Last Saturday proved difficult. Friends came for tea and on arrival gave me a present. I unwrapped it and thanked them but hesitantly. I am not normally ill at ease but in these gift situations the feeling is a famliar one. Rarely a month goes by without gifts changing hands, so, in addition to the sort of awkwardness that Saturday brought, problems can occur with the flowers, chocolates or wine given by guests at more formal meals, birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas (or Diwali or whichever); and of course when presents are given for no other reason than to celebrate close friendships.
In these exchanges, both the giving and receiving are important and I am much happier with the giving part. It is the receiving, the unpacking, the thanking, where my difficulties arise. Some people have the knack completely. Alice, an old family friend, was a model recipient. She had an innate understanding of the theatre of unpacking. Not too fast, and, usually, not too slow, and all the time taking into account the interests of the giver and his or her investment in the present. The way she would lovingly open a gift made and wrapped by a child was a poem. She was a master of facial expressions and the sighs of gratitude. And when the last bit of wrapping fell away she knew exactly how to examine the gift, and then what to say. Moreover, for years afterwards she could remember who gave her what. All a far cry from my mother who, if it did not suit her, would ask for the receipt so that the gift could be returned.
The moment when the nature of the gift is revealed particularly floors me. I can just about manage presents that have immediate appeal or are from people I know well. Unlike Alice, however, I am usually fazed by presents, even the ones whose purpose is obvious. On Saturday it was an Unidentified Knitted Object. And in such circumstances receiving is pretty tricky for me.
But my failure to thank the giver properly or to appear grateful, does not mean that presents aren’t treasured. And the pleasure I get from the best gifts is due a lot to their capacity to rekindle the memory of the giver(s), allowing me to recollect them anew. A reaction that can last for years.
At the moment, whenever I see on my wrist a bracelet from my wife, her image appears with great warmth. When I use the no-nonsense umbrella from one son, a particular vase from another or the elephant-shaped umbrella stand from the third, their smiles spring to mind. Each time I use my French dictionary with its special dedication or the lovely black ballpoint pen with its tiny snowdrop motif, their faces are again conjured up. And there are many more. But this sort of reminder can also trigger a much broader sentiment. The maple tree given by students and former colleagues brings memories not of anyone in particular but to the idea of them all and our common past.
As I age, the giving and receiving of presents is ever more special and despite the hiccup last Saturday, the receiving side is getting easier. It is the gifts that later bring warm personal memories that are particularly treasured, something I am only a just beginning to realise.