She held it aloft in her hand like a bewildered Statue of Liberty. I stared up at it, uncomprehending, a mass of befuddlement.
“What,” she asked, “was my dad thinking? Why would he get me, a grown woman of 24, a toothbrush for Christmas?”
There wasn’t even anything special about it. It didn’t play Ave Maria or give stock quotes or surf the Web. It wasn’t even electric. It was just a toothbrush.
Nor was the toothbrush a stocking stuffer, a gag gift, or an inside joke. The toothbrush was her father’s one and only Christmas present to her.
We pondered the meaning of this gift.
Why would a dad get his grown daughter a toothbrush, and only a toothbrush, for Christmas?
If my friend’s teeth were falling out of her head for lack of brushing, OK. But they weren’t. As is generally best with teeth, they went pretty much without being remarked upon. Unless you have had $5,000 worth of cosmetic dental work for a Farrah Fawcett smile or unless they are a color not found in nature except for that of some algae, you would not expect one’s set of choppers to come up in conversation. Hers didn’t.
So why the toothbrush?
A woman of considerable therapeutic experience, my friend concluded it was a hostile gift having to do with unresolved Freudian conflicts with a subtext of guilt her dad felt about abandoning the family when she was young. The toothbrush, she reasoned, represented both scolding (take care of yourself) and confession (I’m sorry I didn’t take care of you).
A babe in the therapeutic woods, I thought. Wow.
“It’s a toothbrush,” I said.
“Maybe,” I offered, “he found himself late at night in a 24-hour drugstore. There’s holiday music playing in the background. He starts thinking about you in that misty way we have this time of year. And maybe he thinks, I’m going to buy her a present. He’s in the aisle with the motor oil and knows instinctively he can do better than a bottle of 10W-40. He moves to the next aisle and ponders giving you a bag of Doritos. He finally figures the best he could do in this place at this late hour is a toothbrush. Beats a subscription to Muscle Car Monthly.”
She looked at me, astounded. I could almost hear her thoughts in the expression on her face: Is he joking, is he serious, or is he nuts?
“Let’s say that’s all there was to it,” she finally said. “That only explains why he bought it. Assuming he’s sane and wasn’t drunk, why did he send it?”
“Because,” I said, “people never know what to get each other for Christmas. They figure, better a toothbrush than nothing. So they give it.”
She looked at me as though someone had filled my cranium with cement.
“A toothbrush,” she said, and shook her head.
Fortunately, I am blessed with a bad memory. Otherwise, I’d be cringing constantly at the recollection of bad gifts I’ve no doubt given people over the years.
The question, then, is this: Is it better to give a bad gift than no gift at all?
At holidays, weddings, birthdays, and all the other occasions at which we’re supposed to express our affection through a trinket, I break out into a cold sweat with what-to-get anxiety. I’ll stand in an aisle, inspecting one wine gadget after another or comparing endlessly this pair of copper oil-derrick earrings to that one. I’ll schlep from store to store, hoping lightning strikes. I’ll think hard about the person for whom I’m buying, their personality, their interests, their deeper human core, and wonder what would be the perfect gift. Somehow, I usually end up with a golf ball with something lewd written on it.
What happens, I think, is that I choke. I find the right thing and decide it’s not really the right thing, so I end up giving something totally wrong instead, yet convincing myself it’s right.
Not long ago, friends came to dinner and noticed a glazed, handmade clay serving platter indented with the image of a fish. A pottery version of folk art, it is gray-green in hue, broadly rectangular in shape, and primitive in design, with uneven sides, and a short, irregular wall along its perimeter, like a pie crust with misshapen pinchings.
“That’s great,” he said. “I really like that.”
“You do?” I asked.
I showed it to his wife.
“I do, too,” she said. “I think it’s interesting.”
I paused for a moment.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Because this was your wedding present.”
They looked at me uncomprehendingly.
“We came across it in a little shop in the Outer Banks and thought immediately of you,” I explained. “We bought it as your wedding gift. But after we got home, we thought it was a little idiosyncratic. What if you don’t like it? We didn’t want you to have to do one of those deals where you put it somewhere just so as not to hurt our feelings. So we talked ourselves out of giving it to you and got you a couple of forks instead.”
“From Pottery Barn,” the husband chimed in.
I wanted to note that it really wasn’t a couple of forks. It was four. And not just four of your standard-issue forks either, but beautiful curly-handled jobs. Hardly forks at all, really. Flatware art. Flatware art that we knew set their newlywed hearts aflame, for they registered for it. Yet this exquisite tableware was more even than that. It was a symbol of our “sharing table,” as they used to say, of sharing not only meals but lives together. I wanted to add, too, that we really began to question the platter after the then-groom complained one evening that almost no one was getting them anything from their registry, which, by definition, was stuff they actually wanted.
I didn’t utter a word, however, because the point wasn’t forks or platters. It wasn’t Pottery Barn, either (although a little). It was taking a chance. We could have, but didn’t. We choked.
At least we didn’t give ’em a toothbrush.