Ah, Christmas shopping season. Ubiquitous crowds, carols and credit cards. Creative gift-giving ideas – would Chia Pet have survived without Christmas? Parking rage. Creative budgeting. The most wonderful time of the year.
This year I’m ready. I composed my shopping list two weeks before Thanksgiving, and since then have been checking prices, arranging and rearranging each group of items by store and deal, signing on to the computer and shopping until my fingers ache.
There’s one person on my list who doesn’t get a gift from the store: my father. He’s an extremely frugal guy, doesn’t buy anything, has nothing, so you’d think he’d be easy to shop for. And I used to shop for him. When my mother got sick, he cared for her and I knew he didn’t cook, so I ordered frozen gourmet meals from A La Zing. I sent them Christmases and birthdays and Father’s Days until he told me to stop. “Don’t get us that food. We don’t need it,” he told me.
The next year I visited his house. He had papers stacked everywhere. If I wanted to sit at the dining room table, I had to move a stack off of the chair before I could sit down. A thin layer of gray coated the kitchen. Pebbles the poodle, blind by then, would find old piddle spots on the rug and refresh them periodically. Dust bunnies reached out to each other to form cobwebs between gaps in the chair backs. My father would scrub and scrub the vinyl tablecloth, only to wear the color off of it in one spot. It still looked dirty.
A maid! I thought. I’d get the house cleaned for him. So I looked up cleaning companies in New York and arranged for a service to call him for an appointment. So far, so good. He made the appointment. Excellent. But the day came and someone called in sick, the service called to reschedule, and my father said no, he wanted “his” money back. He called me to complain, “They didn’t show up. I don’t need a maid anyway. I just told them to send me the money.” I seethed.
So the next Christmas or birthday or Father’s Day, I asked him what he wanted. “I like those sweatshirts they have at Wal-Mart,” he said. So I bought him a pile of sweatshirts. He thanked me for the gift.
One September, he called me to complain, “Don’t get any of that food or maid service or anything for me. I don’t like that stuff.” Pissed about all the effort I’d wasted thinking of gifts, I thought: Fine, you know what? I’ll just send him money from now on. That’s what he sends me, and, that’s what he always gave my mother for birthdays and anniversaries, come to think of it. Fine.
So the next Christmas, I sent him a check for fifty dollars. For the first time in my adult life, he sounded genuinely happy when he thanked me for the gift. Then it hit me. He LOVES money. He loves it so much, he won’t even spend it. He brings home Wendy’s salad dressing packets so he won’t have to buy dressing at the supermarket. He buys cars with odometers in the hundred thousands and keeps them for ten years. When I was younger, he’d scour the woods in the winter for felled trees to burn in the wood stove so we wouldn’t burn oil. His whole life has been about hoarding money. Of course! How did I not think of this before? All these years, I wasted my creative energy on finding the perfect gift and all I had to do was open my checkbook. Unbelievable.
Now on every gift giving occasion, I send my father fifty dollars. And he is genuinely happy. No more trying to please him only to hear complaints. And I have one less stressor during the holidays. Oddly enough, I can apply this lesson to the other people on my gift list. Instead of getting them what I think they need, I think about who they are at the very core. What themes have come up in conversation? One mom friend takes care of her kid by herself twelve hours a day, so I’ll babysit for her. One friend loves to go out to dinner but it’s never in her budget, so I’ll buy her a restaurant gift card. Another mentioned needing a massage, so that’s what she’ll get. The method’s not foolproof, because I don’t always nail the need, but it works pretty well. And if it doesn’t, at least I know my friends appreciate that I tried.
I hope that everyone on your list always enjoys your gifts, but if you do have someone who’s hard to please, maybe this will help. And if it doesn’t, at least you’ll know you tried. Happy holidays and fruitful shopping!