October 26, 2000
It was an innocent batch of chocolate chip cookies that started what I've come to call "The Great Gift-Giving War."
The couple that manages my apartment complex couldn't be nicer. An older Japanese woman and an even older Polish war veteran live just across the hall from me. He is the tallest senior citizen I've ever seen, a hearty 6-footer who fixes light bulbs while leaning on his walker wearing a baseball cap. He has smoked so long, nicotine lingers in the hallway hours after he's gone, a kind of carcinogenic perfume. His eyes remind me of Frank Sinatra.
His wife, about 2 feet shorter, smiles at me whenever she sees me, flashing several missing teeth.
They take packages for me when I'm not around to sign for them. They make sure no one parks in my space. They're good people.
Just after I moved in, I knocked shyly on their door and mentioned that my oven wasn't working. The very next day it was fixed. Grateful for the timely attention and perhaps wanting to do a little Skinnerian positive reinforcement, I whipped up a batch of cookies.
It was nothing, really. Okay, I got a little Martha Stewart and taped a simple flower to the plastic wrap over the paper plate. Still, it wasn't like I bought the woman a Rolex. Just a little thank-you gift.
I had no idea what I was getting into. The next day, Suzi knocked on my door with a bunch of flowers. Two days later, she delivered a white paper bag full of pastries from the Japanese bakery.
"Mom, I'm in a gift-giving war, and I'm losing," I said over the phone.
"You better drop off a bottle of wine or something," she responded, a tinge of worry in her voice.
My mother is the best gift-giver I've ever known. She remembers something you mentioned you wanted when you were six. She knows if you collect pug memorabilia or frogs or decorative plates. She knows what kind of chocolate you like, what colors look good on you, what size you wear. There's no trouble she won't go to.
Her parents were Communists and foreigners to boot. They had no clue about gift-giving and thought it was frivolous. One year, they got my mom a bicycle in November and said, "That's your Chanukah gift."
Luckily for my brother and me, she rebelled. Our Chanukah gifts were thoughtful, perfect, more than she could afford. My mother still starts shopping for those perfect eight trinkets in July. I have the ice blue pashmina I couldn't find, the perfume they stopped making, French cotton underwear you can only find at one store on earth.
My mother is an Olympian at generosity, and I'm like the slow, chubby guy just trying to make it around the track.
One morning, Suzi caught me on my way to work and asked if I could help her draft a will. I went on the Internet and downloaded all the information I could find. I asked around for phone numbers of affordable lawyers. I called the American Association of Retired People for advice. I delivered a comprehensive packet of information and felt that I had finally reciprocated. The war was over.
The next day, a bag full of oranges was on my doorstep. The day after, some sort of Japanese meat pie and two persimmons were left in a bag hanging on my doorknob.
Thinking I might be unaware of some Japanese gift-giving etiquette, I went online and consulted "Passport, Japan."
"The Japanese are enthusiastic gift givers," it read. "Saying 'thank you' for a favor is considered inadequate and possibly insincere." What's more, the article advised, giving too good a gift is "liable to oblige the recipient to reciprocate with a gift of even greater value."
My mom called. "I'm in a gift-giving war myself," she sighed. "I don't know what to do." A new friend had given her a vase. But that wasn't the worst part. The vase was my mother's exact taste, the same style as a little green and pink statue she has in her living room. She had met her match.
"What do I do?" she asked. We discussed possible strategies. As in any war, there is intelligence gathering that must be done. My mother, like any good spy, would get some reconnaissance done at her friend's dinner party. She would not be outdone.
Meanwhile, my own war was escalating. At the sound of my door opening, Suzi would appear, gifts in hand. I would counter-attack. Still, I was losing. For every gift I managed, she struck with two or three. Remembering what I'd read online, I surrendered, politely refusing her gifts, starting a cease-fire. I let Suzi win.
That, my mom informed me, may have been the most generous gift of all.