Gifts of necessity
Somewhere in a family photo album, there is a picture of my mother on Christmas morning opening a gift. It was taken in the late seventies at my grandmother’s house, but apart from that, I know nothing else about the scene. I don’t, for example, know who decided that a Simplicity “jiffy dress” pattern would make a thoughtful holiday gift for a busy young mother. Granted, my mother does enjoy do-it-yourself projects, which the gift giver might have been exploiting, but the gesture seems somewhat cruel. Like giving your child a new bike—unassembled in the box from the store.
Since my mother has no memory of this day, I’ll never really know who was behind the dress pattern gift. My father decidedly was not. His gifts were almost always more extravagant. Nothing says Merry Christmas quite like the gift of a car, he must have thought one year when he gave my mother a Camaro, not considering that Valentine’s Day might be spoiled by a visit from the repo man.
The culprit may have been my grandmother, a choice my husband seems reluctant to believe, though he never had the opportunity to meet her. “If it had been your grandmother,” he told me, “then she would have sewn the dress herself.” “Possibly,” I said, silently wondering if she had ever even owned a sewing machine. While she was a dear woman, she was not exactly the quintessential grandmother. For fifteen years, she worked on the assembly line at General Motors and simply never had the time to perfect the domestic arts. I have no memory of her ever baking cookies or knitting. She didn’t wear homemade housedresses. And at every holiday dinner, she served us frozen lasagna.
Though my grandmother could have given my mother this gift, I’m reasonably sure that she didn’t. Even when she fell upon hard times, she took care to offer us all some thoughtful trinket that she knew we would enjoy. Likely it was my mother’s younger sister, who would have been too young to sew and too poor to buy the dress from a store. And my mother enjoyed sewing, actually, so her sister was probably thinking that she was giving the perfect gift.
That’s the thing about receiving gifts from a child—you can never really be sure of the thought process behind it. A friend of a friend once found an unused item lying around the house, wrapped it and gave it to her father for Christmas, proud of herself for being such a conservationist. One year when I was about ten, I gave my mother some Pyrex cookware after overhearing her say that she could use a new set. As she opened the gift, my father shrugged his shoulders and said, “She has a knack for getting things that you need, doesn’t she?” as if gifts of necessities were the scourge of the season. It never occurred to me that my mother might not want something that she needed. I’m sure that it never occurred to the person who gave her the dress pattern, either. It was practical gift, after all, albeit a bit stingy.
I still think necessities make very thoughtful gifts. This year, I asked my husband for a robe and slippers for Christmas. He laughed and reminded me that our son will likely give me a pair of slippers every year for the rest of my life, which sounded just fine to me. Over the years, I’m sure that I will amass a closetful of slippers and my husband will have an entire rack of ugly ties, but we will love them all just the same. That’s the thing about receiving gifts from a child—the real gift isn’t in the packaging.
In the meantime, I pressed my husband for the robe and slippers. “Just don’t get me the patterns,” I reminded him. “You know that I don’t sew.”
This essay originally appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune under the headline "Necessities can make thoughtful gifts," December 24, 2013.