by Jerry DeNuccio
This Christmas past, as it was with all Christmases past, I am reminded of how spectacularly ungifted at gifting I am. Virtually every present I have presented has staged my incompetence, my utter cluelessness, at gift-giving. If my gift-giving had mass, it would have the density of a 98-cent furnace filter; if it had volume, it could be measured in picoliters; if it had depth, it would rival, just barely, a cat’s water dish. My ineptitude for giftitude is encyclopedic, epic; only a twenty-six volumed Brittanica could encompass its sweep; only a Homer or Virgil could convey its profundity. I am surprised that I don’t appear in the DSM-V under the heading “Gifting Obtuseness Syndrome.” Gift-giving, for me, is high-wire acrobatics without a net. I am not just singularly bad at it, I am plurally bad, thuddingly bad, require a Papal indulgence bad, Shakespearean-tragedy bad, could-uncurl-Elvis’s-lip bad.
I once gave my best friend his own golf shoes as a birthday present, thinking myself unsurpassingly clever. He was not amused. Nor was the colleague to whom, on his fiftieth birthday, I gave a bag of prunes and a book on the colon-cleansing virtues of enemas. Nor was the vegetarian friend to whom I gave a gift card to Carlo’s Steak House. I once gave my Dad a basket of Sacramento Valley-grown strawberries less than one week after he was diagnosed with diverticulosis. Another time I gave my wife Kathy a charm bracelet she exclaimed over with almost-enthusiasm, then deposited lovingly in her jewelry box. It has since not seen the light of day. I once gave her a wicker basket she described as “interesting.” She placed it in a dark corner in an untrafficked area of the living room and it has since migrated to the foyer closet.
I have learned my lesson.
Now, as some gift-giving occasion approaches, I ask her: “What would you like me to surprise you with?” She buys it, I repay her. As for all the others in my gift-giving orbit, well, let’s just say that the introduction of gift cards has been, for me, proof-positive that a providential goodness is at work in the world. It’s all very neat, very pragmatic; still, I cannot help but feel that something important, something deeper, is unaccounted for, something other and more that eludes the self-comforting truthiness of “this way they can get exactly what they want” or “it’s the thought that counts.”
Perhaps Emerson best expresses the cause of my ungifted giving: “the impediment lies in the choosing. If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone.” A matter of judgment, in other words. My gift-giving has been an aftermath for which I found the before-math inscrutably difficult to cipher. And it is the before-math that marks all really gifted gifters. They pay attention. They notice when you make do with something not specifically designed for the task at hand. They take into account the most offhanded revelations of desire; they listen to the casual “wish-I-hads”, are alert to “I-wouldn’t-mind-one-of-those,” take note of “that’s cool.” They archive those moments of expressed preference and interest, and then, when a gift-giving occasion arises, they activate and orchestrate memory, perception, and imagination. They take the time. They factor a dash of creativity with who you are, what you are like, what you like, what you need, what you don’t yet know you need—and from that equation they calculate the perfect gift.
My record for gift-giving has been unsullied by success—except once. In second grade, for the first time in my life, I bought someone a present: Mom, for Mother’s Day. I thought as long and hard as my seven-year-old brain would allow about what to get her. I mulled. Then I remembered Mom commenting on a TV commercial for Ivory soap: “Soap that floats? What’ll they think of next?” That settled it. With money vandalized from my piggy bank, I enlisted my grandmother to help me buy a bar of Ivory and, for good measure, scotch-taped a quarter to it. When Mom opened it, she began to cry and wrapped me in her arms. I could feel her tears rivulet down my cheeks and neck. “Jerry,” she said, “this is the perfect gift. I’m never going to use it. I’ll always keep it.” And she did. Going through her effects after she died, I found that bar of soap, with the quarter still attached.
Possibly, at that young age, I knew something that Emerson knew, something I have since been unable to recover: “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” Perhaps, for one resplendent moment, sixty years ago, I gave a gift that was complete because I was not missing from it.