There’s an unspoken expectation amongst children – that grandparents often give gifts with little fanfare attached to them.
They aren’t wrapped in fancy paper or oversized packages – eliciting a feeling of wonderment and excitement in a child’s eye. No, they’re referred to as “practical gifts” – such as clothing or money – offered in small, flat boxes and ordinary white envelopes.
And while parents often rightfully encourage their children to show their appreciation, no youngster really enjoys getting a shirt or a twenty-dollar bill on birthdays and holidays.
The practicality of gift-giving is further refined as children grow into young adults – the small, flat boxes disappearing completely and replaced with that ordinary white envelope your grandmother typically pulls from her purse. Yes the monetary gift is appreciated at an age of costly independence, but there’s still little wonderment or excitement associated with its receipt.
The reality is that the older we get, the more difficult it becomes to identify gifts that are truly meaningful and memorable for those receiving them. Eventually the act transforms into nothing more than an exchange of goods – an automatic and material tradition carried out with little question of its actual purpose.
With today’s instant gratification society buying their own “presents” rather than waiting for special occasions to arrive on the calendar, it seems the entire gift giving scenario has somehow gotten off course.
I too had adopted this rather pessimistic interpretation of gift giving – one filled with unending stress, while emptying your wallet at the same time. That is until I’m reminded of the special gift I received back in the spring of 1991 when I turned 22 years old.
My birthday often translated into a quiet celebration at home with my immediate family, a favorite meal of my choosing and a 10” layer cake decorated with a handful of multi-colored candles, which stopped corresponding to my actual age when I was eight.
On this particular birthday, I remember my grandparents had barely gotten through the front door before grams was rummaging through her purse for, you guessed it, that ordinary white envelope with my name scribbled on the outside.
My expectations were partially correct. However, behind that twenty-dollar bill was something else – a sheet of white stationary adorned with the AARP logo prominently at the very top.
For those unfamiliar with the abbreviation, AARP stands for America Association of Retired Persons. My grandparents certainly fit their membership criteria, and were prominent, active members of their local chapter for many years.
It turned out to be a letter from my grandfather – no doubt typed by my grandmother, a longtime secretary and lover of the now antiquated machine she created it on. And while he was a more than capable writer, it still surprised me that he authored this letter.
My grandfather was a quiet, reserved and serious man who rarely expressed his emotions outwardly. He was an intellectual, a wiz with crossword puzzles and numbers, but also possessed an incredible artistry I’m proud to say I’ve inherited.
The opening line read, “Recently it was suggested that to bridge the generation gap between the older and younger Americans, we (the older Americans) should write letters to our children and grandchildren. So I have chosen you as the first recipient of messages from your elders.
Memory brings back thoughts that have long remained dormant. There was a question as to your survival before birth, but that was soon dispelled after you were placed on this earth. You were a pleasant child with an ever ready smile. The same smile is always in evidence even today. You were even then making scenery and presenting your creative version of television game show programs.
As I said, my grandfather found it difficult to express his emotions to those around him, and yet I could feel his honesty and sincerity in this typed letter.
“As you grew older you faced all roadblocks with a firm control of emotions. You overcame all the bumps and continued on your way. Now as you become a mature person, faced with grownup tasks and duties, your attitude will undoubtedly help you along.”
It’s been about two decades since I received that special gift from my grandfather. The above passages are just a sampling of the letter I’ve read countless times over the years – whenever I need a little reminder that there are people out there who love me without conditions.
I’ve come to treasure that piece of AARP stationary, not because of what it says necessarily, but because someone thought enough of me to take the time to compose it. I’m not sure why he chose me for this experience, but to my knowledge I was the only one in my family who ever received this invaluable honor. The letter concludes:
“I am so proud of your accomplishments, past and present, and look forward to many more scores in the future. My prayers go out to you that you will become part of the world that your aspire for. Your talents are undeniable and I hope that timing and luck will be on your side. Great days are ahead. Have patience and determination and above all never, never lose the ambition to try harder and to go further. I’m rooting for your success. I love you dearly. Gramps.”
American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” In truth the fanfare surrounding material gift-giving is simply irrelevant. My grandfather’s letter continues to serve as a profound reminder that the individuals whose “presence” we so often take for granted are the only “presents” we’ll ever truly need in life.
The next time you find yourself stressing over the gift giving process, just grab a piece of paper and an ordinary white envelope and tell someone just how much they mean to you. The worst regret one can have at the end of one’s life is assuming people already know.