Last week I was faced with buying a 13-year-old boy a birthday gift. My first impulse was to take the easy way out: the gift card. Although it feels only slightly more dignified than handing over a wad of cash, the gift card does get the job done swiftly. Safeway has a kiosk right by the check-out stand that is seven feet of colorful little rectangles of commerce from every retail business imaginable. Certainly any man, woman or child could use something from one of those stores.
And yet, gift cards cannot inspire.
Take the gorgeous striated brown salad bowl out of which I just ate my lunch. A woodworker named Lloyd General lovingly turned -- literally, he hand turned it on a lathe -- a massive chunk of California walnut into a work of functional art. I have served food from it for close to 20 years. And when I do, a tiny piece of my heart goes out to the woman who thought enough of the importance of gift buying to get it for me: my mother-in-law Lou Ann. It is, simply put, a five-star gift that my son will inherit when my salad eating days are done.
Now, I've given some wacky presents that have missed the mark entirely. A worm composter that I gave to my sister-in-law, complete with a take-out-container of enthusiastic red worms, was a spectacular failure. She's too Southern to admit to me that she passed it on to someone else. My mother doesn't have that problem, being a New Yorker. She returned her set of wind chimes to me, still in the box.
But to a widowed girlfriend mourning the loss of her husband, I gave a pair of soft-as-a-kitten cashmere socks. I told her that if everything else was going sideways, at least her feet would feel loved. And she could think of me, in those dark, cold days of winter, when she pulled them on and felt the warmth from my heart.