A Call for a Moratorium on Gift Receipts: the Joy of “Bad Gifts”
In advance of a new home purchase several years ago, I went through the family belongings and put them in stacks: the items that were making the move get packed away, the ones that had outlived their usefulness or aren’t quite the right style or size anymore (ahem, you know what I mean) got put in the stack to be donated; and the “valuable” ones got put on ebay (valuable is definitely a relative term – who knew someone would pay $15 for Electronic Clue or $79 for a phone Taylor deemed awful?) One night as I was packing up my jewelry, I came across a pin/brooch that a relative I am quite fond of gave me at least 15 years prior for Mothers Day. Side note: *some names in this story have been omitted to protect the innocent as well as my standing in the family.* To say this pin is unattractive is, well, an understatement, possibly only matched by saying Walmart on a Saturday afternoon is an unpleasant experience. To this day I remember opening it and hoping the smile on my face wasn’t the one my good friend Susan deems “the fake one.” They said how they thought of me while picking it out and thought I could wear it on my suit to the office or when meeting with clients. I had simultaneous unspoken thoughts of, “you seriously thought of me while picking this out?” and “I am 100% certain I will never wear this in public.” Then I pinned it on the dress I was wearing and gave them a big hug and kiss and said “I love it!”. And you know what? I DID and I still love it. Not because it was “just what I wanted” nor was it “perfect” in the traditional sense, but perfect because this person who I have loved my entire life and who isn’t particularly known for sentimental gestures, took the time to go and pick something out just for me. Have I ever worn it beyond that day? Absolutely not. It stays in a clear pouch that once hung in my closet, but has since made the move to NYC, where it remains nestled in my jewelry cabinet, next to my father’s original wedding band that I was given when he passed away (my dad was not the brooch giver). I look at them both every now and then and it brings back memories that I cherish. I think it goes without saying which stack it got put in for the move.
Flash forward a few years after that to a Christmas gathering with friends and other relatives. A young man opened a gift from his parents – it was a exquisite handcrafted pocket knife. I’m sure most young men have received a similar present from their dad at some point in their life. Everyone commented on how beautiful it was. Except the recipient. He just stared at it – this was obviously not on the “list”. His dad asked, “do you like it?” to which he replied, “oh, well, sorry, no.” Then he put it back in the box and casually tossed it to the side so he could get to the next, “better” gift. In an instant my heart broke for his parents, and in the next instant I wanted to take that knife and…. Ok, just kidding – but I did want to grab that kid by the back of the head and explain to him how I was sure his parents had picked that gift out carefully for him, how it was symbolic for his dad to give it to him just as his own dad had given him one, how it was far more meaningful and important than whatever moronic video game he was hoping for. Then his mom quietly said, “well, we have the receipt, I guess you could take it back.” I sat in saddened silence and began thinking about the oh-so-popular modern gift receipt. It’s become a standard accessory in our culture. “Here’s a sweater – but the gift receipt is in the box if you don’t like it” “I got you this necklace – but you can take it back if it’s not what you wanted.” Where does it stop? “Hey, I know you gave me this Picasso, but do you have the receipt? I really wanted a Monet.” Sarcasm aside, something is wrong when we wouldn’t dream of giving a present without a receipt, in fear it won’t be “right.” Who can forget the hideous Christmas sweater our grandmother used to give us every year? We died a little inside as we said, “thanks Grandma, I love it!” Then our mom would make us go put it on and get our picture taken in it with Granny. We’d wear it for the rest of the day until after Christmas dinner when we were mercifully allowed to change out of our “nice outfit” into something more backyard friendly. Then we would put the sweater in the dirty clothes basket and it would mysteriously disappear. Of course, there was nothing mysterious about where it went – it was stored in a box in the attic along with the other sweaters from years past. Don’t you think our mother knew how incredibly unsightly the sweater was? Of course she did, but it wasn’t about the sweater. It was about gratitude, the spirit of giving, and making our Grandma feel special by proudly displaying what she had made or picked out for us. Can you imagine Grandma giving us a gift receipt?
Now let me temper this rant with the qualification that gift receipts definitely have their place. Sometimes people guess the size wrong, or pick out a phone accessory for an iPhone 7, but we have the 8. So gift receipts allow us to exchange the item for the correct size or model, if at all possible. That was the original intent of gift receipts, but like so many other things in our world, what started out as a great idea (a receipt with no price on it – ingenious!) , has morphed into a larger reflection of our society and its sense of entitlement for what it wants instead of gratitude for what it is given. So what about the idea of, “shouldn’t you give something they want?” Well, of course that’s the goal, but it’s not supposed to be a grocery list that gets systematically checked off based on specific requests or requirements. I once knew one of my dear friends doesn’t wear silver, which makes it particularly hard to share jewelry since that’s all I wear. So obviously I’m not going to go out and buy her a silver charm bracelet. But I might give her a gold charm that represents something we shared in our past or something I know that is dear to her. Likewise, every time I opened a gift from her there was no doubt it was picked just for me. Like the guest soaps she found that came in a 50’s style box labeled “Christine” and that sat on my bathtub window sill until the day the house was sold. Or the Christmas plates that my friend Marcia gave me to start my own holiday china collection because I covet hers every year. And the “Christmas Story” lunch box ornament my friend “Teri in Temple” bestowed because she remembered that was my favorite movie from one of those obscure chain emails that went around with all your favorite Christmas things. As I was opening it, she said, “I got this before I knew your tree is all white and silver – crap!” It doesn’t matter – I love it, and I will think of her and Jim every time I take it out of the box and remember how we all had a cup of egg nog together because she had never had any. It still has a special place at the holiday and who knows? Maybe I’ll be dangerous and put it smack in the middle of the white angel and silver penguin! Or Brooke, who gave me a gorgeous ceramic tile with a bible verse on it, because it matched the tile of the house we were in. And it isn’t Christmas if I don’t take out the little snow globe wine topper and bottle ring that Julee gifted several years ago since “we always have wine” – she knows me too well 🙂 These are more than gifts – they are symbols of friendships and sentiment that cannot be replaced or exchanged with a gift receipt. Side Note2 –these examples do not fall into the same category as my brooch or Christmas sweater – they are illustrations of the meaning of gift giving and what you lose by simply picking out a “size 8 brown suede Nine West Boot from Nordstrom– stock #98536”, which someday will end up in pile #2 that I described above.
I’ll close by saying that I have been guilty of this on both sides, but especially of being a gift receipt “enabler”. I have uttered that line of, “I have the receipt if you want to return it” more times than I care to admit, especially with Taylor. And in some ways, I think I have deprived her of the full appreciation, gratitude and memories that ridiculously “bad” gifts can bring. Luckily, our role as a parent is never done, so get ready, Taylor (and Logan and Parker and Noelle)– you may be in for quite a treat when birthdays and Christmas roll around!