On the last day of second grade, I came home to a present from my mom. Hanging, conspicuously, from the mirror in our front hall was an unapologetically girly purple dress. Its dark velvet bodice was accentuated by a lilac sash, which gave way to an aggressive outpouring of tulle. Artificial petals were layered within the skirt’s folds — fake flowers, caged in mesh.
Though I now know my practical mom would never spend more than $40 on a child’s dress, at the time this garment was the most extravagant purchase my 7-year-old mind could conceptualize. The moment I saw it, I was overwhelmed by guilt and anger. I hated the dress, and the thought of my mom shelling out money for such a misguided present made me feel sick. By the end of second grade, I was transitioning into a tomboy phase that would take hold for two years. This dress wasn’t a dress, but an eggplant-colored reminder that my mom didn’t pay attention to the nuanced changes my elementary identity was undergoing. Through a clenched jaw, I thanked her and disappeared into my room to stew in unspoken agony.
I hate receiving gifts for the same reason I hate being asked to repeat myself. The pain of feeling misunderstood is searing. Even if I did speak too quietly in a crowded bar, I am never asked to repeat myself without it igniting a wrathful fire below my rib cage. No matter the circumstance, I believe I should have been heard. Gifts are physical manifestations of the ways in which my loved ones misunderstand me. Material reminders that my mom doesn’t perceive me the way I’d hoped, that my best friend thinks I’m the kind of person who could benefit from an alarm clock that jumps from your nightstand and rolls away until you muster the wherewithal to chase it down. I’m a steadfast shut-the-alarm-off-after-one-ring-don’t-succumb-to-snooze type of girl, and I was hurt that she would think otherwise.
Growing up, gift-giving in my house was a spectacle. These efforts peaked annually on my birthday. Every year, April 30th arrived wrapped in a bow — literally. I would wake up to a house covered in ribbons, all stemming from a satin trailhead that originated under my pillow. From my bedroom, I would follow the tied-together trail that snaked around my house, guiding me to present after present that had been thoughtfully tucked away in crevices and corners. I wrapped the ribbons around my left hand as I went, so by the time I reached the final gift my fist was a multicolored mass as large as my skull.
“Ribbons” was a tradition that originated from my maternal grandfather, who passed away years before I was born. He emigrated to the States from Russia in 1912, when he was 9 years old, and spent his teenage years doodling on paper bags at the butcher shop his parents opened in New York. He went on to become a successful, womanizing artist with a brownstone in the West Village.
Though his two daughters were born 18 years apart and to different mothers, my grandfather was dutiful about marking their birthdays as special occasions. He even went on to publish a children’s book entitled A Special Birthday, filled with charcoal sketches of my mom as a young girl, following a ribbon around their apartment. In my mind, he created this colorful ceremony to mitigate the stark reality of his own childhood.
Because I grew up an only child, I assumed my parents revved up our holidays to make sure I didn’t feel left out of the fun being had by my friends’ larger families. I’ve since gleaned from my mom that this was not the case. She and my dad simply wanted to relive the best parts of their childhoods, enact a highlight reel with their own spawn.
By the time I was in middle school, gifts started to go more wrong than right. Self-consciousness had sunk its teeth into my bony shoulders and I was too covered in the muck of angst to remember my sense of humor. On my 14th birthday, I unwrapped a small cylindrical package from my mom. It was a gag gift you’d buy at a shop that sold bulk candy and profane magnets — mints packaged like an prescription bottle, labeled “Drama Queen: The pill that helps you get over yourself.” In my mom’s eyes, this was a lighthearted tribute to all the times I’d slammed my bedroom door that year. In my eyes, it was a declaration of war.
The present broke a façade upon which I thought we had both silently agreed. Unwrapping it felt like peeling off a scab, one that was begging to be left alone, one that needed more time to heal. This present acknowledged the unspeakable for a teenager — that I had feelings. Messy, uncouth, dire feelings. It denied me the dignity of ignoring my rageful behavior. My mom was holding me accountable for the way I acted when I was in intense adolescent pain. Her “joke” swiped away the self-composure I clung to for dear life, and for that I hated her.
Unfortunately, feeling misunderstood is a nonnegotiable — not to mention, pedestrian — part of life. Throughout my childhood, my mom liked to remind me that “people aren’t in your head with you, Sophia.” People can’t be expected to read my mind, apparently. As elementary school turned into middle and then high school, I learned to cope. Since the world wouldn’t deign to interpret my subtle signals, I made gift-giving transparent. When birthdays approached, I would email my mom links with accompanying footnotes to specify size and color of my predetermined gift. I began worshipping at the altar of the gift card. Throughout my teenage years, the gift card sustained me. It was the perfect present to receive — emotionless, sterile, safe.
Perhaps to compensate for the lack of control I have in receiving gifts, I am an excellent gift-giver. I absorb personal details with an academic concentration, keeping mental spreadsheets of my friends’ favorite things: color, ice cream, TV show, author, anything that could lead me to the perfect gift. I use the information I’ve memorized to pick the lock of their personality. I believe that I understand them, I believe that I am superior because I understand them so well. I believe that I am the perfect friend.
When I was 20, I fell in love. We had our first date in September, slept together in October, and said “I love you” in November. In December, we exchanged gifts for the first time.
Thankfully, my newly minted boyfriend was aware of my temperamental relationship with gifts. He armed himself accordingly, with an arsenal of unique offerings related to things I love. Bookends in the shape of my favorite animal — a potbellied pig; a children’s book published in 1962, chronicling JFK’s (abridged) biography; and fuzzy slippers made to look like Sigmund Freud (Freudian slip-pers; I love to wear misogynistic legends on my feet). There was a handwritten card that made my breath catch in the back of my throat. It reeked of sincerity but it was perfect.
I spent the rest of our Christmas break riding an ego-fueled high. It was the first time in years I hadn’t been wronged by a gift exchange. My boyfriend sees me. I scoffed at couples we passed at the mall, imagining the generic floral body lotion other girlfriends had received. I had found my soul mate.
A few months ago, I got coffee with a writer I met through work. I was thinking about leaving my day job to pursue writing, and she walked me through the steps she’d taken years before when she did the same thing. We talked through a second order of coffees, trudging into our respective childhoods. We bonded over being excellent gift-givers but terrible gift receivers. We discussed the books that had molded us. I found myself talking more than usual, and drove home high on the buzz of a new friendship.
The following Monday, a package showed up at my desk. The note inside read: “Sophia — I know you hate gifts but … I couldn’t resist. These two books have saved and inspired me. May they do the same for you! Now go live.” I grinned like a wallflower who’d received roses from the quarterback. I felt seen, even better, understood. And all I had to do was use my words.