Sunday, July 28, 2013

Gifts

I had to get some maintenance done on my car this week, and as I sat in the waiting room for 2 hours, I worked on my knitting.

Really, knitting is the best thing for a waiting room.  I used to be able to read at such times, but now every waiting room has an enormous TV in it.  I can't read when the TV's on.  I just can't.  I never could.

So, I knit.  Knitting is actually a perfect activity in such situations, because let's face it, your time is being enormously wasted otherwise. 

Knitting is also a way to meet people, oddly enough.  And if you think all you'll meet are elderly women, check this out.  So if I knit and you don't, I totally stand a better chance of getting a date with Ryan Gosling than you do.  

If you knit in public, someone will usually talk to you.  People are intrigued by the sight of a person knitting, particularly if it's not an elderly person.

Most of us are staring at a screen most of the time.

This time, I met a woman who asked me what I was knitting (the standard opening), and then told me that I knit "very fast."  I've been knitting for 30 years, so, yes, I suppose I do.

This woman liked to crochet, as it turns out.  I used to crochet, before I learned to knit, so I always feel a little nostalgia when someone mentions crochet.  As it turns out, the woman was from Portugal, and her son was getting married the next day.

She had spent 3 years crocheting a cotton bedspread for him.  She whispered as she told me, "It's a gift, he doesn't know."

If you don't know what she is referring to, here is a blog post with a picture of a crocheted bedspread and some reflections on its significance.

After I expressed my admiration for the gift she was about to give her son (and learned that she had made one for her daughter as well, several years ago), the woman and I had a mini-debate.  I said that gifts like that were so precious, they should be used every day (I know that sounds odd), whereas the woman argued that gifts that are precious should be saved for special occasions.

On the one hand, I see her point.  You don't want it ruined in some stupid everyday episode involving coffee.  On the other hand, I think the spirit of an amazing gift should always be open and on display, not shut away in a drawer or a box somewhere.

I can best explain what I mean through examples.  In Moving Violations, John Hockenberry describes how, after he accidentally burns his legs by placing a hot dish on his lap (he has been paralyzed as the result of a spinal cord injury, so he has no feeling in his legs), his grandfather gives him a gift.

His grandfather sends him "a cutting board exactly the size of [his] lap":
He had taken two pieces of oak and glued them together.  He had sanded them and had carefully affixed to the back some green paper of the sort you might find lining kitchen drawers.  The paper was rough, like coarse felt, so it would not slide on my legs.  Finally, a sturdy metal handle was drilled into one edge of the board, for hanging.  It was a simple thing, but each part had been made especially for the purpose of protecting my lap.  The wood was cut to odd, narrow lengths; it was of half-inch stock, not the full inch or more of easily available butcher block wood.  Grandpa wanted the board to be light enough to use from a sitting position so that I could lift it with a pan from my lap to the kitchen counter.
The board's metal handle had been fabricated by him, not pulled from the bin of screws and washers at the hardware store.  There was not a nail or a fastener of any kind on this board.  The oak boards had been glued like fine furniture.  Each seam was a perfectly straight line, clamped and sanded to the tolerance of machine metal.  (47)
It is the only gift he ever receives from his grandfather that isn't picked out by his grandmother.  "This package arrived with Grandpa's meticulous wrapping, and the enclosed note was torn from an oil-smudged legal pad.  He had had to ask my grandmother for my address" (47).

Hockenberry concludes, "My legs could not thank him; I could not feel them, but he could.  Every time I set the cutting board down, I see Grandfather looking up at me."

In Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Pnin, the protagonist, Pnin, has been estranged from his son for years, because the boy lives with his mother after she and Pnin divorce.

Pnin hosts a party.  At the end of the chapter describing the party, a guest remarks on the punchbowl, "a large bowl of brilliant aquamarine glass with a decorative design of swirled ribbing and lily pads" (153).

When the guest says, "My, what a lovely thing!", Pnin "eye[s] the bowl with pleasant surprise as if seeing it for the first time" (153).

It is a present from his son who, after traveling with his mother in California, "returned to his school and ... suddenly sent this" (153).  It arrives, by coincidence, on the very day of Pnin's party.
It had come enclosed in a box within another box inside a third one, and wrapped up in an extravagant mass of excelsior and paper that had spread all over the kitchen like a carnival storm.  The bowl that emerged was one of those gifts whose first impact produces in the recipient's mind a colored image, a blazoned blur, reflecting with such emblematic force the sweet nature of the donor that the tangible attributes of the thing are dissolved, as it were, in this pure inner blaze, but suddenly and forever leap into brilliant being when praised by an outsider to whom the true glory of the object is unknown. (153)
This is why I think beautiful gifts should be used.  If you hide a gift away, you never really see it.

In protecting the preciousness of the gift, you hide its true beauty.

I have a leather messenger bag that I use daily.  My dad gave it to me, when I earned my Ph.D.

Actually, my dad gave me one, but one of the straps on it broke.  One day, he saw me lugging my books in some makeshift manner, and asked me, "Didn't you like the bag I gave you?  Don't you use it?"  I showed him that, actually, I had used it so much that, after a couple of years, the strap broke and there was no way to fix it.

He looked it over and said, "That's no good."

That Christmas, he gave me another, the one I still have today.  My mom said, "He had me worried.  He tugged and yanked on the straps of every bag he picked up, and checked the fastenings from top to bottom.  He flung it around.  I told him, 'You break it, we buy it, you know?'  He finally settled on this one."

About a year after my dad died, I was chatting with a colleague when she suddenly said, "That is a beautiful bag you have.  Where did you get it?  Was it a gift?  Someone must love you very much." 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."