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Epiphany, Four Wise Men and a Duck

When my husband and I got married, quite a while back actually (going on 14 years), we did that thing, finally, that everyone had nagged and nagged us to do: went to a store and registered for china, crystal, and other things of that ilk.

We were only in our mid-20s and honestly had never given any of that any thought. We didn't entertain like that, and neither did any of our friends. We perused all the shmaltzy shelves of stuff. It was our first foray, really, into the Breakable Zone. We were so young that we were afraid to pick up any of it, although the saleslady encouraged us to overcome our "look with eyes, not with hands" instincts our parents had hounded into us for our entire lives.

We spent days, seriously, sorting through patterns and brands. We wanted classic, yet interesting.

Eventually, finally, we settled on a pattern of china and crystal. We wrote it all down on the little form the store had.

Yes, back in those days there was no "quick gun" to zap a product number with. You used pen and paper, and some poor hapless clerk had to methodically enter it into the green-screened personal computer. Then some poor hapless sales person had to figure out how to load the continuous ream of paper into the humongous printer and spend about half an hour printing out your two page gift list.

It was not easy or convenient.

However, we had done it, and we had set expectations that people would gift us from that list. One might say we felt entitled. We had seen other weddings, and the gifts received, plus we had The Gift List. We were looking forward to the bounty.

After we returned from our honeymoon (St. Marc sur Richlieu, Hostellerie Trois Tilleuls, Quebec---really, go, it is fantastic. We went back at our 10 year anniversary and it was even better. They have a full-blown spa now.) we unpacked and then set about unwrapping gifts.

With tremendous disappointment.

One place setting of china, which, upon a little reflection, we decided we barely felt lukewarm about. Forty forks. Two sets of wine glasses for a total of 24, none of which matched or were our pattern. Something that appeared to be a crystal trash can. Five candy dishes. And other sundries, pretty much none of which were on our list.

But registries back then were hard to come by and use. Nobody could tell who had bought what, because in general, people just asked my mother what our pattern and brand was. Then they went any place and got it.

But that's not even the point.

I bet people thought about what they wish they had gotten when they married, or what they got and loved, or what would be good for us.

I think people bought from the heart, not from the list.

And to my everlasting regret, we missed that. Big time. For far too long, when we reflected back on our wedding gifts---which we called The Wedding of Forty Forks and liberally cracked jokes about and used as dining out humor for years---we felt a little gypped and a lot disappointed.

How dare we. The shame has me wanting to delete this entire blog post, and hide under a bush for ten years, during which time I am to receive Nothing At All Period as punishment for ingratitude.

As we matured, we began appreciating the things we received, and, believe it or not, the things we didn't receive. We matured enough to develop an understanding of our own taste and needs, and bought accordingly. Our actual china is very arty and hilarious. It's the Skating Chefs by Guy Buffet, and the name alone entertains our guests before they even see the fun and funky art.

I think somewhere in the midst of all this I developed a strong distaste for gifts lists, a distaste which has hardened into heady dislike since I have become a parent. I identify gift lists with entitlement and expectation, and feel sure that to some degree it leaves a giftee with a vague disappointment (however brief) and feeling of loss (however small and potentially unconscious) for the items not bought off the list.

Many people like lists. They like to know what to buy, how to give the perfect gift. They want you to tell the catalog, page and item number, or store, shelf and brand. They want to get you exactly what you expect.

This focus, in my opinion, is missing the point. In fact, this time of year I believe it derails the entire meaning of Christmas.

I acknowledge it comes from a good place, in general. I'm not opposed to ideas, suggestions, or guidance, when requested, although I heartily dislike being handed a gift list simply on principle of expectation that I will be buying something. No matter how well intended, however, I believe the desire for a specific gift list and anxiety over buying the exact thing off the list---achieving The Perfect Gift---can lead to a bad place: entitlement, expectation and ingratitude.

I noticed after my daughter spent ample time for the family circling items in multiple toy catalogs that her behavior and expectations hit a level of entitlement I wanted to squash like a cockroach.

“I’m going to get everything I want, aren’t I, mom?” she queried, honestly concerned, “I would be so sad if I don’t get the such and such or so and so…”

That very week we went down to the charity toy store and donated items, and helped to sort toys in preparation for the families to come and select the gifts they wanted. We talked about want versus need, and deserve versus privilege. We talked about gifts, and I told her about my favorite gifts.

“Which one did you like best, Mom?” she asked.

“The one that came from the heart,” I told her.

