Gifts with Hidden Agendas: Tony’s Story

Gift giving is like packing a parachute. If you don’t do it right, you’ll probably have a big mess to clean up.

A set of embroidered Pierre Cardin handkerchiefs, a book about whales, and an eighteen-piece Christmas dinnerware set from Walgreens all qualify as “bad gifts.” But “bad” is too broad an adjective.

If you’re going to survive this Christmas, you need to be able to accurately identify the enemy. You need the literary equivalent of the ruler decal next to the convenience store door. Was your bad gift about six feet tall and wearing aviators? Did it smell like cigarettes and walk with a limp?

eharmony mishapIf you’re too polite to reject the regifted socks, used Christmas tree angel shedding her glitter, or manicure kit with the yellow Dillard’s clearance sticker still on it, you should at least soak up all the details so that you can entertain friends with holiday horror stories. Making fun of your dysfunctional family helps you bury the anger and biting disappointment and convince yourself that their lack of generosity and thoughtfulness no longer affect you.

To that end, let’s begin with one of my favorites, the gift with the hidden agenda. I don’t know anyone who has ever received the legendary lump of coal. We receive more subtle reproaches or not-so-subtle hints in the form of a stocking full of breath mints or acne cream. Thanks for the Pro-Activ, Mom!

A gift with hidden agenda, reproach, or hint can be no gift at all.

Just ask Tony.

Tony forked over $550 to fly from New York City to Louisville to spend Christmas with his parents. His older sister was spending the holiday with her in-laws in Charlottesville, and he didn’t want his parents to have an empty house. His pastor had preached a good sermon about grown children needing to become givers, not takers, in their families, and he wanted to make good on a new resolution to give back to his parents.

“Merry Christmas, Tony!” they exclaimed on Christmas morning, handing him an envelope. The card was a piece of printer paper folded in half twice, and judging by the poor ink quality, they had printed it off the Internet on the circa-2001 dinosaur in the bonus room.

The picture on the front showed a tall, dark-haired man in a green sweater hugging and kissing the cheek of a slim, attractive brunette. She was smiling at the camera with all the triumph of a woman who is truly adored and finally engaged.

Tony gave an involuntary shudder.

The text inside informed Tony that someone must really want him to be happy because he now has a year’s subscription to eHarmony.

Did that imply that he was unhappy now, being single? His stomach and bowels contracted, and the familiar wave of frustration washed over him. Singleness was not a problem to be fixed, like a flat tire or leaky toilet.

“What do you think?” they ask. With their satisfied smiles and bright eyes, they resembled the people on the card. The way they unconsciously leaned forward to hear his answer, you would have thought they had him just handed him a ticket to a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean.

That would have been nice. He loved to travel.

When he visited Louisville, Tony often lapsed into an interior monologue in which he either expressed what he was really feeling: “I wish you would have given me something that took my interests and hobbies into consideration rather than something you thought would be ‘good for me,’ as though I were still a child needing constant correction.”

Tony crossed his arms. Though roughly 5 million women lived in New York, his parents obviously thought he needed a bigger field.

Toward the end of each stay, once his patience had worn thin, his interior monologue would tend more toward vicious ripostes—“eHarmony? More like eHominy. This gift sucks grits. You can stick it in your cornhole.”—or a mixture of honesty and passive-aggressive sarcasm:

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mom and Dad. Thanks for calling attention to my singleness, as though it were a character flaw or congenital disease. No, I don’t want to be introduced to ‘that lovely young woman who teaches the five-year-olds at church.’ She’s single because when her father left the family, he also left the door open to fear, anxiety, and depression. I’m single because I have bigger dreams than popping out 2.5 children before I’m 30. No, I’m not still healing from my break-up with Christina. No, I’m not gay. And now that I think about it, no, I won’t be coming home for Christmas next year. I’ll be spending the holidays with people who don’t make me feel like crap; people who sometimes even make me feel good about myself. I have a name for them; I call them ‘my friends.’ Remember earlier when you asked why I never visit? Because there’s a greater chance I’ll get mugged in my childhood home than in Manhattan, and it’s easier to buy another wallet than to protect my dignity. Merry Christmas indeed.”

Tony didn’t like the person he became when he was around his parents. Despite his best efforts, he fell right back into their idea of who he was, as though they were willing his long legs to shrink and fit his old bunk bed.

He felt deflated, taken from himself.

As he hesitated, trying to find the right words, the light faded from their eyes, and he began to feel like he was the disappointment.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll have to check it out.” He took a deep breath.

“But I really need to talk to you guys about some things that have been on my mind.” When he said it, his heart skipped a beat and pushed into his throat, but he knew that things were going to get much, much better.

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