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The Tricky Art of Gift Getting: How to shut your mouth after you've looked the gift horse in his.

Updated on July 3, 2014

Guessing wrong

I grew up in white suburban America in the 1950s and 60s. My parents, like most parents I knew, were of modest means and weren’t able to grant all the wishes of a foolish child such as I. In fact, I learned not to tell them if I wanted a thing, especially if I wanted it very badly, since I knew that not being able to provide it for me would turn their regret to anger.

Not exactly knowing what I wanted made them guess. When we were finally able to afford something that they felt sure I wanted, they would provide it suddenly. Sometimes, a gift would come several years too late. On my thirteenth birthday, for example, I received at long last the bride Barbie doll for which I had pined as a third grader. Unfortunately, this was years after I had ceased playing with dolls. It made me sad to finally hold it in my hands, as though it were a gift for a dead child, the child I had been long ago when I wanted and couldn’t have it. Naturally, I looked up at my parents and exclaimed, “Just what I wanted!” not adding, “five years ago.”

Pretending to be happy

A child of today would find it strange to have to pretend to be happy. Today’s children tend to stomp out, slamming a door, or openly wail when they are not pleased. They might even call their parents unflattering names, and by this, I don’t mean, “Gertrude.” Children today also think of Thanksgiving as being about turkey, pie and football games and really, nothing else. But when I was a child, family life did not revolve around cajoling children to eat food that wasn’t their favorite or constantly trying to amuse children and protect them from what we consider today to be childhood’s worst enemy--boredom. A child growing up when I did learned from an early age to anticipate the needs of their parents. If I could anticipate what my mother and father expected of me, the family ship would remain on an even keel.

Parents like mine provided the basics such as meals and a place to live. Anything beyond this was, as the saying goes, gravy. Parents didn’t necessarily feel they had to go out and chuck the football around after work with their kids. Instead, kids were chased outside to give Dad a rest when he got home. Mom never rated a rest. She kept working nonstop, even leaping up during meals to feed and change the baby or to bring a second helping of whatever we were having for Dad. Each child in my family was given a role to play and unless one’s role was “the apple of Daddy’s eye,” as my sister had been cast, one need not even try to put out a pouty lower lip in any situation. Children then did not presume to take more than they needed in terms of parental time or resources. We got by with what was on offer and hesitated to ask for, much less demand, more.

Summer camp dreams

Around that time, my parents surprised me by saying they had signed me up for a summer camp. In those days, at least in my family, children were not encouraged to have a reaction beyond surprise and delight where parental largesse was involved. I blinked and tried to find a smile.

Never once had I entertained any summer camp dreams. In fact, the whole idea of hiking, eating burnt hot dogs, sleeping in mosquito-ridden cabins and singing songs heartily around a campfire with strangers represented, for me, a personal nightmare. But it was a done deal. Money had changed hands. Whatever else we had, money was not something we had in great abundance, so this gift had to work and it was up to me to make it work.

Reality for the happy camper

My parents chose a Christian camp, knowing that I was not particularly outgoing and did not make friends with ease. They reasoned, I suppose, that fellow campers would be Christians and would have to forgive my social shortcomings. Failing that, Jesus would be there to be my friend and pull me through.

The girls with whom I shared a cabin reminded more of a flock of sheep than the eternal shepherd. They had me pegged right away as someone likely to do or say something embarrassing, so they were careful not to stick around long enough for that to happen. My misery was compounded by my mother’s idea to pack dresses for me to wear. It was a church camp, right? So she sent me there with clothes suitable for church, though not for camp.

I found out right away that no one wore dresses at camp. I had the slacks I arrived in and I wore them every day, rinsing out mud and campfire smoke smells in the sink as best I could. Sometimes, they didn’t dry right away so I had the itchy and awkward sensation of wet clothing to deal with. My cabin mates had so many clothes with them that they never had to wear anything twice. My peculiar wardrobe was noticed and often remarked upon in ways that weren’t particularly helpful.

The counselor in the cabin was a person who had been, metaphysically speaking, born without a heart. She offered to let me wear a pair of her shorts. On the surface, this appeared to be an act of kindness, but I think she knew they wouldn’t fit me, as I certainly knew. I tried them on to be polite and instantly broke the zipper. She shared this with the rest of the girls, who thought it was hilarious. They enjoyed this joke every time they saw me, by bending over and making ripping noises. I went back to my pants of perpetual dampness and wore the smell of mildew as if it were my personal perfume.

Prayers and supplications

Not much in the way of Christianity was evident the whole time I was there, except perhaps the persecution part. The only religious activity I can recall was that we were required to write a prayer on a piece of paper and turn it in every time we went to the mess hall for a meal. I wanted to write, “Lord, get me out of here,” or perhaps, “God, let me die.” But each prayer was actually read by an older lady whose name I never learned and I was afraid that if I wrote something like that she would send me home before it was time to go and my parents wouldn’t have gotten their money’s worth. I wrote, instead, generic words of praise and thanksgiving. Why not? Each meal, and each moment, was bringing me closer to going home and for that, I was truly thankful.

Once in the mess hall, I always found that seats at the tables with other girls were full, leaving no room for me. I would sit with the poor, tired woman who cooked the meals and her young son. He would put the two halves of a hamburger bun on his ears like earmuffs and chant what sounded like, “Martha Rae…Martha Rae…Martha Rae…” as if he were in a trance. The woman never looked at me nor did she try to engage me in conversation and her son was clearly conversing with beings outside the known universe.

I am ashamed to tell you that I sometimes hoped for a way to take my revenge on my fellow campers who continuously brayed with laughter, showing off their big, white teeth. But revenge wasn’t my style. I knew I wasn’t and would never be cool so I had come to forge an identity as an outsider.

Still, I remember thinking, “If this is a Christian camp, then where is Jesus?”

A lesson learned too late

Sitting as I did with the exhausted cook and her son, I felt I was in the last place on earth, the last stop before the train careened into the abyss. I had no one to talk to and no one who seemed to care anything about me. It wasn’t until years later that I began to get it. I don’t want to get all Franny and Zooey on you here, but I had been sitting at that table with Jesus all along.

What was the point in being there, seeing what I saw and being treated as I had been? Why did I expect the woman at the table to talk to me? Why couldn’t I say something to comfort her instead? What was her life about? She served campers who treated her badly and she was dealing with raising a son with an obvious disability. How did she keep going? Why couldn’t we have helped each other in some way? Could I have ditched some of the dreaded camp activities to watch her son while she tried to work? I could have stirred the pots, washed the dishes and let her sit down for a minute. She could have told me about herself. Maybe she would have wanted to hear about me. These are my reactions now, as a much older person. I didn’t have an idea at the time that didn’t involve self-pity. I went to that camp, and a lesson was there for me to learn but I never understood it.

The lesson hits home

When I finally did get home, I made up so many stories of fun and frolic to tell my parents. I dropped the names of newfound friends who never existed and told tales of adventure and camaraderie that never happened. After a while, my parents advised me that I would, sadly, have to put camp behind me and concentrate on the new school year. This I did with the appearance of reluctance. I had given them the gift of graciously accepting the gift they gave to me and at the time, I felt so smug about that. I missed the real lesson of this ordeal entirely. It wasn’t about acceptance of one’s fate. It wasn’t about persecution or revenge or even about being cool. It was about being in a bad situation and somehow finding a way to make things better for someone else. I didn’t do that.

If there ever is a next time, I’ll know.

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