Our theme for the month of February is “color.”
Many families practice the giving and receiving of gifts. Holidays, birthdays, accomplishments—all are occasions for a small token colorfully wrapped. The exact routine may differ from group to group, but many practices likely overlap. There’s a presentation, some kind of expression of gratitude (sincere or not), smiles, maybe hugs.
But there are differences in the nuance. Since being in a long-term relationship, and celebrating things like holidays and anniversaries with Sarah, my attention has been drawn more acutely to the intangibles that surround and color gift-giving. Some of the emotions and expectations around gifts that I and my family members bear are not, apparently, universal.
I have discovered, moreover, that receiving gifts is my top love language (which I had not previously realized), and that pragmatic practices, such as skipping physical anniversary gifts in favor of a nice evening out together, left me feeling…empty.
It’s not the cost, as splurging on dinner and wine probably ran us more than the cost of a record and some wrapping paper. Nor is it the emotional significance—we went out to Troubadour, just the two of us, the place where we had met for our first date.
I’ve been trying to unpack this feeling—the significance of the token—and where it comes from. Digging back into memories of growing up with my parents, a photo album emerges.
The pink Power Ranger action figure. It’s the first gift I can remember picking out for another person. I was probably four or five, and it was for my mom. The choice of gift was obvious to my young mind, and required no deliberation or consultation of wish-lists. “What’s the most awesome thing in the world?” preschool Alex asked himself. “Power Rangers, duh. OK. Which one would Mom like best? Well, the pink one because Mom’s favorite color is pink.”
Kids get really hung up on favorite colors. Maybe it’s one of the easiest concepts for us to grasp when we’re still learning how to categorize the world.
My mom obviously had no use for an action figure, and no personal interest in the Power Rangers. It was, in a funny way, my version of Billy Collins’ lanyard. The gift missed the mark. Or did it? She thanked me and hugged me: there was still the shared moment of happiness.
This Christmas I picked out a book for my mom. Sarah and I had already found a nice sweater for her, but I was looking for a bonus gift. A “stocking stuffer,” even though I wouldn’t be putting a physical stocking in the mail. I was wandering around the bookstore looking for something interesting, and landed on a paperback copy of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I hadn’t read it, but Sarah had, and from her description it sounded like the right blend of heavy and humorous for my mom’s taste. The package arrived in Michigan a week later, and my mom called me.
She told me she had already read the book, and that it was one of her all-time favorites. I apologized for getting her something she already had, but she insisted that it was all the more meaningful to her because I “knew” her and had picked out something perfectly her taste.
You might be thinking I’m just a crappy gift-giver, but I think I see the nuance now. A thing made or purchased for someone in their absence, yet while thinking of them, while “knowing” them. It’s a token of connection in the absence of presence. A link across the void. You weren’t here, but I was thinking of you, of what would make you happy, and this is the tangible proof.
It’s just a thought. But, as we all know, that’s what counts.