Essay: Gifted

At my family's home in New England, on a piano that has been the centerpiece of the living room since before I was born, amid family pictures, music boxes, candy dishes and curling old Polaroids of family pets, there is a snow globe I made a few years ago. You can almost see it poking out from behind the photograph of the sheepdog we once had that my mother would feed bowls of cornflakes to.   I made this snow globe for my grandmother, and though no one will say this to me, it has become a source of great embarrassment. I gave it to her, she opened it, then didn't know what to say ? not so much because she was awed by the gesture, but because there are few precedents in my family of crafting Christmas gifts for anyone. Also, the snow globe had clearly been a rush job.

I made it using instructions from Martha Stewart Living, of course: I filled a Ball jar with distilled water, glycerin and fake snowflakes, secured a snowman to the inside lid, glued the seal, and prayed it wouldn't leak. It never leaked.

By Easter, however, Frosty had lost his mooring. He floated like Sandra Bullock in that movie about gravity. Staring at this thoughtful handmade tchotchke several months later, I learned a lesson, a lesson that, truthfully, had been formulating for some time: Stop trying to personalize everyone's Christmas presents.

Next year, just buy them crap.

Give up. Buy that $100 Target gift card. Spring for the monthly subscription of free-trade coffees. Soon enough it'll be February. Besides, when people say it's the thought that counts, they're more right than they know: If I were honest, come spring, I would definitely chose a gas card over the complete extended "Lord of the Rings" trilogy on Blu-Ray DVD.

So: My grandmother always tells me she wants slippers: "Maybe a housecoat if it's not expensive," she says. Pressed for something nicer, she says she doesn't want anything: "Buy something nice for your mother." When I ask my mother, she gets excited: "I need turtlenecks!" I remind her she says this every year, and she says, every year: "Don't buy me anything then."


This holiday, grandmother, you will be receiving nothing. And mom, you will receive the two turtlenecks I bought you last Christmas, the ones I stumbled upon in June, still boxed, gift receipts slipped beneath tissue: You will not remember that you opened these boxes last winter. So, here you go.

Every Thanksgiving, for as long as I can remember, I have had a strange, comforting ritual: I sit down with catalogs, newspaper ads and magazines and, as I watch the Macy's parade, I make individual lists for everyone. I make long lists, of consumer electronics, clothing, books and the homemade treats I will create. I make lists that would require generous loans from the bank if I actually planned to fulfill them entirely. I spend many weeks planning and shopping and thinking of who needs what and how personal is this or that.

But this year?

This year, I will do it again.

I know: This is the place where I explain that I will not be making those lists this year, that I will follow through on my plan for a scorched-earth yuletide. But in the spirit of disclosure ? and the spirit of the holidays ? I know that I will not. Two Christmases have passed since the snow globe, and in that time: I bought my family tickets to the stage production of "War Horse" (which they gave to my cousin). I bought my grandmother a rocking chair from an artisan furniture maker in Maine (which she never sits in). When I visit their home, I am mocked by the state-of-the-art stereo receiver and TiVo I once gave, now resting beneath their television, unused and unattached.

Invariably, every Christmas morning, too exhausted and poor to shop any longer, I realize something:

They don't care.

They are not cruel or thoughtless. But all the stuff: It's just not why they want me home for Christmas.

Still, next year, turtlenecks for everyone.

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