Matching Gifts

Ellen Goodman

December 21, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — Boston----WHEN I WAS seven or eight, I wanted a doll with long straight hair that could be combed and braided. I don't remember why I wanted her so badly -- childhood is like that in its intensity and whimsy. But I do remember the doll my parents gave me that year. She had hair that was short and curly.

Mine was not a deprived childhood and this was no tragedy. What I remember most is the split second after I opened the box. The anticipation, disappointment, and then pretense. In one unit of time -- a moment -- I knew that my parents had tried to please me and I wished to give pleasure back to them.

Now, as an adult, a parent experienced in the hits and near misses of decades of presents, it seems to me that giving and receiving is often like that. It's laced with all the difficulties that jTC come with any other emotional matchmaking and mismatchmaking. In the malls these last days, the stress of choosing gifts pervades the atmosphere like Christmas Muzak. For every panicked, defeated soul who goes through the store collecting pre-wrapped items randomly, there is another poring over the counters, colors, sizes, as if cramming for a test.

A test of what? Intimacy? Attention? Affection? Do I know what my 7-year-old grandson would like? Do I know my wife's size? My daughter's taste? Will this (will I) give them what they want? Will they want what I choose to give them?

I know a mother who sends her daughter, annually, another piece of china -- a tribute to the kind of life the older woman hopes the younger leads. Another friend once gave his wife a blouse so unlike anything she had ever worn, or would ever wear, that she had an absurd, and yet nagging, doubt about their compatibility.

From time to time, everyone has offered a gift of embarrassing disproportion, out of scale in size or expense. Sometimes they can tip the balance of a friendship.

Gifts are small land mines in the field of human relations. They are set to go off this time of year.

On Christmas morning, when success and failure are strewn like wrapping paper over the floor, it may indeed seem better to give than to receive. We are reluctant to admit disappointment. We expect ourselves to be as generous in what we get as in what we give.

The merchants tell us that only 15 percent of all Christmas gifts go back, but many more go on the shelf. Still more are saved by someone who wears the necklace, hangs the picture, hugs the doll to please the giver.

One of the most delicate negotiations in this season is rejecting a gift. The other is accepting that rejection gracefully. Mines in the field.

The quintessential story of Christmas gifts makes a romance of mismatches. In that O. Henry story, a young wife sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch. The husband pawns his watch to buy his wife an ornament for her hair. The moral, repeated over generations, is about the beauty of love and self-sacrifice. But the O. Henry twist is about the sheer difficulty of mutuality, two people meeting each other's needs down to the size and color.

Nowadays, a cynic may notice that husband and wife both came up incomplete. A revisionist may wonder why they didn't sacrifice less and share more. A pragmatist might suggest that next year they trade shopping lists and adopt a more businesslike approach. A modernist might suggest a refund.

But most of us taste the same bittersweet center of this story. At one time or another, the search for a gift has mirrored the quest for a perfect fit between two separate people. It is as rare and as compelling.

Wrapped up in symbolic boxes is the hope that somehow or other what we have to give -- as people -- may be what our children, what our parents, our friends, our spouses will want. Revealed under the tissue is our desire to want what those same people have to give us.

Having been on both sides of this exchange, we eventually learn that a perfect match isn't always possible. But occasionally to our own surprise, we may even come to favor the ''wrong'' doll with short and curly hair.

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