It's not that I don't like gift-giving -- or getting; it's that I'm best when I'm spontaneous. I'll pay for your dinner if the spirit moves me or buy you the perfect eyebrow brush because it's just what you need. But gifts on demand...no, I never do it right.
As a single mom, all of my gift-giving idiosyncrasies are raised to new heights. Either I'm overcompensating for the father who isn't there, being wildly extravagant, or I refuse to overcompensate for the father who isn't there, giving nothing until my daughter suggests that a winter coat is what she needs. Even after all this time, time is out of joint.
My married friends don't have it any easier, frankly. How could it be otherwise? Children read presents like Alan Greenspan reads the markets. They read a robust economy in the price of an iMac, and a coming depression in a gift certificate from Blockbuster.
That's why gift-giving is as difficult to manipulate as the interest rate, and why a fixed financial position can best protect the most generous heart.
All of which makes me think of my grandfather, who was, in this one regard, surely Mr. Greenspan's equal.
His solution to the gift-giving dilemma was simple: Grandpa gave me the identical gift, year after year, season after season. Whatever the special occasion, in good times or in bad, he'd hand me a check for $25, written in pen in his shaky, arthritic handwriting. Then he'd say immediately, "I wish it were more."
Of course, $25 meant a lot to me when I was 8, but after I rubbed his stubbled cheek, I found his apology disconcerting.
"What's wrong with Grandpa? Why does he wish it were more?" I asked my father, as if this was the last gift from him I'd ever receive. But it was just the first float in a long parade.
When I was 10, the check was still $25. With it, I could buy all the magazines I'd ever want, a year of milkshakes after Hebrew school, or a pair of shoes with small heels.
"I wish it were more," Grandpa said. But I didn't hear him, thinking that my new shoes should have an ankle strap.
When I was 15, the check was once again $25. We had entered the era of limits.
"I wish it were more," he said. My friends had wealthier grandparents, and I knew what $25 meant by then. I'd imagine his bank account and consider that Grandpa had somehow totaled up all his grandchildren and divided it by the sum he had available and came up with $25 no matter what. He seemed a lot shorter by then.
But when Grandpa went home, I had time to consider. The check and the apology were one package by now -- the check symbolizing constant familial love, the apology indicating that such love could never be counted or measured.
And, over time, I came to think that he was right. A gift from Grandpa, after all, was not just a gift, but a statement, a mandate, about the nature of life and what could be expected from it, a drumbeat of urgency telling me to get on and discover what life had in store: I wish it were more. I wish it were more. I wish it were more.
Soon, I'd stop thinking about the money altogether, even forgetting to cash the check.
And I understood why he apologized. For if he fulfilled every one of my dreams now, what is there left for tomorrow?
One year, my brother and I didn't go to Brooklyn to visit him, and the check came via mail: $25.
"I wish it were more," he said, when I called to thank him. I felt embarrassed and ungrateful, for I had given him nothing in return, not even the pleasure of my company.
So the point of the gift is not the giving or the receiving; it's the pleasure of the company. There can never be enough time together. There can never be love fully expressed. Whatever I give or receive, I always wish it were more.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday morning at the Skirball Cultural Center when her guest will be Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgHer book, "A Woman's Voice" is available through Amazon.com.
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