The must-have gift this Christmas

Photo by Oleg Sergeichik on Unsplash

In 1984, there was a phenomenon that seems silly now: the Cabbage Patch Kids craze. Everyone wanted these homely little dolls with yarn hair, plastic heads and each with a unique birth certificate. News reports showed shoppers camping out overnight at toy stores to get them. Others stormed the displays that had them, triggering fights and riot conditions. Merry Christmas, I bring you tidings of great joy and peace—now get out of my way so I can get a doll to make my child happy!

At first, I was not too caught up in the craze. My first-born daughter was just 2, and her little brother was barely 1. What need did my children have for this sought-after toy? But then, while on a trip to Milwaukee from Massachusetts to visit family for Thanksgiving, the phone call came: My sister-in-law told me that she had gotten word from her sister-in-law that the store where she worked was getting a shipment of Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, and she could get us some if we came right away. I could no longer resist.

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We both jumped at the chance to get these must-have dolls. Like two spies on a mission, we ran to the car and drove 45 minutes to the store. We were told that we had to act quickly and quietly because the dolls were going to be put on the shelves soon. We met the sister-in-law of my sister-in-law near the back of the store. She handed us wrapped packages. Each contained two dolls. We clutched them tightly as we headed back to the car. One of my dolls would go to my niece in Massachusetts. The other was a Christmas gift for my daughter, who I was sure would want this after all. We were thrilled.

An occasional glimpse of the doll in my daughter’s childhood bedroom still reminds me not to get too caught up in trends and must-haves.

A few days later, my husband and I flew back to Massachusetts with our children. I was reluctant to put the dolls in our suitcase for fear that they would be taken. So I carried the two significantly sized dolls onto the plane along with my two actual children, a diaper bag and my purse. I stowed them safely in the overhead compartment. It is embarrassing to admit that I kept an eye on those dolls while we were on the plane. And I breathed a sigh of relief when I got them home.

On Christmas morning, my 2-year-old opened the present. She looked at the doll and seemed to like it, but she did not care that much about it. Why would she? She had no idea it was the toy to have. She seemed just as happy with her other gifts. And, like most little ones, she had more fun with the boxes and wrapping paper. It was a true epiphany for me. I had been so very silly, listening to the voices telling me that a certain toy would make a child happier or a holiday more special.

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The story has been the subject of much amusement in our family, but an occasional glimpse of the doll in my daughter’s childhood bedroom still reminds me not to get too caught up in trends and must-haves. It is a strong symbol of how acquiring an object can become more than just a purchase.

What really helps us connect with the people we love? What gifts do our loved ones most need from us?

Christmas is probably the holiday on which people feel the most pressure around material things.

You want to give tangible gifts to others, which is understandable. I thought that giving my daughter the doll would make her happy and I would be a better parent because she got the toy of the year. But do these items really make one’s life better or easier? The story still makes me ask: What really helps us connect with the people we love? What gifts do our loved ones most need from us?

•••

Thirty-five years later, my best lessons in giving come from my grandchildren. As my oldest grandson was learning to talk, he often called out to me saying, “Hand, hand, hand!” He would reach out with his sweet, sometimes sticky little fingers and then lead me toward something. Usually he directed me to a toy, a book or some food. And then I would look at the train or Play-Doh or Cheerios or truck book and see what he wanted. Then he would say, “Sit, sit, sit.”

He did not just want me to see the object of his great interest from afar. He wanted me at his level, right next to him, so that he could show me more closely what it was that had captured his interest. He wanted me to look at his amazing cement mixer or to squish clay with my fingers or to admire his picture—all from his viewpoint.

My grandson is open and honest about his need for love. And he instinctively knows that he will get it from me.

