When we were married, every bridal registry seemed to include two must-haves: a crockpot and the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook with its signature red-and-white plaid cover. Convinced both were kitchen essentials, I was crestfallen when we received neither as wedding gifts. Thirty years ago gift cards were not so commonplace. Had they been, we might have been given some, and I might have felt perfectly comfortable buying myself a crockpot and cookbook. Instead, it took me years to bring myself to buy either one.
At first, I supposed I could live without the crockpot, at least for a while, but in those days not having THE cookbook was a little like Americans not possessing a family Bible or, perhaps more accurately, not owning a copy of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Then about ten years into our marriage, I saw the unmistakable red-and-white plaid pattern peeking out from under a stack of books at Costco. There it was! Triumphant, I laid the treasure in my cart, but before going through checkout I lost my resolve. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy that long-lusted-after recipe book. Strange, I know, but maybe it was that I came from a family whose gift-giving culture was, well, a bit strange.
In my home of origin, we had an unspoken rule that no gift receiver ever complained or even showed a hint of disappointment. To the contrary, we were expected to show enthusiastic, genuine gratitude without fail for every gift, no matter how small. And small they were! At Christmastime my brothers and I would pool our money to buy a bag full of combs from the drugstore. That’s right: yellow, green, black, red, and even pink plastic combs in multiple shapes and sizes. Then, to stretch our whopping $2.79 purchase, we’d split up the bag, wrap a comb for family members, and wait for them to thrill over their annual gift. So, because my family gifted such ordinary items, I felt unjustified shelling out money for something as extravagant as a brand-new cookbook or a shiny ceramic crockpot.
Allowing pedestrian items to pass as presents was a learned behavior. Our Christmas stockings were usually filled with essentials that we’d either worn out or used up just before the end of December. So, while other kids woke up to stockings stuffed with yo-yos and necklaces or Silly Putty and baseball cards, we’d pull out things like toothpaste and deodorant or bobby pins and acne medicine. So, when it came to our stockings, we learned to never let our hopes get too high. Gifts under the tree, on the other hand, held promise, although sometimes even those would cross the line. One in particular was a spectacular fail.
I was probably 11 or 12 years old, sitting patiently with my little stack of presents wrapped in the Sunday comics or in paper recycled from years past. Keenly aware that each was hard earned, we all knew to take turns opening gifts one at a time in order for both giver and receiver to properly appreciate the moment.
That was the year I got a bra for Christmas. My first one. Gee thanks, Mom.
Another one of our unwritten family gift-giving rules included modeling articles of clothing immediately upon receipt. You would think that, being in the thick of puberty, I would have run and hid and never returned, especially not wearing my new intimate apparel. To this day, I can’t imagine what in the world possessed me to stick to the rule. Either I really loved my mother or I had incredible self-confidence. All I can say is that some things should definitely not come in the form of gifts!