Gift-giving is about more than fulfilling an obligation.
As a boy, I scoffed when loved ones, friends, and neighbors uttered one specific, lifeless, easy-to-mock phrase that nearly every adult seemed poised to offer at a moment’s notice: It’s the thought that counts. I never liked how the phrase dismisses gift-givers under the pretense of appreciation or even forgiveness.
When someone remembers your birthday and takes action on your behalf, it really is a gift of time and attention and effort. But saying It’s the thought that counts should only apply if some kind of thoughtfulness actually occurs. Otherwise, it’s just someone following through on a perceived obligation. Someone sends you a gift card—does that thought count? What if the gift is a re-gift—a hand-me-down gift recycled because it’s nothing special? What if one friend receives a gift card from another friend, and then later gives you that same gift card? Is that thoughtful, or just following through on an obligation?
And exactly how many times can a gift card be passed around until someone decides to actually go to Olive Garden?
I don’t remember many of the gifts I’ve received over the last decade. The ones I do were truly thoughtful gifts—the person thought about what I like and who I am. After we moved into a new house with a slab of concrete at the back of the property, my wife bought me a basketball hoop, a pair of Reeboks, a ball, an air pump, even shorts and socks. For this Indiana kid, it was a tremendous gift.
My wife and I both teach college writing, and for many years, our first paycheck didn’t arrive until mid-September, even though we began teaching in August. A second monthly check would come at the end of September and every month thereafter until May, but we were often stretched thin each summer until we had that 9/15 paycheck in hand. My birthday is a week before that, and one year, money was just too tight, so my wife assembled a coupon book—each one redeemable for a specific act, such as household chores that we normally share, a back rub, a meal of my choice, and so on.
Every single coupon revealed that my wife was thinking of me—of what I do, what I need, and what might be good for me. And it didn’t cost anything but a few sheets of paper and some time on the computer. She was embarrassed that it wasn’t a “real” gift, but it was the best present I’ve ever received. In truth, I haven’t redeemed two of the coupons, though they offer things she’s done for me dozens of times since that birthday. I like leaving them unredeemed, though, as the coupon book remains a kind of ongoing gift.
My wife’s birthday is in May. This year I bought her a number of smaller gifts: a novel, these fancy root beer candies I knew she would love, handmade cosmetics from the place at the mall, and other things, but they were clearly just things. Things I knew she would like. But things, ultimately, that would fade away. The cosmetics would be used. The candies would be eaten. The book would be read and then shelved. I wanted to give her something better. Something memorable. An experience—or several. People remember experiences—places they’ve visited, meals they’ve shared. We hosted a cookout for my birthday last year; I struggle to remember who gave me presents (did anyone?), but I remember the food and the four kinds of beer on ice.
So here’s what I did for my wife’s birthday: I bought Ian Knauer’s The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food, but any cookbook could do the trick, assuming your significant other likes the kind of cuisine covered in its pages. In a lot of households, buying a cookbook for a woman might cost you a few fingers, but we both love to cook, especially together. We renovated our kitchen a few years ago; at its center is a giant island with a concrete countertop—more than 16 square feet of prep space.
As she opened the gift, she was intrigued. I told her the cookbook wasn’t the gift. Not really. That would be like having a set of keys be the gift, not the car parked around back. (Or that’s what TV commercials suggest. I don’t know an adult who’s given or received a new car.)
The actual gift: Every Sunday night until her next birthday, I promise to prepare recipes from this cookbook. I do a lot of the cooking, anyway, but this is different. This isn’t about finding something to consume. Anybody can throw dinner together, especially if you like spaghetti. Rather, this is about my wife’s personal choice. She decides, and then I make food specifically for her, simply because she feels like having it.
So far I’ve made spring risotto, roasted pork, an amazing chicken stew with dill-scallion dumplings, blueberry crisp, and a few other dishes. The food is delicious, and, sure, I get to enjoy it with her. That’s another part of the gift. Every Sunday, this new ritual reminds my wife that she is loved and that I’m thinking of her, and it reminds me that I love her, too—two thoughts that really count.