Gift Giving - the Hard Way
It's all Emerson's fault. He has complicated every Christmas for me since I was 12. It must have been around the Holiday season in the late 50’s that the editors of the Milwaukee Journal ran a Sunday Magazine piece by Wilferd Peterson titled, "The Art of Giving". It was actually a very touching essay. “We give gifts of ourselves when we give gifts of words... We give of ourselves when we give gifts of time.” Mr. Peterson's thoughts were lovely and seemingly innocuous, that is, until he had to go and wrap up that essay with the quote by the excessively noble Ralph Waldo Emerson - a quote that would complicate my Christmases for the next 50-some years: "Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only true gift is a portion of thyself to others."
"Whoa! That's heavy, Man," I probably thought. (No, wait, "...heavy, Man" might not have come into our country's vernacular until the Cheech and Chong era of the 60s). But still... “Whoa! Apologies for gifts? - plus a biblical thyself thrown in for good measure? Strong words for impressionable Catholic preteen ears.
I did understand what Peterson and Emerson were trying to say though, and I was hooked! Gifts of words? I can do that! I wrote my father a poem that year. Gifts of time? Cookies take time. I lovingly offered to help my Mom chop up an inordinate amount of pecans that year for Lorraine's famous Christmas Pecan Fingers.(I felt so holy!) Gifts of ourselves? Well, wasn't trying to give Michael O'Malley a kiss in the alley behind Lee's Chinese Laundry a gift of myself?
And thus, the habit of angst-ridden giving was locked in. Christmas after Christmas, year after year, I never felt right unless I could manage to give at least one little home-made gift to at least one someone I loved - a gift the recipient may or may not have ended up appreciating. But no matter. The important lesson I had gleaned from Emerson was that the gift had to involve some kind of suffering. And through the years I did manage to suffer. Joanne Fabrics and Michael's Arts and Crafts were only too happy to provide their inventory of yarn, embroidery thread, wood plaques, decoupage goop, macramé rope, sequins, beads, and batting to enable me.
And if the projects themselves didn't entail enough suffering, I could always count on the fact that Emerson's quote has never seemed to kick in my psyche until after Thanksgiving. That of course, meant that there were less than 30 days to finish the gift, ensuring the suffering will be manifested outwardly in the form of sweat and tears, and (when the project involved the sawing of wood as it did that one year) even a bit of blood.
Macrame', Crewel, and Crocheting, Oh My
When macramé was popular, I macraméd hanging plant holders. When crewel was the craft of the year, I stitched huge sunflowers on wide strips of burlap that hung from spindly twigs that never quite made it to log status. My finest gift, though, was the set of over-sized crocheted potholders that I made for my Aunt Marion and for my cousin, Joan. These weren't any old potholders. They were actually works of art that involved crocheting and cross stitching and hand sewing. I picked out just the right color olive green yarn that was "in" that year, and I taught myself the afghan crochet stitch for this particular pattern. When the crocheting was done, I cross-stitched the delightful Christmas motif (a bell, a candle, a Christmas tree) on the front. The tree, I remember had ornaments that required 5 different colors of yarn. I had searched in the fabric stores for just the right green plaid quilt material for the back of the potholder and when the crocheting and cross-stitching was done, I carefully hand sewed the backing on each potholder in the set. I then blocked each potholder with a wet cloth on the ironing board until the corners were nice and square (a lot of suffering during this part). They turned out to be quite professional looking, I thought, and I was so proud to present them to my aunt and to my cousin that year.
Aunt Marion's Reaction
Don't get me wrong. I don't regret all the work that Emerson, and tangentially Peterson, inadvertently caused me through the years. There's a great deal of satisfaction in giving gifts of yourself to others. It's almost a spiritual experience to walk into someone's house 20 years later and see a dusty something-or-other that you made hanging on the wall of their back bedroom, or in a stack of junk in the corner of the garage.
As a matter of fact, one August when my dear Aunt Marion was still alive, I felt a warm surge of that emotion when I was standing in my aunt's kitchen. She was boiling potatoes for her famous hot German potato salad and quickly pulled a crocheted potholder out of the drawer to grab the kettle. It was an old potholder, scorched from years of use. It was over-sized and olive green with a perfectly coordinated green plaid backing and a cross-stitched Christmas tree with ornaments in 5 different colors (never mind it was August!). I felt so gratified, I almost hugged my aunt. "Aunt Marion," I said, "I'm so happy to see that you still have the potholders I made for you after all these years." I was ready for her to put down the kettle of potatoes, come over to hug me, saying how much the potholders meant to her - when out of her mouth, without skipping a beat, came the words, "Oh no Billie, you didn't give me these," (There was certainty in her voice.) Your mother gave these to me. I think she got them on sale at K-mart or somewhere. Good quality, though... for K-Mart."
I stood in shocked silence, as if the potato peeler had flown up from the counter and just perforated my heart. I knew it was pointless to try to change Aunt Marion's ninety-year old mind about the origin of the pot-holder at this stage of the game, so I just smiled and sank down into the chair at the kitchen table. Luckily there was German Potato salad to look forward to.
Your Interpretation of Emerson
I still like Emerson's quote, I really do, even though I think he really should have added a caveat to his statement. It should have been, "Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only true gift is a gift of thyself to others, especially when the others don't remember it was thou who hath given it. (The last part, Sister Mary Margaret would have said, is what makes the gift holy.)
Let's just hope that the gifts of yourself that you give - the songs you sing, the poems you write, the empathic listening you offer, the time you spend, (the Scotish shortbread you always bake each Christmas for this author - ahem Normie) - may all of those selfless gifts fall upon the receiver as cherished blessings.
As for me, I'll be off drinking a few bottles of wine since I'm about two corks short for the wine cork coasters I need to finish and bestow on a friend who may or may not be in need of them.
Penny Gives Sheldon a Christmas Gift Beyond "Rings and Jewels" (One of the most poignant/comedic scenes EVER in a sit-com) - Season 11, Episode 11
Emerson Would Be So Proud
Move over Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas, make room for the clip above from the Big Bang Theory on TV which surely will become a classic. Comedic? Yes. Will it make you cry? Count on it.
Setup for above clip: Sheldon, with his usual linear, logical, unemotional approach to social convention is trying to figure out how to give a gift that is appropriate equal to one given to him without knowing ahead of time what that gift might be. In order to be prepared for Penny's gift, he has taken Koothrappali and Wolowitz Christmas shopping with him at a bath and beauty store prior to this clip. We're not sure how he has solved his quandry until the above scene in which Penny gives him a gift beyond any that can be measured of material wealth. There can be no more poignant or elegant protrayal Emerson's quote* than writer Chuck Lorre and staff have created in this episode!.
*Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing." Ralph Waldo Emerson from the essay "Gifts".