Gifts that don’t gather dust

As Jake’s toys piled up, his mother steered neighbors and family to share their skills instead.

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It started with a simple question: “What would Jake like for Christmas?” My son, Jake, is 14 years old. His father died when he was 4. I was a widow with a child for seven years, and I recently remarried. I cannot be mathematically precise, but it feels as though the material bounty that is piled in Jake’s room has been growing because of his loss. He has politically correct toys – soft stuffed animals, sweet wooden cars from childhood, shelves piled with puzzles and board games, and now boxes of tangled wires for various electronic entertainments.

“Don’t throw anything away, Mom,” he insists. “It reminds me of my childhood.”

In fact, in the months after my husband died, condolence notes often came with “Here’s a little something for Jake” – so much so that he looked up at me one day and said, “I hate all this stuff. I just want Daddy back.”

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I can’t get Daddy back, but when a neighbor in Apt. 2-A innocently said, “What would Jake like for Christmas?” I blurted out, “Please don’t get him anything more.” But not wanting to be ungracious, I quickly added, “You’re a great cook. Why don’t you give him a coupon for a cooking lesson?”

Yesterday he came back aglow after three hours with her. “We made sautéed vegetables, homemade tortellini, and she put on different music when we made each course. Maybe I’ll be a chef.”

And so it began. The family in 9-C, who have a Burmese Mountain dog my son adores, has given him two coupons – one to help give the dog a bath and one to go with them to the vet. “I might want to be a vet,” Jake says.

The woman in 1-A works at the Metropolitan Opera and is going to take him on a backstage tour. The man in 3-B is going to teach him how to build a table.

Every week I hear of another friend who is about to lose a job. Whole fields seem to be crashing the way pieces of ice fell from the top of the freezer before frost-free was invented. 

The question of what lessons for life we will give our children feels more pressing, as well as what possible jobs really will be available to them. While there are fewer packages to unwrap for my son, I’m watching as he gets increasingly excited about life and different possibilities of work.

It’s an expanded version of “Take Your Child to Work Day.” Maybe there was something to apprenticeship in the Middle Ages. Maybe my son won’t be a blacksmith – although of course that is still a possibility – but work is out of the closet. I’ve asked my whole family to join in this new way of gift giving and even the most wary are excited about it. My brother who lives in California is a film producer and is going to take him into the editing studio next time we visit. My cousin’s daughter is a horse veterinarian in Arizona, so we’re arranging a visit to take him there. My new husband is teaching Jake to cut the grass and change a tire. His stepbrothers are teaching him how to be a brother.

It’s great to take kids on vacation, but what about showing them the world?

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