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The gifts we give
By George A. Ricker

Around the Winter Solstice, maybe 36 years ago, I received a gift that was unexpected—a treasure I keep to this day.

It was unexpected because it came from my cousin, Dave Curry, and for the two of us exchanging presents has been a custom honored more in the breach than the observance, both then and now.

That year, Dave had money to spend and the inclination to buy gifts. Mine was a copper sailboat—or copper-colored anyway—on a stand fashioned to look like water parting beneath its bow.

A brave little ship, sloop-rigged, running before the wind with spinnaker billowing and mainsail curved in a graceful arc to make use of the air before it slips away, it has traveled with me through the sea tides and changes of my own life.

It is the only boat I have ever owned.

The very best gifts define relationships in a way few things can. Dave knew I loved sailing, knew that one of the few material possessions I really craved was a sailboat, and knew I was in no position to buy one.

His offering was an acknowledgment that he understood all that. But more than that it was an affirmation of who I was and what I was about. For me sailing was far more than a way of getting from point A to point B. It was a journey of the spirit, an experience so pure in itself that it required no external trappings like a destination.

I write in the past tense. Years have passed since I have done any sailing.

But I still have the little boat. It sits proudly on one of my book shelves, heeling gracefully before a wind that never blows, navigating among the volumes I have collected over the years, frozen in a journey with no beginning and no end.

What the gift cost my cousin I have no idea. Certainly, it wasn't extravagant in that sense. But in all other ways—all the ways that really matter—it was one of the most excellent gifts anyone has ever given me.

Another was a pen.

Judy gave it to me on the day we married, nearly 30 years ago. It’s a Hallmark pen with a wooden barrel that has darkened with use over the years, as I have tried to capture the elusive thoughts and feelings that come to me and force them into some semblance of coherence with its fragile point.

If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I have slain armies with mine.

For her and for me, it was the second time around. We had talked hard about our expectations, about the mistakes we had made once and did not want to make again.

Whatever I did for a living, I told her, I only had one vocation. It was this business of writing. Back then, it didn't pay at all, but that really didn't matter. What did matter was for her to understand how it was with me. She had to know, I told her, that no matter how much I loved her, I was already in thrall to another mistress—a bedraggled muse in tattered clothes who nagged and prodded and gave me no peace at all until I yielded to her blandishments. Could my wife-to-be live with that divided affection?

The gift answered that question. It was an acceptance that surpassed any pledges or promises. It simply said, “I understand.” In the years that have passed since, the countless hours I have spent away from her in my private world of words have never been an issue.

Like the little boat, I still have the pen. I have owned and lost dozens of others, but not that one. Never that one.

So this business of gifts and gift-giving can have an importance that transcends the value of the gifts themselves. There have been others of equal value. Books my children have given me—bound volumes of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Shakespeare's complete works, and a marvelous collection of satellite photographs of earth taken by Russian Cosmonauts and American Astronauts called The Home Planet—are gifts I also treasure.

They are gifts that have importance because of what is said, but unspoken, in the act of giving them. Because the real gift, the one that really matters, is the part of yourself that you share in the act of giving. That’s the thing with the staying power, enduring sometimes long after the bauble it was attached to has faded into dust.

Of course, not all gifts have such sentiments attached to them, and appropriately so. Many, perhaps most, are casual exchanges between acquaintances—items to be used for a season and then discarded. There's nothing wrong with that.

It’s the exceptional nature of those other treasures that makes them so important. A truly fortunate person might receive but a handful of such presents in a lifetime. But almost everyone has, at least, one or two—items that gain in value with the passage of years not because of what they are but what they represent. Conventional wisdom says it’s not the gift but the spirit in which it is given that is important. There's an element of truth in that. But those distinctions are meaningless in the gifts of which I speak for their nature and the spirit in which they are given is indivisible.

I cannot look at the little copper boat without thinking of my cousin Dave, and the friendship we have shared over the years. I cannot hold that Hallmark pen without acknowledging the love of the woman who gave it to me—a gift that was, and is, unconditional.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you will give, and receive, such a gift.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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