He wanted me to be present to him. He wanted me right there and involved. He did not want to have me looking down at his item of interest and not really paying attention. He did not want just a nod or a pat on the head from me. He did not want a small gesture from the sofa that required no effort. No, he wanted it all. He wanted me on the rug and shoulder to shoulder. He wanted me to be able to look him in the eye and understand. He wanted to get me to really see the truck or the ball or the story of an owl or the yummy snack. He wanted me to give my time and focus. He wanted me to give my commitment. He wanted me to give my love.

Of course, I gave it to him. And as I have watched him grow, I have seen that he is just a big sponge who wants to absorb love and learning. At 3½ years, he communicates much more easily now, but his message is the same. He wants me to pay attention and be with him. With his sweet blue eyes and adorable smile he asks me: “Grandma, read book? Grandma, come upstairs and play trucks?” He is open and honest about his need for love. And he instinctively knows that he will get it from me. He is clear and forthright. “I need you. I want you. I love being loved,” he says in so many ways. He is a great teacher to me about what it means to give of oneself.

One evening I was putting this same grandson to bed, and he was quite restless. I did this rarely, and he wanted the routine and comfort of his folks. His devoted parents are almost always home, but on this night I was in charge of bath, bedtime story and sleep. He had already told me with a sigh: “I miss Mommy! I miss Daddy!” I told him that I understood that he missed them, but they would be home soon. He nodded and seemed to realize that I was all he had at that moment. He sighed again.

All of us need to be loved. Sometimes we dismiss that need, but it remains.

But then he looked at me and said, “Big hug!” I complied happily and told him I loved him. This helped evidently; he fell asleep. I guess I would do for the time being, and I was glad that he settled down and settled for me as a substitute. This experience is a tender memory for me. But it is more than that. It showed me how, from young age to old age, the need for a hug, for reassurance, for love is very real. It is a powerful need that never ends.

•••

Love can be complicated and risky when you are older. You wonder if you should let another person know that you care. You wonder if it is worth making the extra effort for another. You might get hurt. You probably will get hurt somewhere along the line. Is it really better to have loved and lost? You wonder.

All of us need to be loved. Sometimes we dismiss that need, but it remains. Whether through friendship, marriage, a religious vocation or devotion to family, we desire to love and be loved. We try to fill this need in many ways, try to figure out what is good, what is enough. But most of the time it requires being vulnerable. It means asking someone to take your hand and sit. It can be amazing, but it can hurt. It truly is a mystery. And it can be hard.

Committing to love can be scary, and it sometimes seems that fewer people are willing to take that plunge. And in a world that seems busier and more hectic each day, we discover that we have less time for friends and family. How do you know when it is worth putting out your hand? I do not have a perfect answer.

But the advice I was given by a good Dominican priest in college has stayed with me. The priest was teaching a seminar on T. S. Eliot, but often the class discussion went beyond poetry. He would talk about religious life, faith and figuring out what we students were going to do with our lives. Naturally, the topic of marriage came up. He looked at us and asked: “Beyond the talk of love, what is an important question you should ask about your future spouse? Remember you are giving yourselves to each other.” Many answers were offered but several centered on the idea that you should ask if you were worthy of and committed enough toward your intended. The priest surprised us when he said adamantly: “No! What you should ask is if your intended is worthy of you. It is not arrogance. You are giving the most precious gift you can give: yourself. Do not squander it. Be sure that your future spouse is worthy of you.”

Those words have stayed with me for decades. The priest’s message was simple: Do not settle for just any life or any love. Do not think that your being lovable requires you to be prettier or smarter or cooler. You need to recognize all that you have to give to your spouse or your religious vocation or your chosen life. That good priest said love yourself and give that self away to someone who appreciates all that you are. Of course, his advice requires a good sense of self-esteem and real commitment. But it is a clear path that guides you in love. When you give your love to a spouse, a partner, family or friends, you want it to be accepted and appreciated. You do not want it to be dismissed or recognized only sometimes. You want someone who will sit with you, be present to you and truly care for you. You want someone to take your hand. You want that big hug. You want someone to sit shoulder to shoulder looking toward the God who gives us all we need.

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