SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2012

Column: In search of a perfect gift

Mary Alice Cookson
The Salem News

---- — Some people are great at giving thoughtful gifts. My Auntie Patti has an uncanny knack for finding a perfect treasure that elegantly announces to its recipient, “How well I know and love you, my dear one!”

Aside from a rare burst of inspiration, my gift clumsily blurts out, “Had no idea what to get, so I got you this. Don’t worry, it’s returnable.”

That’s why, even though it’s only October, holiday shopping discussions give me heart palpitations. Forget dreaming of a white Christmas, I dream of having a personal shopper.

Once I saw a personal shopper interviewed on TV who earns $500,000 a year selecting the gifts a rich husband bestows on his wife. “I know his wife’s taste,” the glamorous and confident shopper explained. (Obviously, the husband doesn’t, but I’d give him an A for effort.)

In the “real world,” most of us have to budget for the holidays. Some couples I know forgo gift buying or donate to charity instead — a smart idea since gift giving within a marriage can be like tiptoeing through a minefield. I’m thinking of one woman I know, a size M, whose husband “supersized” her with a Patriots sweatshirt in size XL. She proclaimed to everyone who would listen, “If he thinks this shirt is my size, he’s going to see me wearing it every night for the rest of his life!”

My clever strategy in buying for my husband is to ask what he wants and to go buy it. Generally, it’s an item he’s been considering that becomes “justified” with the approaching birthday or holiday.

But for me (and please forgive my obvious double standard), it feels tacky and unromantic to specify a gift I’d like for myself. According to one female friend, “If you have to spell it out, you might as well just go out and buy your own (colorful word here) gift. (I’d agree with this if it weren’t for that budget issue.)

As I get older, I’m softening my position and suggesting gift ideas rather than making others sweat it out guessing. Marking an item in a catalog sometimes works, although it can backfire. Once I marked a garden gazing ball specifically because it was stainless-steel and unbreakable for use near a cement patio. My husband missed my criteria and purchased a silver gazing ball that came with the care instructions: “Treat as you would a large and highly fragile Christmas ornament.” After years of nervous attention, it shattered, and we replaced it with a stainless-steel one.

In the interest of practicality, one woman I know does select her own Christmas gifts. She wraps them, too, and places them under the tree. Her husband, who is quite happy with the arrangement, doesn’t know what he’s given her until his wife unwraps the packages, exclaiming, “Just what I wanted.” Sometimes after the gifts are opened, the husband still doesn’t know what he’s given her. (Is that a shawl? Oh, a pashmina. What’s a pashmina?”)

While that old cliche “It’s the thought that counts” does ring true, I believe that judging a gift that looks like it took no thought, or was an afterthought, isn’t fair because one really doesn’t know the kind of effort that’s behind a purchase. How often have I gone to dozens of stores “on a mission” or started a well-intentioned creative project only to realize that I was in over my head and then settled on a gift card.

Over the years, I’ve worked hard to jettison unrealistic expectations of myself and others and to remember that gift giving is a skill. Some people have it (like Auntie Patti), and some don’t.

One thing I’ve learned is that while a good gift reflects the recipient’s tastes, needs, interests or desires, a great gift touches the heart.

Consider my favorite gift, a laminated masterpiece I received from my son when he was 9. Prompted by his thoughtful teacher, it is titled, “The Top 10 Things I Love About my Mom.” Among the highlights: “She buys me things,” “She does stuff normal mommies wouldn’t do” and my favorite: “She loves me no matter what.” Priceless!

So this year instead of fretting over gift buying, I’m going to tackle the holiday shopping list early and come up with some thoughtful and creative ideas. On the other hand, maybe I’ll follow my usual pattern: worry about it until the third week of December and then pick up some gift cards.

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Mary Alice Cookson is a Beverly-based columnist. She welcomes comments (and gift ideas) at mcookson29@gmail.com.