The theory is simple. Great presents persuade the recipients that this is exactly what they wanted, even if they didn't real ize it until the wrapping flew. The trick, though, is knowing the secret heart of your recipient, not always easy when family and friends live a continent away.
I got the jump on Hanukkah and Christmas this year by spending two weeks visiting my mom and multitudinous sibs on the East Coast. Thus, buying family presents should be a cinch since their likes and dislikes, their needs and moods are so much clearer to me since I've seen them so recently in the flesh, instead of experiencing them as I usually do, through a phone darkly.
We have never spent large sums of money on gifts for one another and aren't going to start now, lord knows. The gift-giving laurel has always gone to the Ward who comes up with the present, however modestly priced, that causes its recipient to behave the most like a 5-year-old who just found his or her first two-wheeler under the tree. Our motto has always been, "If it won't induce a goofy grin, don't buy it." Another consideration when shopping for the family: Gifts have to be easy to ship. Nobody wants a boxful of shards.
First on my list and closest to home is my son, age 20-something. "Eric, what do you want for Hanukkah?" I asked recently. "Nothing," he answered. Now you and I both know that's a half-truth, at best. But not to worry. This child has always been easy to buy for, not the least of which reason is considerable generosity of spirit. I like to believe it's because he always got enough good presents but, for whatever reasons, he always acts as if whatever you give him is terrific. He reads and so believes books are fine gifts, he is always happy to get additional software, and he thinks of gift certificates to the Virgin Megastore or whatever as an opportunity to buy precisely what he wants, not as a failure of the giver's imagination. Probably he would still really like the puppy he began asking for early in the 1970s. But he's not getting Rover again this year. A TV set is a possibility, so he can watch MTV and I don't have to. But I'll probably give him shares in a no-load mutual fund, perhaps the growth fund Berger 100. Call me sentimental, but I think nothing says loving in an uncertain world like teaching your child about dollar-cost averaging.
From a gift-giving point of view, my mother is a toughie. She is an accumulator who would rather have a kidney removed than throw anything out. None of her offspring feels comfortable adding to the store of stuff that she has to spend so much of her time and energy dealing with. Another problem is that she is not really happy about the fact that she is older than the rest of us, and she doesn't care to be reminded of it, thank you. If Whistler's mother would have liked it, my mother will hate it. And mom won't hesitate to tell you what you can do with your lap rug, either. So this year I'm giving her the biggest bottle I can find of her favorite perfume, Chloe, and one thing she isn't expecting. I'm going to make it a point to spend more time with her. Not for her. For me.
I have one sister, four years younger, and I know exactly what to get her. A one-time history major, Chrissie has a favorite monarch the way some people have a favorite singer or actor. She is mad about England's King Charles II. Chrissie can quote you chapter and verse about his bawdy reign (1660-1685) and provide you with fingernail sketches of actress Nell Gwyn and the other lovelies who amused the Merrie Monarch.
What Chrissie doesn't realize she wants most for Christmas is her very own copy of "Forever Amber," newly released on videotape. What an utterly perfect big sister I am to give her a copy of the classic Twentieth-Century Fox film (1947) starring Linda Darnell as the fictional royal mistress, Cornell Wilde as the heartless cavalier who ruins her and George Sanders as King Chuck. Amber pays an unspeakable price for her indiscretion, but the Ward girls have always been notorious fools for love, and I know Chris will treasure it.
The older of my younger brothers, John, is uncannily like my late father and so is easy to buy for. My dad was greatly gifted about everything except staying alive--fly fishing was only one of the dozens of things he did enviously well--and so you could always buy him something that related to one of his talents, thus, making him, as well as you, feel grand. My brother John, his namesake, is the kind of person who walks into the back yard of his 150-year-old farm house and says to his 3-year-old daughter, Hannah, "Let's see if we can call the birds." And then, unbelievably, he starts to make chickadee noises and, even more incredibly, chickadees start gathering in the nearby trees. Did I mention that he built the dulcimer he plays?
What my brother really wants this year is a 19th-Century left-handed broad ax. He found a reasonably priced one recently in an antique shop in Lancaster County, Pa., the Amish country near our childhood home, and it is just what he needs to chisel great-room beams from fallen trees for the ambitious addition he and his wife, Maureen, have planned for their house. But my guess is Maureen will get it for him as his big present (it's only $65, but the addition is going to cost them every penny they have). Instead, I'm going to give the two of them a romantic dinner out without their two adorable children, Hannah and John IV, who is 9 months old. I can think of a dozen things to get the kids, but I think I'll go with a classic: the newly released tape of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Eventually, Hannah and I will be able to have thoughtful discussions of Disney's misogyny. Meanwhile, I can't wait to hear her pipe, "Someday My Prince Will Come." Young Johnny will be happy if we let him chew on the box.
My baby brother, Jeff, is also a collector, especially of Baby Boomer memorabilia, and, thus, another piece of cake. A friend once thrilled him with a Bob's Big Boy bank, and his most beloved possessions include animation cels and a Mickey Mouse lamp. But there is another side to Jeff besides the inner child, and that is the inner accountant. Like me, Jeff loves to balance his checkbook and arrange his bills according to due date. This year he started his own copy-writing business, run out of his home, and so I'm going to give him the gift that keeps on giving, at least for the six years that the IRS suggests that you keep your tax records: "Quicken," the popular financial-planning software.
At this stage in my life I only buy a Christmas gift for one of my friends--Maureen. She has been a boon companion for a thousand years. She drove me to and from college every day when we were girls hungry to know everything (and I couldn't drive), and she has stood by me through deaths and divorces and the other exigencies of modern life. She has never once pointed out to me that, for a smart woman, I am capable of doing some really dumb stuff too. Over the years she has given me several gifts for which I will always be grateful, including making a Christmas one year for me and my son when we really needed one. She is the kind of friend Shakespeare wrote about. I only hope he was lucky enough to have one like her. Our love for each other was forged in the course of campus debates about the nature of life and art, of what is good and what is lasting. So I know she will love her present: Harold Bloom's controversial book, "The Western Canon: The Books & School of the Ages."
The dean of American literary critics, Bloom makes the case for what he regards as the 26 greatest writers the Western world has produced, including far too many of the famous "dead white European males" to please people who believe literary greatness cannot exist without reference to contemporary ideas of social justice. Best of all, Maureen and I can argue about the book, after we both read it. (I propose we start by addressing the question, "Was Bloom temporarily insane when he omitted Dostoevsky?")
Yes, I have one more big gift to buy. But if I tell you what it is, the lucky guy who is getting it might find out, and then it wouldn't be a surprise.