But the very act of giving produces paradox and tension. Giving, after all, requires there be somebody receiving. And for that somebody to be grateful – or – depending on the gift – not, for we are the people who invented re-gifting. To give a present, to even think about giving a present, is to be suddenly awash in fear and worry: is this shirt too small? Too large? Too expensive? Not expensive enough? What if I get a gift for him, and he doesn’t get a gift for me? What if he does get a gift for me, and I didn’t get something for him?
And this giving thing is all so much work. Slogging through the mall, juggling shopping bags, elbowing through the crowd, choosing between scarves or mittens, picture frames or trivets. Legos? Batman tees? Ohmigod, talking Barbie. No wonder, exhausted, footsore, we give in to the urge to gift Uncle Harry with that sad little pennant of a purple tie.
Which brings me to the single greatest paradox of the season. All our munificence, our generosity, our urge to give, freely and openhandedly, our wreaths and stars and Christmas caroling, are, in the end, all about shopping. About spending money. About stores that open at midnight on Thanksgiving – no, at 7:00 – hey, over here, we’re open at noon. (And about the people who work in them.) About advertising, packaging, commercials, money. No season makes capitalism gladder.
There are bigger tensions, too. Here, there are big box stores and pop up boutiques overflowing with plenitude, while much of the world wakes to another day of drought or famine, poverty and war. We give purple ties as presents, when what we’d like to be able to give is another day of life or health or safety. The gift to a refugee child of a home, a welcome. The gift to a mother of the return, unharmed, of a son gunned down on the streets of Ferguson or Raqqah, a daughter killed in San Bernardino or Colorado Springs.
Our Short Takes authors have captured brilliantly these and other paradoxes of presents. We trust you will enjoy their offerings in the spirit of the season.
Waiting for Santa
A Gift of Faith
A Real Place
How many times growing up did I really see her, my New England cousin, Jo? Those summer visits, each a gift, lasted for days. She was a schoolteacher, the first in our immigrant family to go to college, and during the Depression, against all odds. I tagged after her, affection-starved, hero-worshipping. I loved the soap that smelled like her skin, that flawless, beautiful complexion she had till she was nearly 100. Avaderma. She gave me a bar.
Jo, who knew children and liked them, so whole a person in herself that she had something left over to give: kindness, warmth. Jo, who was a traveler, as I hoped to be as soon as allowed. Miami or the Caribbean if she could afford it, Philadelphia with us, if not. Philadelphia anyway, alighting here going south, like a butterfly migrating.
Jo’s hair was curly and brown like mine. She wore it shoulder-length, with a side pompadour secured by a hairpin or barrette. Everything about her a little asymmetrical, the peplum on a dress or blouse that pulled a little crimped pouch of the material off to the side. The cast in one of her dark, almond eyes, not so much a distraction as a point of interest. Her disarming remarks. Just after my first period, for instance, she took me aside and said, “Now you must never let a boy pull your pants down.”
Jo’s visits always came with presents – the family gift, chocolates or glazed dried fruit, which, little glutton that I was, I couldn’t keep my hands off. And for me alone – jewelry, bubble bath and powder; treasured if sometimes unread books, Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn. Then the gift that surpassed all others – a pendant set in mother of pearl, a desert island scene, one palm tree swaying under a dark turquoise sky, the smile of a moon. A convex glass cap added a dimension. I dreamed of the place – it had to exist somewhere, where Jo had bought it – and the mustached men she might have danced with there.
The pendant dangled from a delicate chain and could also be worn as a pin. But I was a careless child. When the chain broke, I pinned the thing to a blouse, just at the side of the peter-pan collar. Then the pin mechanism snapped off in my clumsy haste to put it on. I saved the little scene just to hold and look at. My brother Sidney, who was known to be “handy,” offered to fix it for me. “I’ll solder it,” he told me. I gave it over gratefully. Half an hour later, he came up from the basement with a lead slug in his hand, that nervous laugh of his telling me before I saw that something had gone horribly wrong. “It melted,” he said.
I cried for a long time. Now, not to have the pretty thing, even to hold and look at, like losing a real place I could never go to again.