Monday, May 23, 2011

Birthday blues

As the birthday season looms before me, I’m reminded of my parents’ approach to gift giving. Yes, they gave wonderful, personalized gifts from time to time. But often the gifts they gave were more about the gift than about the recipient. They simply fell in love with an item and bought a lot of it and had it wrapped and put the packages on a shelf for the next occasion, and the next.

Of course, this meant that when an occasion arose, they often forgot which shelf they had put it on, so sometimes a birthday was spent largely watching them paw through closets and listening to them mutter, “I know I put it somewhere” or “I’m sure I have one left.”

It also means that everyone in my parents’ family and circle of friends has certain identical objects. We’ve all gotten boxes and boxes of See’s candy, and we all have the Leatherman multipurpose tool and the Bushnell PowerView binoculars and books like Paul Fussell’s The Boys’ Brigade and Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong. I think this year we’re all getting rice cookers.

There’s nothing wrong with this brand of gift giving, though sometimes you get the same gift more than once. My brother and sister-in-law have multiple concurrent subscriptions to the same crossword-puzzle service. I never got that gift, so one of their subscriptions was probably meant for me—or someone else, it doesn’t matter whom.

I wish I could adopt that breezy attitude. Or that my children could. Somehow gift giving has become terrifyingly important in my nucular family. My daughter often wants luxuries I’m reluctant to indulge her in. My son always wants nothing—or just a donation in his name to a worthy nonprofit. But I know they mentally compare, and equate any inequality with unequal love.

For a couple years I got around the luxury problem by getting my daughter kittens. Nobody could not love a kitten, even if it came free from a shelter. The gift of life is always right. But there are just so many cats a household can support.

So this year I’m at a loss again. Maybe when I’m in California next week, I’ll poke around my parents’ closets and see if I can find any of those misplaced gifts. I’m sure there are some they never found ...

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