A Present-Less Marriage Filled With Loving Gifts

It took me a long time to understand the difference between a present and a gift. For years, I thought of the two as the same thing.

I grew up in a household where presents marked special occasions. There was always a beribboned box for each of us under the tree at Christmas or at our place at the table on our birthdays. Additionally, Dad always gave Mom something each Valentine's day and anniversary - cards, a box of chocolates, some token, eagerly offered. He loved to shop and would carefully plan his excursions to find just the right thing - a sweater in "her color," a velvet skirt for Christmas, some flattering expansion of her wardrobe.

I often accompanied him on these shopping expeditions. His joy in the hunt was infectious, proof of the pleasure of giving and of his love for her. I came to see these presents as the desirable norm, the tangible expression of a husband's devotion, their absence a visible lack.

So when I married a man who did not give presents on a regular basis, it was an adjustment. I wrestled with my ingrained expectations. Gary did not wholly eschew gift-giving. Sometimes he would return from sea armed with a brown paper bag inside of which was something he had found that reminded him of me - a meat cleaver on our first Christmas, a paring knife on our fifth. Once, in acknowledgment of how many hours I spend on the telephone - for both work and pleasure - he brought home a shoulder pad for the telephone receiver. But mostly, he ignored holidays, refusing to shop for a thing to present to me as a sign of his affection.

I could not reconcile this present-less marriage with the one I had grown up observing. I tried to change him by example. I knitted him sweaters, socks, hats, and gloves for Christmas; made him shirts; and bought books for his birthdays. He appreciated the caring these gifts represented, but refused to reciprocate in kind.

I dropped hints. They fell on deaf ears. I pouted, complained, explained, and ranted. Nothing changed.

I began to tell him what I wanted, giving specific instructions. When Gary left for the local auction one Saturday (my birthday, as it happened), I asked him to find me a piece of jewelry, a bracelet or diamond earrings, as a birthday gift. He came home with a road scraper. I was stunned that he had missed the mark by so much. He attached the rusted blade to the back of the ancient tractor, then enthusiastically showed me how to use it, oblivious to the fact that I was not grateful.

But when the blizzard hit later that year and he was at sea, I used the road scraper to plow out both our drive and our neighbor's, thinking, as I rumbled along, how useless earrings would have been. Gary had wisely chosen not the thing that I wanted, but the thing that he knew I would need.

It was then that I finally realized that he had been giving me gifts all along. He would not be cajoled or coerced into handing over a scheduled token, an arbitrary tax on his affections. But the gestures, large and small, born of his caring and concern for me, for our children and for our lives together were the gifts that he gave daily.

His teaching me to manage my own earnings was a means of ensuring my capability and independence, a gift that bore other fruit when I used it to help my father sort out his tangled affairs.

Gary encourages my work, makes obvious his pleasure in our time together, willingly cooks, runs errands, does laundry, vacuums, and chauffeurs the children - gifts to the whole family, and an expression of our partnership.

The day before he leaves for sea, he stacks a month's worth of firewood against the chimney outside my office, and a week's worth inside, a labor of time and effort that frees me of a disliked, time-consuming, but absolutely necessary chore.

We struggle to teach others how to love us. In that struggle, we often forget how to appreciate the love they already give us as only they can give it. There are two parts to a gift - the giving and the accepting. Neither can be dictated.

I finally began to understand the difference between a present and a gift. A present is a thing. But a gift is broader and often intangible. It is small acts of kindness, the willingness to bend to another's needs, the sacrifice of time and effort. Love is a gift. Any expression of it, freely given, is an offering from the heart that is immeasurably better than a present.

My insistence on presents must have seemed to Gary a lack of appreciation for the gifts he had been giving all along, but he never stopped giving them.

Gary will be home this Christmas, but I don't expect a present. I already have the greatest gift.

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