The Art of Giving

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“It’s the thought that counts,” our mothers tell us when we are young. Maybe a grandmother has given us an atlas of the United States, or Uncle Edmund has shortchanged us by coughing up one dollar instead of five, when what we wanted was a Mrs. Beasley doll and a pair of ballet slippers. Maybe we are tempted to ask, “What kind of thought went into this lame gift?” but think better of it in fear that we might not get anything at all the next time around.

Later, in our grown-up years, we tell ourselves the same thing when a husband decides a vacuum cleaner suffices as an appropriate display of affection (let the record show this has never happened to me, but Precious and I have only been married for nine years), or a neighbor drops off homemade banana bread even though she can’t bake to save her life. It’s true, of course, that the thought behind such gestures is important. But when it comes to special occasions such as birthdays and holidays, I suggest that the gift matters, too.

Ever since the Christmas morning in the early 1970s when I caught Daddy riding my new bicycle up the driveway — Santa had stashed it at a neighbor’s house — I’ve appreciated the art of the gift. The bike was perfect: Schwinn, maroon with a black, high-back seat. Not just any bike; but the one I wanted.

Recently I celebrated my fiftieth birthday. (If you live within 15 miles of Green Hills you may have heard me jawing about this milestone.) I threw myself a party and let the guests bring me gifts. There was no classy, understated asterisk on the invitation indicating, “No gifts, please.”

And bring they did. Lovely, thoughtful presents that showed they had taken the time to pick out items they knew I would like. Writing journals and dangly earrings. Roses from a friend who knew of my deceased father’s penchant for wearing a one on his lapel every day. A donation to the charity closest to my heart, and a gift certificate for a facial. I loved every minute of opening those presents, and my friends appreciated being able to share that enjoyment with me. In the words of author Richard Bach, “Every gift from a friend is a wish for your happiness.”

“But I’ve already got so much stuff,” says a cousin when I share my theory on gift giving. I, too, am aware of things in my house that no longer serve a purpose, fill a need, or bring a smile. Those I can pass along to someone who can use them, and donate I do. But also in my home are tangible reminders of friends no longer with me, family members who live far away, and mentors who have changed my life in immeasurable ways.

Using the handmade platter in the dining room takes me right back to Friday evenings on the deck with my neighbor Denise, before we were married and living in different states. She held it in her lap on a plane from Toronto to Nashville more than 12 years ago because she thought of me when she saw it. Looking at the picture from Aunt Vannie, hanging on the wall in the den, reminds me to trust my gut, just as she did when she moved from a small town in Mississippi to the heart of Greenwich Village back when proper, young southern women didn’t so such things. The platter and the picture aren’t mere things for me; they are connection, and memory, and love.

In a time when many of us are watching our bank accounts with intensity, I’m not saying we have to spend a lot on gifts in order to make them meaningful. In fact, I’m suggesting we that resist the temptation to buy “just anything” so that we have something to wrap.

For Christmas this year, I’m making small notebooks for my close friends, in which I’m putting my favorite poems, quotes, and life lessons — the best I have to offer of what I’ve learned along the way. My effort won’t cost much money, just a few hours of time and a dash or two of creativity. But it will be from the heart, and to me, that’s what really counts.

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