Friday, November 30, 2012

Simple Gifts: A Story About Giving, and Celeriac Soup

It's pretty clear from the insane traffic around here (because NJ is Mall Central ... haven't you seen the Kevin Smith movies?) that the holiday shopping season has reached full-on crazy, and though I did not stand in line anywhere for Black Friday (except in a row of people lifting weights at the Y--go me!), I've been thinking about gift-giving.

My husband pokes fun at me for my notoriously poor gift-receiving skills.  And in many ways he's right.  I don't give a second thought to returning something that I don't want, or passing it on to someone who might make more use of it than I would; I don't like waste, and I hate to see something sit in a closet and gather dust.  And maybe that's a character flaw.  But I do appreciate gifts that have meaning, even if they may not be the right size or color, and maybe the reason I hate holiday shoppers so much is that I see gift-giving as an art, not an obligation.


It was a Sunday afternoon in the spring of my junior year in college when my parents and brother appeared in the doorway of my bedroom, laden with the usual parcels: a few items of clothing from home, a box of cookies from the Italian bakery, my mail.

I was starting to sort through the mail, making small talk with my family, when my father produced a small wrapped package.  "Here," he said, handing it to me.  "From Disney."

I once read that many Japanese tourists take photos as a matter of politeness; it's expected that you bring the experience back for those people who couldn't come with you.  It's part of the collective nature of Japanese culture.  In my family, when you go somewhere, you bring something back.  Because that's what you do.  It's sort of like the T-shirt so many of my friends had when we were growing up: "Grandma and Grandpa went to (name exotic place) and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."  And I've gotten some strange stuff over the years.  Bookmarks.  Potholders.  Maracas.  On the one hand, it's nice that the buyer is thinking about me; on the other hand, I feel like I'm on a list in the souvenir shop: J-check-maracas.  B-check-keychain ... you get the idea.

I knew that my family was going to Guatemala without me to visit my ailing uncle, but they hadn't even mentioned to me that they'd be going to Disney.  I found myself feeling strangely hurt about being excluded, even though I'd just taken a trip, myself, to California, to visit some graduate schools, and though I was "too old" to care about a trip to Disney.   But taking the package in my hands, I also felt excited: what could he have brought for me?

Gingerly, I lifted the folds of tissue paper.  And nearly dropped the object when it was unwrapped in its entirety.

It was a scarlet unicorn head, a four inch tall wooden figure with a wild, frightening look in its eye.  I held it, looking at it, unable to speak.  From Disney?  Why?  Why had he gotten this thing for me?  What did it mean?

"You like unicorns," he said, almost triumphantly.

I think I nodded, feeling terribly immature, biting back the tears, holding in my hand what felt, at the time, like proof that my father never knew me, would never know me, and didn't care to get to know me.  Yes, I thought; I liked unicorns ten years ago back in the fourth grade, when my favorite color was also purple.  Maybe he thought he was giving the perfect gift.  After all, he didn't have to bring me back anything.  But at that moment, to an adolescent who desperately wanted her father to get her, it felt all wrong.

After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to set the offending item down on my desk.  I swallowed hard.  "Thank you," I said.

Long after we returned from dinner, and my parents and brother had returned home, I found myself at my desk, face to face with the blood-red unicorn head.  I turned it over; fingering the small gold "Made In China" sticker, and, selfish as it sounds, felt alone in the vast universe.


Twenty years later, the unicorn head is long gone.  Or maybe it's somewhere in the recesses of my mother's closets, and I'll find it when I inevitably have to clean out her house some day.  But the memory of it returns every year when I start to think about finding holiday gifts for the loved ones in my life.  Because each year I'm determined to try to get people the kinds of gifts that say "I know you, I am thankful for you, you matter to me."


Two weeks ago a good friend and colleague finalized her move to Boston.  She won't be far away, but it's not close enough for an impromptu cup of coffee any more.  Even though we hadn't gotten together all that much since both of us left our last place of employment, it was comforting to know she was right there.

