This Was the Gift that Was


I’ve never been good at accepting compliments. In fact, this is a skill, I’ve discovered, which people don’t do naturally. You have to practice it, all that stuff involving giving and receiving thanks and graciously sending and accepting gifts. The first time I realized you actually had to learn this was in the late 1980s, when I was studying music. After a particularly painful piano recital, my friend Tammy told me what a great job I did. Okay, I thought. We’re all music students here. I blew chunks. I had to restart the piece twice because it was Bach, and there’s no way you can wind up the Bach clock halfway. Bach is like one of those bad Civil War attempts at machine guns.  If it jams, your only option is to disassemble the whole thing and start again from scratch. That roughly describes how I played it. So, instead of graciously thanking Tammy for her obviously-generous comment, I growled ‘Oh, come on! We both know how much I sucked in there.”

Now, I hadn’t realized then, but probably should have, that it’s sort of like a gift. You wouldn’t throw a gift back in the face of its giver with a snarl. You say thank you, and move on, and dispose of the gift at the next white elephant party you attend. Or, in the case of a “you did well” when you clearly didn’t, just file it away, under “at least she didn’t publicly state that I sucked.

It was years later, at my Senior recital, in fact, when Stacey complimented me after the concert. There I was, in a tux and everything, having done a repertoire  of Copland, Schubert, Gabriel Fauré, and Schumann. I didn’t do badly. When Stacey told me what a good job I did, I immediately went into music critic mode, and started pointing out all the technical errors I made that she, a mere musical novice, had overlooked.  After a minute or so of this, she glared at me and said flatly, “Brian, why can’t you just accept a compliment? Just say thank you, and then move on…” Damn. And I thought I was being clever and self-effacing.

And the evening went on from there. We were good friends, and she wasn’t going to let the moment fester into something angry. I got her back later by trying to unhook her bra strap in front of a Mexican restaurant. Long story. I still laugh when I think of the screech she managed.

But that’s not the point. In 1992, Stacey made me really start thinking about my reactions to the compliments of others. From there I began actually saying thank you, and then moving on. It took getting used to at first. It seemed wrong to take an unsolicited word gift from a person, and just say thank you. But eventually I got better at it. I’m not perfect. I still sometimes catch myself adding more inferior words to my response, but for the most part, I do just what Stacey told me to. I say thank you, and then move on.

Which brings me to my mother-in-law.

Liz Taylor's Passion. Liz Taylor, coincidentally, has been dead for 10 months, but her scent lives on.

She’s a fine woman, really. I don’t mean to pick on her incessantly, but ever since Friday night, when my wife opened her birthday present from Mom K, it’s kind of poked at the back of my head. We immediately recognized the gift: Liz Taylor’s “Passion” – Perfume in a big purple bottle. We also immediately recognized it as the same gift Mom K received 3 weeks earlier, from her husband, on her birthday.

On one hand she complains that “My nieces never like anything I give; they sell whatever I give them, or regift it. They don’t appreciate or understand me.” In the next breath, she’s talking about exchanging something she’s been given (“I asked for medium and they got me large”), or regifting her gifts, to her daughter.

Judi opened the present and said “It’s perfume. Her favorite perfume. She wants me to smell like her and that’s her gift to me?” I kind of chuckled until I realized, that’s what the note said:

Happy birthday!

Hi, Judi. If you don’t want to ‘smell’ like your Mama, we can replace this. We bought it at Walmart and maybe you can exchange it for some other scent. Or we can send you funds to buy something else, then you can hang on to this and give it back to me next time we get together.”

So, essentially, Mom K already assumed (1) Judi would hate the gift and (2) would want to return it to whatever store and (3) maybe even give it back; and possibly (and rudely) (4) ask her parents for money equal to the cost of the gift so she can buy something else that Judi would prefer.

I was shocked. Really. Or I wouldn’t be writing this.

It’s one thing to give a gift, and pre-empt the thank you with a “I hope you like it” or “I hope it’s the right size”; it’s quite another to prejudge the gift as a horrible one and send what’s tantamount to an apology for the gift, including instructions of how to dispose of the gift. Meals go the same way. “Good rolls, Mom K.” “Well…” and she proceeds to tell us all the things that went wrong with the meal.

Yeah. I can see my boys using this to work out. Can't you?

My mind’s still in a bit of a flurry. I’m not angry, you know. Or hurt. It’s funny, but a bit sad. It doesn’t affirm her cooking to make us double down on compliments: “No. Really! Everything is fine. I loved the rolls!” Neither does it exactly make us want to reinforce our thankfulness when we  receive gift disposal instructions, as if it were some sort of Mission Impossible.

One more thing. She tried to send our boys home with one of those “weight-shaker” made-for TV things that makes you look like nothing so much as a person who’s freakishly bad at masturbating, and loves whacking it in public. Supposedly it diminishes arm flab. Six minutes a day, television says. Now, my sons have a lot of worries, but arm flab ain’t one of them. I don’t know how Judi managed to “accidentally” leave that in Missouri. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have got through airport security anyway. And I’m sure they’d have chosen that bag for inspection and had a good laugh at the Branson airport for years to come.

It’s kind of sad. We love her. Honestly. A person doesn’t need to evade compliments by writing rehearsed, sorrowful notes about how much we’ll hate a  gift. We don’t hate her cooking. Quite the opposite, in fact. And, I can’t possibly begin to count the number of ways we don’t want a Weight Shaker in our house. One of the boys would put it through a plate glass window in a freak accident anyhow. Yet, in all this, I wonder how different her life would be if she’d had someone like Stacey, when she was 22, to tell her, “Just say thank you. Then move on.”

[Incidentally: the blog title was unabashedly stolen from, and altered with, a recent collection of Tom Lehrer songs in mind]

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4 thoughts on “This Was the Gift that Was”

  1. LIke you, it took someone almost getting angry with me and saying “You need to learn how to accept a compliment!” It was true, I did.
    My mother-in-law was something else entirely. She’s now my out-law 🙂

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  2. You’re probably not going to like this complement. Feel free to delete it or replace it with a comment of your own…great entry

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  3. This is a good reminder for ALL of us to just appreciate and acknowledge a compliment…and it IS hard to do! I can’t believe how much I have to work on NOT saying something in addition to Thank You. Still. Every single time.

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  4. Gifts that keep on giving. My favorite! It’s almost as if an acutal good gift is too hard for her to comprehend, or maybe she’s cheap? No offense. Some people are too self-centered to really put any thought into gifts for someone else. Contrast Mom K with my mom, who starts shopping for your Christmas/birthday/Halloween gift months in advance, researching on good ideas.

    I guess maybe good cooking can make up for a multitude of sins.

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