December 26, 2011
You might not have noticed me had you walked past my dining room table the night before Chanukah began, but there I was, obscured by rolls of wrap and ribbon. Ticking off names as I went, I tucked and taped stacks of gifts into pretty packages, all the while feeling the pressure of this season of presents.
While frying the first round of latkes, I wondered, with Chanukah gift-giving being such high pressure material, whether it was safe to be standing so close to the flame. Well, that and the fact that I will probably smell of hot oil for the next eight nights no matter how often I shower.
At best, gifts are cherished for a lifetime. At worst, they are returned to the store. Most, though, land somewhere in between, genially received and appreciated, but presents with little lasting presence nonetheless. For children especially, even the top items on their wish lists tend to be of the moment, savored for a short while, then quickly outgrown and forgotten.
I’m sure I also had wish lists when I was young, things I believed I wanted so much it hurt to imagine not getting them. And I’m certain that there were years I received them. But what I remember most are the gifts that disappointed or bewildered, occasionally even embarrassed – the book I’d already read four times, the hand-knit sweater that was more pillow than cardigan, the new slip given when guests were present.
I’m no pessimist, so why is it that I cannot recall what I so desperately wanted in Chanukahs past, but can remember so many of the things I wish I’d never received?
While frying yet another batch of latkes – this time cheese, not potato – it dawns on me. The experience of getting a gift chosen from the top of my wish list ended with the tearing of the wrapping paper and my first shrieks of delight. Soon, maybe almost immediately, I moved on to wanting something else. As is often the case with a young soul, the longing was much more satisfying than the fulfillment.
The items I did not want, the ones that disappointed, stay with me because they were more than gifts that missed their target. They have had a much longer shelf life, providing a lesson in appreciation and the knowledge that you can’t always get what you want. But even bigger, the unwanted gifts often transformed over time into humorous stories that make up my personal Chanukah lore, the tales that I share with my own children when I give them a gift that fires askew.
So on I plod, doling out assorted tchotchkes and baked goods to teachers and rebbeim, relatives and friends. And to those most difficult to please, my children, I give hoping that maybe, just maybe, something will result in at least the faintest squeal of delight.
And if not? I will wish that they at least inspire a good story, another layer of who our family is, a lasting presence in the men my boys will, G-d willing, become.
Chanukah Sameach! Happy Chanukah!