“Which one is that?” she asked.

“All of them,” I said.

“Moooooommmmmmmm,” she whined.

“Listen,” I said, “One time my friend gave me bubble bath and lotion. I was touched that she wanted me to pamper myself. One time your aunt gave me a lottery ticket, and I was touched she wanted me to hit the jackpot. Grandma and Grandpa gave Dad and me the gift of music one year.”

That year, my in-laws gave us a package of symphony performances called Repartee at the Boston Symphony. It included a cocktail hour, with short speech from an expert about that night's performance, plus, of course, the actual performance. We discovered new composers we liked, met new friends, and all around enjoyed a great time. What a gift that kept on giving. In fact, the best gifts I've ever gotten have frequently been things I never would have thought to ask for. They were things from someone else's world, that somehow related to me, and that enriched my life, with their thoughtfulness and added dimension to my world.

That’s when it hit me; I suddenly understood and could verbalize why I buy the gifts I do. I tend to buy books and music because I love books and music. I love being in book and music stores. I look through all the books I know and love, and think of the people I know and love. I gift them with what I value, and within that, what I think will appeal to them.

It’s not off a list, but it’s a gift from the heart.

And hopefully, then, valuable, anyway.

As my husband and I discussed this last night, the next level of meaning struck me.

How often in life do we feel angry, disappointed, hurt or bitter because what we expected isn’t what we got? How often in life do we create “life gift” lists, and then feel a huge letdown when we don’t get what we expect, or think we deserve?

Life throws curveballs, as do gift giving occasions.

I think the epiphany here is to find the value in what you get, not focus on what it was that you wanted. Therein lies appreciation, peace, and enjoyment.

Hopefully my family and I can grow into four wise men with an attitude of gratitude. Hopefully we grow wise enough to appreciate what we have.

In the end, all my daughter wants as a gift is love, same as the rest of us.

Still, I think I’ll make one more store run and get that pink duck sponge, since she has decided that’s all she’d really like.

Note: Since I'm using someone else's photos here, the photos link to that person's eBay store. Click if you want duckies.

If you want to do some good:

This is a series of raffles in order to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy Research. You pick which item(s) you want to win and we'll draw one winner at random for each item. The more tickets you buy (by sending a secure payment via paypal) the more chances you have to win. Place as many tickets as you wish to purchase on as many items (or just one or a few for a better chance at winning) as you'd like to win. It's in honor of Tanner, the precious nephew of Her Bad Mother.

By Julie Pippert
© 2006. All images and text exclusive property of Julie Pippert. Not to be used or reproduced. R.E.S.P.E.C.T that. Please. If you want to use something, write me.

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Kate said…
DUCKIES!!! Oooh, gotta check out her auction.

Good post, Julie. Thoughtful.

I love "the wedding of Forty Forks".
Unknown said…
1. Knight in Shining Armor Duck is the best!
2. The Wedding of Forty Forks? There's a short story in there somewhere.
3. Gift lists. I'm like you in that I prefer not to have a list. Except for kids. From the parental point of view, I want to work witht the parent and not show up with something they don't need or the parents don't want their kid to have.
4. Expectations. Don't you know it. You are so right about our expectations and sense of entitlement in gifting and in life. Thank you for sharing your little journey of enlightment and reminding us to look past the gift to the heart behind it. Well done.
Her Bad Mother said…
This is such a beautiful post. I struggled for a long time with my mother's tendency to buy gifts that I hated (one year, a pair of XXL denim overalls. I am not XXL, I am not even L, and I do not wear overalls. Another year, a necklace made of wood. I could go on.) Until I really came to appreciate the message in each gift, each of which came from her heart (the overalls were because SHE loved overalls, the comfort of them, and wanted me to have that experience of comfort.)

And, thank you for YOUR gift, promoting the auction.
Gwen said…
I appreciated the way you enlarged the gifting lesson to a life one; strangely, I'm not disappointed by life nearly as often as I am by gifts. I'm at the point where I don't want to tell people what I want; I just want them to buy me something meaningful, instead of buying me the "right" thing. I have this policy where I try to be for others things I really desire for myself. This generally works except when I buy my nieces and nephews books and I know their parents don't appreciate it. Or I assume, since the homes are bookless (I know! the horror!), they're not appreciated. Then what do you do?
Girlplustwo said…
i tried to comment here a few days ago and couldn't b/c blogger was acting up...i so liked it...the whole standing up for the midst of it all.

thoughtful and really quite lovely.

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