I have a love-hate relationship with my in-laws, who are pathologically practical. Christmas gifts are one looming aspect of that cycle.
Gift-giving in my family has always been something of a free-for-all. You get what you get, based largely on whatever inspiration moves the giver, and that’s part of what makes Christmas magical and awesome. Duds? Doesn’t happen. A gift can never be a dud; just comedy. We embrace the gift of the giving as much as the physical gift itself, because we know which matters more.
Anthony’s family is at the far opposite end of the whimsy spectrum. When we were younger, the Cross clan would go to an outlet mall in New Jersey on Christmas Eve day. We would walk into shops and point to desirable things (clothes, shoes, socks) in line-of-sight of a witness, who would in turn go find the gift purchaser and tell him or her what to buy. We were required to make like it was a secret. Then we’d all drive back to Anthony’s parents’ house and wrap the gifts (secretly) to place under the tree. On Christmas morning we slowly opened them one at a time, feigning surprise and saying things like, “oh how lovely. It’s exactly what I wanted.”
When Anthony and I stopped being available for the shopping expeditions, I was required to tell Anthony’s mum what I wanted for a gift, in awkward telephone conversations. It made me feel like I was nine, sitting on creepy Santa’s lap — but I tried my best to offer legitimate options. It always got mixed up.
One year I asked for “kitchen sheers.” Mum seemed to think that was odd. I didn’t get her reaction until I unwrapped the gift and discovered chicken sheers. Hearing loss can make for complications.
Frequently mum would answer my requests with dismissive comments like, “Hmp. I don’t know where to get that.” Or her best comeback ever: “No. I don’t want to shop for that. I won’t get you that.” (Imagine these words with a deep-throated English accent for best effect.)
It wasn’t about what I wanted after all. It was about what she would enjoy shopping for. So it turned into this strange chore: what could I tell Anthony’s mom to get for me that she would like to get for me?
Eventually it grated on me so badly that I told Anthony I refused to play the game any more. I would tell him some stuff I could actually use, and if he felt like it he could deal with his mom. Or not. Whatever.
One year I had nothing, no ideas, but I always like kitchen tools so I suggested an immersion blender. In his diplomatic role, Anthony reported back that mum had one that she received as a gift, but which she had never used. She wanted to know if it would offend me to receive a re-gift? Of course not, I told him. I don’t need her to spend money on me.
Christmas morning came. I opened the gift from my in-laws. Sure enough, there was the immersion blender. “Never used” was apparently idiomatic. The tool was used. Parts were missing, and whatever remained was haphazardly shoved back in the box. It was visibly unclean, with food stains and all. I guess I was put in my right place with that gift.
Meanwhile, mum has perfected the art of gift-asking. Duds are not allowed. She apparently spends significant time selecting the gifts she will receive. One year she gave me the catalog name, PLU number, color and size of the clothing item she wanted. All I had to do was go on line and enter the information. She even gave me the URL. It was like a middle school computer lab exercise. Another year she wanted a personal training session. She gave Anthony the gym phone number and the trainer’s name, and the exact amount of money to expend for the amount of training she sought.
Bah. I think I need to get on the bandwagon this year, for diplomatic reasons. I think I know what I want. I want a small saucepan with rounded sides, stainless steel or copper, so I can make sauces and such without having to root around in the corners and seams of my current saucepan options. Now all I have to do is shop heartily for it, find a URL and a PLU, and have Anthony invite mum to go for it. If that doesn’t work, I can always order it myself, send her the receipt and seek Christmas reimbursement. The check will come in 7 to 10 business days.