This time of year, people give gifts. But the best gifts are those that transcend the holiday.
Many years ago, a guy who was trying to impress me gave me a Dooney & Bourke purse. The first problem is that I had never heard of Dooney & Bourke. Recognizing how unimpressed I was, he said, “That’s a two-to-three-hundred-dollar purse!” My response? “Well, which was it? Two hundred or three?” Cuz in my book, that’s a pretty big spread. I’ve never spent anywhere close to $100 on a purse, and I’m very particular about my purses. Which brings us to the second problem: I know what I like. If there’s not a place to hold my pens and a pocket for my phone, forget it. If it’s too heavy, forget it. Or if it’s too big or too small. In other words, don’t buy me a purse: I’ll pick out my own.
I give very few gifts these days. I use to give lots but for several reasons my enthusiasm has waned. I abhor the idea of giving or receiving a gift just because it’s the holidays or a birthday.
Typically, I don’t shop for gifts. Instead, I’m shopping for something else and a gift jumps out at me. When something reminds me of a person, makes me smile or gets me excited, and I think the recipient will feel the same way, I buy it. Doesn’t matter if I’m in a boutique store or in a thrift store. It’s the connection to the particular person that makes me buy a gift. Often, I purchase these at odd times throughout the year and then hold onto them simply because there is an expectation of giving gifts for special occasions. So I wait.
Sometimes, it’s not worth the wait. In October, I “discovered” a new bourbon and purchased it for a friend who is a cocktail connoisseur. Turns out the label wasn’t as unique as I thought. For another friend who calls Nashville hot chicken one of her favorite foods, I found a bottle of Nashville hot chicken spice. Considering the possibility that she may already have it, I decided to gather a whole box of spicy treats, including a dark chocolate bar with chili peppers. I wrapped everything early and waited. Before I could discover that the spice was indeed unique and something she didn’t have, my little dog Mazie unwrapped and ate the chocolate bar, which resulted in an emergency visit to the vet. Yeah, that was definitely not worth the wait.
On rare occasions, a gift is much more than an object, a token, or a gesture. It is an affirmation. When this happens, the gift says,
I see you.
I hear you.
I know you.
I celebrate you.
I’m grateful for all the lovely gestures from family and friends this year. The kindness of purchasing something, wrapping it, and actually mailing it to me is incredibly generous. So I’m hesitant to say what I’m about to say – I do not want to minimize their thoughtfulness or my gratitude.
But two gifts completely surprised me. More than that, they made me feel seen, heard, known, and celebrated.
The first is a Henckels paring knife. Now maybe that seems strange. But trust me, it’s not at all like the time my aunt sent my mom a spatula for her birthday. (My mother wasn’t a baker and that was the only gift my aunt sent. Truly, it was worse than weird.)
Back in 1988 when I visited Germany for the first time, I was young, in college, working full-time, and living in an apartment above a garage. Cash was tight and the major expenses of that trip were generously paid for by my father. Being frugal with my limited funds, my souvenir purchases were limited. Mozart chocolate, yes, and an obligatory sweatshirt. Other than that, I only purchased things that I considered investments and expected would last a long time: carved wooden movable figurine bottle toppers from Bavaria, wooden ornaments, and four Henckels knives. For over thirty years, I’ve held onto these treasures.
At some point during the pandemic, the paring knife went missing. I searched everywhere to no avail. My paring knife!! All these years and to think I’d lose it inside my own home. Best guess is that I accidently threw it out. Those were fuzzy days. Maybe I swiped the remains of a charcuterie board into the trash and along went the knife. Who knows?
The point is: I must have shared this with my friend. Perhaps a conversation in passing, I really don’t know, I don’t remember. But he remembered. He heard me. He heard how much those knives mean to me, he heard my story, and he knows me well enough to know how essential a good paring knife is for so much of what I love to eat: most importantly, cheese.
And so this friend, from whom I would never expect a gift, and long after I shared my missing knife woe, gave me a new Henckels 4” paring knife.
Today a package arrived from Philadelphia. Inside were homemade cookies, carefully wrapped in parchment paper and sealed in two storage bags. Now, cookies are absolutely my most favorite treat. But these cookies were even more special than most.
The last time this friend and I spoke, we discussed family holiday traditions. My friend, Claudia, has just published her wonderful piece on Cookies, Chaos, and Home, and I commented that I always loved baking cookies at this time of year and had begun doing so when I was quite young. But my current kitchen didn’t lend itself to baking. There isn’t enough counter space. I really like my little flat but the kitchen – meh. It’s functional, nowhere near optimal. And I’m okay with that, except at this time of year when I might feel more connected to Christmas if I could make cookies.
Then Ed mentioned a cookie made with dates and walnuts and I almost fell off the couch – date pinwheels!! I hadn’t made these cookies for decades, nor had I even seen them. But Ed not only knew of these cookies, he knew how to make them!
And so he did. And then he sent some to me.
As I’ve said, I always love cookies. I was excited when I saw the box. I cut the tape around the edges and made myself an Italian cup of coffee in preparation for this special treat. But when I unwrapped the cookies, I was moved in a way I didn’t expect.
These cookies brought me home. Back to memories long buried. Each bite was more than a delight. Each bite was a homecoming. I could picture myself forty years ago chopping the dates and walnuts by hand. Spreading the mixture over the dough then rolling it into a log. Chilling the log in the fridge, then carefully slicing it to reveal pinwheels. Gently transferring them onto cookie sheets and baking them. Remembering all these steps and knowing Ed went through such effort touches me deeply. These cookies, more than an edible treat, make me feel connected to my grandmother again, and to the young woman I use to be.
Then in addition, there was a small flat gift. I opened it to reveal a note taped to the back of an unadorned piece of wood. The note said: “Hi Jan, I spotted this and realized that it shares provenance with the logo you use. Cheers!” I turned it over and this is what I saw:
This is my logo. A rainbow. A lodging. Finding Home.
Heard. Seen. Known. Celebrated.
Sometimes a gift does all this. As a giver, you can’t be sure, you never really know in advance as thoughtful as your choosing may be. As a receiver, you’re more than surprised. You’re awed by the depth of feeling. These are the gifts that bring us home.
What gift or gifts have you received –this year or at any time in your life – that made you feel heard, seen, known, and celebrated?
Finding home. Leaving home. Creating home. Being home. Why do some places, people, and things feel more like home than others? And how do we create home as adults, especially when family or jobs no longer dictate where we have to live? *** I’ve been researching the psychology of home for many years. Here are some of my findings and thoughts. Let me know what you think!
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