She came to have lunch with me before she left, and after we'd placed our order, took from her purse a small tissue-paper-wrapped package.  "I wanted to give you something of mine," she said, smiling broadly, handing it carefully to me.  I opened it gingerly, unfolding the paper in my hands, revealing these small Chinese mud men.  I knew immediately: this was us.  The older and the younger friend, a mentor and his student, thinking and reading and working together on a project of great philosophical importance, focused on a similar, if not identical, outcome.  When I asked her to tell me about the piece, she described this relationship, too.  "But colleagues, equals, not a mentor and student," she said.

It was perfect, and I was touched.

It's difficult to give good gifts all the time.  It takes a great deal of forethought, and energy, and care.  And hell knows, there are many times when I get it all wrong, too.  But it's good to remember that the best gifts, like the best meals, are often the most simple ones, not the ones from the mall, or from the mega souvenir shop, but given from the heart.

Have you ever gotten a perfect gift?  Have you ever given one?

Celeriac Soup
This soup is made from a less-than-beautiful root, but it is comforting, warming, and not too rich, like some cream soups tend to be.  Serve with your favorite crusty loaf of bread for a simple dinner on a cold late-autumn night.

2 T. butter
3/4 c. chopped onion (about 4 ounces)
3/4 c. chopped celery (about 4 ounces)
1/2 t. minced garlic
1/2 c. white wine
1 lb. celeriac, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large potato (1/2 pound), coarsely chopped
1 1/2 c. low-sodium chicken stock
1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. evaporated milk
1/4 t. celery seed
1 t. salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice

In a small stockpot, melt butter.  Saute onion and celery until translucent.  Add garlic and white wine and cook until the wine is reduced by half.  Add the celeriac, potato, stock, celery seed and just enough milk to cover the vegetables simmer over low heat, covered, until the vegetables are tender (check at about 15 minutes).  Add the remainder of the milk and bring almost to a simmer.  Remove from heat.  In a blender or food processor, puree the soup until very smooth. Strain back into the stockpot, heat to a simmer and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and lemon juice. Add additional milk, if necessary, to achieve desired consistency.
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  1. My perfect gift i got about 9 years ago from my best friend. It is a homemade throw pillow charcoal color on one side green with an applique of my sweet (now dead) cat. But it looks like a chihuahua. Its adorable and i love it.

  2. What a great post. I still have that great desire for my parents and family to really "get" who I am and to give me a present that proves it rather than just a sweater that is exactly the same as my other two sisters (so as to avoid fighting or indication of preference, even in our 30s). Good luck with this holiday season!

  3. Oh, boy. We are cut from the same cloth. I'm such a perfectionist that finding gifts for other is hard for me to even attempt. And I'm a picky receiver, too.

    The story of your junion-year gift broke my heart. I wish I'd been there to understand you somewhat, to ease the loneliness.

    (Mental note: no scarlet unicorn for Justine this year.)

  4. We avoid all holiday traffic by shopping online these days.

    When my dad retired and my parents started doing some serious travel I started asking for the smallest vase they could find (in loo of a shirt). My favorite is the tiny bud Murano glass bud vase from Italy.

  5. My husband follows all the right gift-selecting tips. He pays attention all year long. One Christmas he surprised me with a painting that I'd admired at the local flea market for years without purchasing.

    My dad is a unicorn kind of guy as well. I understand the disappointment.

    And you inspire me.

  6. I guess that makes me a poor gift receiver too. I have no qualms about returning or otherwise getting rid of anything someone gives me that doesn't make sense. I just don't ever tell them that. I always thought the not telling is the part that keeps it classy. ;)

    I don't know if I've ever given a perfect gift. I gave Christopher a tangle toy once, I just happened to see it on an end cap where someone had shoved it after changing their mind. It was silly and fidgety so I thought he'd like it. Plus it made for perfect stocking stuffer size. He still plays with that thing - he is a fidgeter who needs to do something with his hands all the time. Maybe that's the most perfect gift I've ever given.


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