advice for giving a gift to your husband or wife: DON’T

by nikki meredith

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The heart of the giver makes the gift dear and precious. ~ Martin Luther

I once had a fiction writing teacher who said, “It’s hard to say anything definitive about adultery.” I thought that was the wisest thing anyone ever said about anything. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in adultery but where would fiction be without it?)   But this isn’t about adultery. This is about gifts and I want to say, “It’s hard to say anything definitive about gift-giving.”

Let me start with the person in my life for whom it should be the easiest to buy gifts: my husband. It should be easy because I know him really, really well but in some ways I don’t know any more today about what would be a good gift for him than I did in 1972 when we met. Here’s an example: Christmas Eve and I’m shopping at Macy’s at Union Square and I realize, in a panic, that I don’t have enough presents for him.  I have stacks for the kids and for my parents but all I have for him is a shirt, a tie and a pound of See’s peanut brittle. I have 30 minutes left to shop before I have to leave to meet my family for dinner. I race-walk to the men’s department. I spot a pair of boxers emblazoned with Rudolph. Not exactly high-grade ore but I’m going for quantity and with a biggish gift box, this will make the Daddy stack a little higher on Christmas morning. But not high enough. By the time I pay for the boxers, I only have 15 minutes left. How about a bottle of wine? Is there a liquor store around Union Square? I’ll ask someone. Who will I ask? No, I’ll find a phone book. Is there a phone? (this was before cell phones) I ask a salesman. He strikes a pose like Rodin’s Thinker and ponders my question while I have heart palpitations. Finally he decides he doesn’t know. Now I have 10 minutes.

I’m giving you this countdown so that you will understand how anxious I am. I am acting as though my life, or my husband’s life, depends on finding one more gift. That’s how it feels. I’ll go outside and ask the guy who sells flowers at the corner of Geary and Stockton. Surely he knows if there’s a liquor store. On my way to the Macy’s exit, I spot a display of beautiful gold foil boxes that contain beautiful leather cases that, in turn, contain gold-plated collar stays. Hurrah! I am saved. My husband is saved. These little beauties meet all the criteria: he wears collar stays; I know he’d never buy them for himself – they’re too expensive; they’re classy, certainly classier that the cheap plastic ones he currently uses. Of course, no one will see them but it will be like fine lingerie – a hidden touch of quality that can add a spring to one’s step.

Christmas morning. I watch his face as he opens the gift box. He pulls the gold ribbon off the lovely gold box. Anticipation is written all over his face. When he flips open the fine grain leather case, he peers at the gold-plated stays and then he peers at me with, I swear, a combination of confusion, revulsion and pathos. I’ll never know for sure if the pathos was for him or for me (was he sorry for himself because he expected something great and got something lame or sorry for me because I was lame enough to buy something so lame?)  But the confusion and revulsion he made clear: “I always wondered what kind of guys wear these.”

Here is what I know about exchanging presents with my husband:  Gift giving equals disappointment – his, mine and ours. Here’s an example of mine. On a September day a few years ago two facts converged: my birthday and my love of pomegranates. Before my birthday I had announced that I really, really didn’t want gifts. I had everything I wanted or needed and going out to dinner to celebrate would be enough. More than enough.  I could tell, however, that as my birthday approached my husband was getting increasingly nervous. “It doesn’t feel right…I want to get you something,”  he’d say. I’d say, “Really, it’s right. It’s what I want.” A variation of this back-and-forth occurred numerous times so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to come home to a stack of wrapped gifts on my birthday.  I couldn’t help myself: I succumbed to anticipation.  It’s impossible for me to behold a box wrapped in pretty paper with a shiny bow not to have a Pavlovian reaction. Early conditioning trumps life experience every time.

The first gift: a big box of pomegranate candies. That’s sweet, I thought. It shows how well he knows me. I was in an expansive mood otherwise I would have realized that it didn’t take an observant husband to know how much I love pomegranates. I suspect very few people buy a pomegranate–dedicated refrigerator so that when the season is over in the grocery store, my season still has two months to go.  (They last a long time when kept cold.) The other tiny problem with the how-well-he-knows-me conclusion is that I don’t like anything but fresh pomegranates. I put that aside. After all, it’s the thought etc. I kissed him and thanked him.

Pretty box #2 contained pomegranate lollipops. Present #3: freeze-dried pomegranates. You see where this is going. It was a pomegranate bonanza. The last gift – a couple of cartons of fresh ready-to-serve arils (the juicy seeds). It’s true, they were fresh – just not quite fresh enough. They were ever-so-slightly fermented. (That’s why I never buy them and always peel my own.) With each gift opening it got harder to be keep the lovingly appreciative smile on my face and by the time I got to the fermented arils, I had to work to hold back tears. I felt ridiculous. How could I give any of this a second thought when millions of people live below the poverty line? Besides, I knew my husband felt he’d struck gold with the pomegranate fiesta he’d arranged. The piece de resistance: he’d used the bed for his wrapping surface and the cartons of fresh/fermented arils leaked. It cost me almost $100 to clean the duvet cover and the duvet.

They haven’t all been misfires. One year he bought me an antique gold locket with a diamond chip. I not only loved it, I loved it when people admired it and I could say, “My husband bought it for me.” And one year I bought him an electric guitar. He still has it. He even plays it once in awhile. But the reason I remember these times is that they are so rare. The ratio of pain-to-pleasure is completely out of whack. For both of us. And the problem is that not only do you not get what you want, you often have to spend time returning what you don’t want. One year I was in such a panic the day before his birthday I bought crazy shit – a half dozen items, including an artificial fish tank lamp with artificial fish that projected on the wall and an Italian shirt that would only have looked good on an Italian gigolo. He thanked me half-heartedly and the next day loaded the stuff in his car to return. Only he never got around to it. He drove around with it in the trunk of his car until he sold the car and ended up donating it to Salvation Army. Somewhere an Italian gigolo is wearing a black silky shirt and reading by the light of a fake aquarium with fake fish lamp.

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