Roughly nine years ago, I wrote gift guides for a living. I’d title them with sly, witty link bait like, ’10 Genius Gifts For Your Co-Ed Nephew Who Swears His Alarm Clock Is Broken But We’ve Seen The Timestamp On His Twitter Feed.’
I don’t do gift guides anymore.
Once, years ago, I scoured a Portland bookstore for a limited edition book on pirates. I found a quirky illustrated treasure map guide with dozens of original pirate rules (Stand by your hearties!), signed by Blackbeard “himself.” Its’ publishing date was 1890 and the spine was perfectly worn, its edges yellowed and paper-thin.
I thought it perfect for my 6-year-old nephew.
But my 6-year-old nephew knew only of Jack Sparrow and not of Blackbeard, knew only of the movies and not of the literature. I’d missed the mark.
He didn’t want the real deal.
He wanted his real deal.
I do this all the time – with pirate books, with love, with expectations. I want to gift what is a reflection of me, what feels creative and true and special in my heart. I want to gift my real deal.
But sometimes, people just want a little Jack Sparrow.
These days, my gift-giving isn’t special in the Blackbeard way. It looks a lot like how I’d imagine your process begins, with a text to your sister-in-law or your best friend or your favorite colleague a few weeks before Christmas: Any recs for the kids?
You might head to Amazon and order a Minions puzzle, a WWF action figure, a Lego set with two day shipping, Prime style. You might stock up on iTunes gift cards for the older kids, maybe cash, and you might head to Bath & Body Works because your niece is so completely head over heels for their winter candy apple hand sanitizer.
(Editor’s Note: Dear niece, you will know my love for you when you will find that I, in all actuality, visited THE MALL to procure said sanitizer.)
And then you wrap it all in white butcher paper and let your toddler scribble on it, and the next time you hop online, you sift through one million gift guides toting chemistry sets and customizeable sneakers, singing the praises of wooden alphabet blocks and cured bacon subscriptions.
You might look at your pile of cheap plastic toys and gift card envelopes and feel regret, but I hope you don’t.
It’s been years since the Blackbeard Disappointment In My Nephew’s Subconscious, but it left a mark. I don’t gift my real deal anymore. I don’t expect the gifts I give to be a reflection of my taste as much as I don’t expect the gifts I receive to be a reflection of my taste. They are gifts, best left unsullied with any expectations at all.
My grandmother was notoriously terrible at gift-giving. Once, when she began losing her marbles entirely, she took the spice rack from her kitchen wall and presented it to me, unwrapped, as a wedding gift. It still smells of thyme, of oregano, of crazy. I love it, but only from afar.
And I don’t know, but perhaps that’s the best way to love all of it. From afar. Hold loosely the gift-giving, the gift-receiving, the exchanging of cards and cash and edible gifts that say ‘I love you but have no idea what makes you tick.’
Yesterday, I came home from the grocery store with the ugliest light-up dinosaur you will ever spend a dollar on. It’s made of goo (the technical term, I’m sure) and spiky plastic pieces and there is a legit epilepsy-inducing ball inside that flashes when bounced. It was all too obviously perfect for Bee.
It’s the last thing I’d love in my house, and the first thing she would.
It’s the Jack Sparrow to my Blackbeard.
But it’s a gift, and she’s a gift.
And I suppose the rest we can love from afar.