By Adrea Gibbs
Everyone knows that the perfect gift is elusive. Sure, you may know exactly what sweater someone wants or who their current band of choice may be, so it seems easy and for all intents and purposes, in those cases, it may well be. But, do you suppose a year from now, two years from now, ten years from now that person will actually remember what you gave them? It may have been a need or a want for that particular time and moment, but what is the real purpose behind gift giving? Besides the obvious, of course, giving and getting stuff.
I believe that underneath the superficial concern for getting the right color and so forth, there are two things subconsciously we consider when we give someone a gift. First, it is an opportunity to let that person know you care, that on some level you recognize them as an individual, as someone who has meaning and, perhaps even more, someone who has meaning to you and your life. The second thing? We all simply want to be remembered. We want that person to put on the sweater or play the CD we gave them and think about us. It is the same reasoning behind the sale of souvenirs at your favorite amusement park. The parks want you to buy that teddy bear or t-shirt emblazoned with their brand so it will spark a memory the next time you see it sitting on the bed or in the laundry hamper. The same thing is true of gifts we give others. It is all about remember me and remember that I care about you.
The funny thing is how many times do you pick up that last minute something or email a gift certificate without much thought at all? It is still serving the same exact purpose, the difference is the time and energy and, yes, even thought, that goes into it. What makes this all so interesting though is that regardless of whether you have spent hours deliberating over which thing-a-ma-bob is the “right” thing-a-ma-bob may or may not, in the short or long run, make any difference. Sometimes we get careless about the who and the why and get caught up by the convenience, the price tag and the sheer fact we remembered to do anything at all as our saving grace.
When I think about the most impactful gifts I have received, they have more to do with someone’s intimate knowledge and connection with me more than anything else. And it’s not always close friends and family to whom I am referring. It includes some of the most distant of acquaintances. The gifts that resonate with me are most often things that involve activity and communication. They are experiences that need volumes of exposition to even begin to share with others, but in a single flash of sense memory, a smell, a color, a word, those memories rush back in full Technicolor and surround-sound. I may be dating myself, but you get the idea.
Why, when I look at certain kind of sherbet, do I instantly think of my Godparents who gave me a stuffed cat that looked like, well, sherbet when I was all of 8 years old? I remember years later my Mom telling me that my Godmother had been perplexed about what to get me, but knowing my fondness for cats and the unique colors I had chosen for my room at the time, settled on that particular stuffed animal. It was the knowing from whom it came and the personal connection to me that continues to bring them to mind. Or the mix CDs my husband makes for me, with each song carefully selected for its tie to a certain time and a specific place for us. I need only let it play and allow myself to be instantly transported. My parents are masters of this craft and even when things were tough, when I was living off elsewhere and away from everyone, a package arriving filled solely with Peeps candy made that birthday or holiday feel real and connected to those about whom I cared. For that moment, the memories were engaged.
I can look at DVDs and books others have given me and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t remember from whom they came, or for that matter that they were even a gift. Things don’t always come with some personal attachment. They can be nice and appreciated, but as time creates distance, so too goes a general connection to any given object. For my money, a collection of Monty Python’s Flying Circus skits watched over and over and over again in college, nacho cheese Doritos, and whipped Philadelphia Cream Cheese from my college roommate speaks volumes. And for long after the Doritos and cream cheese are gone.
Most of the people I know don’t need “things.” If they do, I will get them those “things,” but not in celebration of Christmas. I can do that anytime, really. But for holidays or special occasions, I want to give them a piece of me, a bookmark, if you will, to place in their memory whether something from
yesterday or something yet to come. I want them to know they are special because they have helped to make me who I am, for better or worse. Well, hopefully for better. To me, the gift of gab is the gift of communication and while “gab” may be tied directly to gossip and ad nauseam speech, I define it by other parameters. Sending someone a handmade card that illustrates a specific shared experience by which you communicate your recollection of that time. Honoring someone with a charitable contribution to their favorite organization showing you do listen and their passion has affected you. Hand delivering a picture in a quirkily coordinated frame that takes them to a past event or mailing a postcard anticipating some forthcoming adventure with location circled on the front saying “meet me here, 3:00pm, Tuesday, February 13,” will become the stuff of which memories are made. Promising, and keeping that promise, of calling every month just to say “hi.”
That may be why gifts with an artistic tie, a landscape of a place long ago visited, a book with roots in a particular town, a handcrafted quilt purchased in a Main Street shop, or a CD purchased from a musician that played in the special restaurant evoke the strongest responses. They encapsulate the time and space and place where those experiences were drawn. Like a caricature from a street artist, the image may be a bit distorted, as time and memory have a way of doing that, but it is still recognizable.
There is a simple reality found in the lyrics of “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music. Though kitten whiskers and copper kettles may not rise to the top of my list, I can as easily insert my personal choices. My favorite things are the ones that are tied to memories of conversations and laughter or tears, of time spent together or apart, of real pieces of my life that will forever keep my heart and soul warm. And that tea infuser I have been looking at for a friend? To the outsider, it may not look entirely thoughtful. To the recipient, it will barely be revealed beneath the tissue before the smile begins and the gabbing starts.