I received an email today from my brother asking about what I’m getting our mom for Christmas. She lives in a nursing home, so she doesn’t really have room for many possessions, so I’m not sure what we’ll get her. Besides, I’ve never really been too confident in my choice of gifts for other people. That probably explains why I gave my brother and his wife a framed Frank Frazetta print for their wedding gift (Frazetta was the guy who used to do the Molly Hatchet album covers…classy, huh?).
One of the reasons I’ve been pretty bad at gift giving was that I worked in radio for a long time, and that meant that I pretty much made just enough money to keep my rent paid and keep my car on the road. In fact, I remember getting my first radio job in December (another December “first”…we’ll talk more about that later this week) and getting my first paycheck about 3 days before Christmas, just in time to buy a few gifts.
That was the story when I was about 25. I was living in Bloomington and working at WIHN doing afternoons. It wasn’t a really popular station, and my salary, even as production director and afternoon drive personality, was about 200 bucks a week. I was barely getting by. I shared an apartment with a guy named Todd, and even though neither one of us had much money to throw around (he was working at Hardees), we always threw great parties. Essentially, we would just provide the space for our friends, and they would just BYOB…nobody worried about snacks or anything like that.
We were getting ready for our big Christmas bash. At the time, I was dating a girl from Ireland who was staying with a family in Bloomington for about a year…a very rich family. They lived on Country Club Place, which is about as swanky as it gets in Bloomington. Every time I would go to visit Mary, I always felt like a cop was going to pull me over just to see if I was actually casing a joint to break into…I clearly didn’t belong there.
I hadn’t been seeing Mary very long, and was going to pick her up and bring her to the party that evening. It was about 3 in the afternoon when I asked my roommate Todd (a very worldly man) if he thought I should get Mary a Christmas gift. After discussing the matter a little, Todd said he didn’t think I should. “After all,” he said, “you haven’t been seeing her that long, so that means she probably didn’t get you anything. And if you get her something without her getting you anything, it could hurt her feelings.” His logic seemed sound enough, so I went with it. Besides, I had absolutely no idea what she would like, and had very little money to spend to buy gifts for my family, let alone a girl I hadn’t known very long. Even though my decision was made with Todd’s help, I still felt a little uneasy about it.
I told Mary that I would pick her up around 6, and was just a few minutes early when I drove up to the mansion where she was staying. The people she was living with were very nice, and always welcomed me into their home. That particular night, while waiting just a minute or two for Mary to come downstairs, I noticed that their formal living room was two stories, had clean white carpeting, and a Christmas tree that was about 15 feet tall. And of course, there were a ton of presents underneath.
When Mary came down, she looked great…a little dressier than our usual clientele, but she seemed really excited to be going to a party. I really wanted to make a good impression…maybe I wanted her to have a good impression of Americans, I don’t know. Anyway, I was getting ready to help her put her coat on when she hit me right in the gut with one little statement… “Oh, by the way…I have a Christmas present for you.”
I immediately looked like one of those guys in the cartoons whose head turns into a heel, just for a moment. I’m sure my face turned about six shades of red. The lady of the house went to the humongous Christmas tree to retrieve the gift. I started stammering things like, “Oh you really shouldn’t have. That’s so nice of you. I really wasn’t expecting anything.”
Now comes the worst part…this wasn’t just any little trinket. It was a pewter-like pen that had a DIGITAL CLOCK in it and MY NAME ENGRAVED ON IT! This wasn’t just an impulse item, this was a gift that required forethought! After all, they didn’t have pens at the pen store with a bunch of names engraved on them, and all she had to do was look for the “R”s. This…was a nice gift.
I didn’t say anything in front of her hosts, like “gee, I was too broke to buy you anything. And besides, my roommate Todd didn’t think it was a good idea.” We got to the party, and I felt like a dope all night. I pulled Todd into the kitchen to tell him what happened and showed him the gift. All he could say was “wow, it’s got a digital clock in it!”
I didn’t see Mary a whole lot after that. She seemed to have a good time at the party, but I can’t say that I did. My mind was occupied with the whole gift issue, and how crappy I felt about it. She went back to Ireland a few weeks later, and we never kept in touch. She’s probably sitting around some pub with her friends, drinking a Guinness and talking about how cheap Americans are.
I’ll bet she highlights the fact that the pen had a digital clock in it.