On the one hand, material gifts have never been particularly important to me. Sure this is the result, in part, of having been born during the Great Depression and experiencing childhood during the Second World War. I recall the thrill of using a large safety pin to attach one of my mother’s hose to the back of the sofa so that Santa could fill it with tasty treats and small gifts. That they were mostly oranges, apples, peppermint canes, pecans, a few walnuts and the almost-impossible-to-open Brazil nuts didn’t disappoint me. In the bottom of the hose, near the toe, I usually discovered a piece of jewelry from Woolworth’s Five-and-Dime, sometimes a tiny necklace with my birthstone, the garnet and usually the chain didn’t stain my little chubby neck green until the second or even third wearing.
We didn’t own a nutcracker, so the family shared daddy’s pliers, and I didn’t realize until years later that we never called the hard shelled Brazil nuts by that name, but used, instead, a dreadful racist epithet. (Have I already noted in these columns that the “good old days” really weren’t?)
On the other hand, I have pretty much always had everything I wanted, partly because my upbringing did not encourage acquisitiveness. Some friend gave me a coaster on which I place my coffee mug each morning on my desk as I attack whatever’s awaiting me on my MacBook Pro. That coaster’s message: “Happiness is wanting what you have.”
Gift giving and receiving is, therefore, a challenge for me. I have a hall closet crammed with objects I’ve received from loving friends and family, and I intend to re-gift most of them ““ many to the rummage store that supports the Hill Country Animal League. And, in my obnoxious way, I inform most who give gifts to me that “I really don’t need anything, but here are some non-profits I would love for you to donate to in my honor.”
I even tried for years to browbeat my loved ones into letting me do the same for them and I’ve written several checks to Young Life in Nashville, Calvary Baptist Church in Henderson, Texas, and the Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview.
Eventually, my loved ones rebelled and requested more personal gifts, so I adjust and purchase items from Coldwater Creek and Amazon.com. I am slow and set in my ways, but, with harassment, I come around.
Way back in 1956, I read and admired Erich Fromm’s The Art of Giving, and, on my birthday in 1970, a Trinity student, Pat Fry (now Godley*), who was a Spur, a campus leader, bright and quite promising, sent me a passage from that book. As the commercialized season for gift-giving approaches, what Fromm wrote captures what I really believe about “giving.” (Bite your tongue and ignore his sexist language.)
“What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other ““ but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness ““ of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the other’s sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness. He does not give in order to receive; giving is in itself exquisite joy. But in giving he cannot help bringing something to life in the other person and this which is brought to life reflects back to him.”
*google her ““ She’s one of many alums who bring honor to this institution.
Coleen Grissom is an english professor.