either. Her idea of cooking a meal is buying deli meat and cheese and putting it out with jars of condiments and a basket of white bread. On a good day, a house guest might also get some lettuce to go with that. She could not recognize the cooking herbs I brought her since they were not dried up and in labeled bottles. She asked me what to do with the “weeds” I so lovingly gave her. My bad. I’m sure she wondered if she should put them in water and look at them, plant them, or feed them to squirrels. No clue. The thought of eating them or smelling them would have astonished her. What was I thinking? My dear friend with the walnut tree would have loved receiving those herbs. Oh well. So you see that I am as guilty as anyone of not always thinking through gifts.
When my children were little, we had an eccentric friend who was the quintessential starving artist (sadly, she passed over into spirit before all our children grew up). She never had money, but she had a big heart, which was more important of course, and she always found something special to give the children for their birthdays and Christmas. She would cut tree ornaments out of shiny paper, string beads into necklaces, make outlandish masks, and fill envelopes with brightly colored paper hearts (discarded artwork cut up). She gave them blank books to fill with their imaginings, handmade paper boxes, and, sometimes, her drawings or silkscreen prints (so lovely). Often she gave the children rocks. “This rock will fulfill your heart’s desire if you wish on it,” she would tell them, or, “this rock will keep you healthy,” or, “this rock has crystal energy to make you more powerful.” The rocks were simple amethyst, quartz, mica, tiger’s eye, turquoise, obsidian, and other rocks of little value that were pretty to look at. As adults, my children joke fondly about getting rocks for Christmas from this beloved friend. As children, they slept with those rocks under their pillows while they made their wishes and dreamed of having special powers.
When my older son was a little boy, he sometimes became anxious. Many things scared him, such as ominous music in movies, Santa Claus, strange sounds outside at night, and mannequins in clothing stores (even if they were wearing clothing). A family-marriage-and-child-therapist friend of ours gave him a little box of Guatemalan worry dolls to help him keep from worrying. Worry dolls are teeny-tiny people made from wrapped string and/or fabric. The idea is that you tell your worries to the worry dolls who then hold them for you so you don’t have to hang onto your worries yourself. Our therapist friend told him to put the worry dolls under his pillow so that if he got scared at night he could tell his fears and worries to the dolls. One would think it was a perfect gift for my son. But he was terrified of the dolls. He imagined these tiny dolls would come to life under his pillow during the night and do something to him, like bite him, or strangle him with their tiny arms, or poke out his eyes, or make an evil laugh. He was more worried about the worry dolls than anything else. Consequently, I made the worry dolls disappear. They went to live in my nightstand drawer.
My point is that the simplest, smallest, most original gifts are the very best. I could go for a beautiful piece of wood, a box of tiny dolls that disappear my worries, and a rock that gives me super powers. I would even be willing to accept a dead mouse if it would give me super powers. My cats are pretty smart so I think they might actually be able to find a deceased rodent of this description, however, unfortunately, my cats don’t read my blog.
Worry dolls. Scary, huh?