At tonight’s meeting of the Kenosha Writers Guild, Darleen Coleman (who is a terrifically talented writer) shared a wonderful short story about a young woman coming to terms with the fact that the real world bears little semblance to the world she imagined for herself. In the story, the woman’s young boyfriend is excited about the gift he has purchased for her birthday, which makes her apprehensive:
She worries how disappointed she may be when she opens the real gift tonight. She recalls the look on Hoff’s face as he swung the bag. Men were always getting excited about the wrong stuff;
This instantly reminded me of the Christmas, twenty some years ago, when I was convinced that I had found the perfect gift for my wife. We always spent liberally on our children, and skimped on spending for each other. So Christmas shopping for my wife every year became a quest for the holy grail: a simple but meaningful gift. My wife, maybe because of who she married, has historically low expectations for gifts. She is genuinely happy with whatever I give her, usually books or cooking ware or some other unimaginative offering. She is more concerned that I stay within budget. Meanwhile, she always manages to find something nice and unexpected for me.
That year, either in the late 80s or early 90s, I decided was going to be different. I wasn’t going to wait until December 24th to find a gift for her. I started looking two weeks earlier, determined to maximize the fifty dollar investment our gift budget allotted for each other. I hit mall after mall, inevitably ending up in the book or the record store, absent mindedly browsing titles that interested me until closing time approached.
So it was that on December 23rd, with no progress in the search for the perfect gift having been made, I entered the old Original Outlet Mall out on I-94 near Highway 50. Desperation was already setting in when I stopped in some hobby store. Nothing piqued my interest until I found, stowed away high on the shelf above the check-out counter, with the other items that there was no room for amongst the various Christmas displays, the perfect gift. I pointed at it and asked the cashier if she could get it down.
“This one?” she asked, pointing. She was young, late twenties, kind of cute.
I could barely contain myself. “Yes, that’s it.”
“Yup, that looks to be about perfect.”
She looked at me and smiled, my enthusiasm for the item apparently infectious, and got out the little step ladder they kept on the floor under the cash register and, reaching high up over her head, brought it down for my inspection.
It was perfect. I was beaming. I asked her how much it cost. She turned it over and read the price tag on the bottom. “Thirty nine ninety five,” she said.
“I’ll take it,” I blurted out. I couldn’t believe it. It was under budget. I asked her to gift wrap it, and she did, and I walked out of the store, the perfect gift under my arm. I remember waving to the girl as I walked out, grinning, and again, my enthusiasm had to be infectious, because she was grinning as she waved back to me.
I took it home and put it under the tree, pointing the package out to my wife, and bragging, “You won’t believe what I got for you.”
She looked up from the book she was reading and said, “I won’t?”
“No way,” I replied.
She put her nose back in her book and continued reading.
“ Nope, there’s no way you’re going to be prepared for this gift,” I continued.
“Is that so?” she said, without looking up from her book.
“Because it just so happens to be the most perfect gift ever,” I boasted.
“I can hardly wait,” she mumbled. She continued reading her book.
Two days later, Christmas morning, the kids ripped through their packages, and one by one, my wife and I opened the gifts the kids had gotten for us. I played it cool, waiting until the absolute perfect time to present her with the perfect present. I handed the package to her.
“So this is the one you couldn’t wait to give me?”
I vigorously nodded yes, grinning the same grin that I grinned in the outlet mall when I found it, unable to speak. I was giddy with anticipation and secure in the knowledge that finally, after all these years, I had found the perfect gift.
She slowly opened it, and somehow restrained the gasp that I’d expected to hear. She was silent for a moment, then she asked: “What is it?”
What is it? Are you kidding me?
“It’s a cookie jar!” I could barely contain myself. She started laughing. Laughing! Then the kids joined in, they started laughing too. I was crestfallen. My face must have revealed my disappointment, because my wife started apologizing. “I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s very …” and before she could finish the sentence, she started laughing again.
So let me describe the gift and why I thought it was perfect and see if you agree. It was a ceramic cookie jar, in the shape of an old pickup truck, with ceramic bales of hay in the back, and a ceramic black and white dog lying on top of the hay. To open it, you lifted the dog’s head, and the dog and the bales of hay came off, the cover to where the cookies would be stored. The reasons I thought it’d be perfect included:
1) Nostalgia – my wife grew up on a farm. Nothing says “farm” like an old pickup truck.
2) At the time, we had horses that we stalled in our barn out in back. We always had a supply of bales of hay to feed the horses with, so the hay in the back of the truck struck home.
3) We had a dog. The cookie jar had a dog. Who doesn’t love a dog?
4) My wife frequently bakes cookies. I love cookies.
For some reason, the gift didn’t go over as well as I’d hoped. It never made it to the kitchen, my wife instead preferring the old plain white cylinder for a cookie jar to my finely detailed ceramic work of art.
Today, the piece sits proudly on display in my office, where from time to time I stop and admire the fine craftsmanship and detail that went into its creation.
One thing I did get right, though. I always thought it’d be an unforgettable gift, and that it has been, as almost every Christmas my wife and kids tell the story of the “perfect gift.” And here’s the good news: it has become the standard that all subsequent gifts have been measured against. More than once, through the years, I’ve heard: “At least it isn’t that ugly cookie jar.”
I adjust well.