November 2019

A Lazy Gift Giver

Lessons from the Coat My Mother Bought Me

By Erik Lewin

Let’s face it: the holiday season is a gift giving spectacular for those who celebrate Christmas. But as an adult Jewish fellow, without kids, I hadn’t celebrated Hanukkah for many years.

Without an annual holiday to spur me to action, I’d grown lazy as a gift giver. It became clear that my sensitivity to the art of gift giving had long been blunted. Thus, the need to provide a gift, at any time, struck me as an afterthought, a duty to fulfill. For example, when invited to an event and people would say, “just bring yourself,” I actually took them at their word. When a gift was absolutely required, I tended to clumsily re-gift an unopened toaster, or succumb to the quick fix of wilted flowers from the market. It’s surprising that guests would continue to have me over at all!

As far as Hanukkah was concerned, if children were present, I’d happily give the traditional golden, chocolate coins, otherwise reserved as currency for hobbits. But that was it. I don’t imagine too many other people, Jewish or otherwise, were this inept in providing gifts. Actually, I fear this writing is starting to sound more like a confession!

When I was a little boy, I loved Hanukkah. We’d say the prayers and light the candles of the menorah. My mother would then play the Mickey Mouse Hanukkah record in our living room, and we’d dance to Mickey’s song renditions of the legend of Judah Maccabee. It may sound strange, but that collection of songs perfectly captured the holiday spirit. I waited impatiently each night to find the next gift to unwrap. It may have been a pair of socks, or a sweater I didn’t want to wear to school, but it hardly mattered. The lessons learned about the Jewish plight, the miracle of the oil lasting, and sharing in this celebration with my mother was what really mattered.

Unfortunately, as the years went by and I grew into adolescence, we celebrated Hanukkah a little less each year. It had been a long time since the words of Mickey Mouse celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah echoed within me. I had all but lost the sense of the holiday season, much less given thought to the joy of giving. But things would change.

A number of years ago, my mother and I were walking in New York City on a glacially numbing December evening. We reminisced about the old days, when I was her little boy, and when we joyously observed Hanukkah. As fate would have it, we found ourselves in the city’s famous garment district and soon came across a small coat store. My mother suddenly announced she wanted to buy me a new coat. At that moment, the discharge from my runny nose had practically frozen on my face, so I didn’t object to the suggestion.

The store was quaint, with well-crafted, handmade coats, though empty of customers. A friendly, older European man invited us to see his shearling collection, a special type of coat known for being quite luxurious. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to be sizing up such an exquisite garment, made from the fur of well-fed sheep, or other animal hair, from a faraway land. My mother was determined to find the right one, and as no one else was shopping in the store, we had the man’s complete attention.

He eagerly measured and fitted me while I tried on several coats. I felt uncomfortable, not sure that I necessarily wanted one of these lavish shearlings, but my mother was insistent. She twirled me around to her satisfaction, finally proclaiming one beige and tan coat the winner. When she said, “we’ll take it,” the elderly man’s pleading eyes almost teared, as if to say these two Jews had just saved Christmas! It was a pleasure to give the store a nice sale.

I wore the shearling coat that night. It made my mother beam to see me in it. The timing happened to coincide nicely with Hanukkah approaching, and in the winter cold, it felt like a true present. It looked pretty sharp on me, too, according to the girls at school! I’d almost forgotten how nice it felt to acknowledge Hanukkah in some way.

My mother passed away not long after that. I moved around quite a bit, alone and unsettled. I’d also lost track of the coat. It was a season of loss. Needless to say, it was a great struggle to protect myself from the harsher realities of life at that time.

When I reflect on these events, I certainly don’t bemoan losing the coat itself, as much as I liked it. I remember with gratitude how my mother thought of me that night in the garment district. It truly was the thought that counted; my mother wanted to give something lovely to her son, to literally provide me with comfort. The coat was a perfect protection for the elements, but it was my mother’s love that provided the real warmth.

I have tried to absorb this insight into my everyday affairs. It’s never about the gift itself, but rather the care, the depth of love shared. It needn’t be a grand purchase – it can take the form of almost anything.

To that end, even if I’m in a CVS nowadays, I might see an item I think my fiancé’ would appreciate. I noticed, for example, that she could probably use an electric massager for her sore neck – so I picked it up, along with my Skittles. My fiancé’ was surprised and filled with gratitude when I brought it home. I’m also thankful that, to her credit, she values a well-meaning, if not humble offering.

This example may sound insignificant, or perhaps more meaningful if the gift was from say, Tiffany’s (sometimes it is), but I don’t think so. It was the thought of her that counted, especially in such an otherwise innocuous setting. It’s the effect of naturally considering others. In fact, the giving of gifts transcends the material, incorporating kindness and thoughtfulness in all forms. There is also no limit to days on the calendar for this – it is always time to be aware of the people we love. Moreover, such consideration may be extended to anyone with whom we interact.

I still don’t always give wonderful gifts on holidays; somehow, I’m still woefully inadequate at it. I don’t scour the stores on someone’s birthday for the newest digital device, nor do I possess such discerning taste as to be heralded as an incomparable gift giver. Yet, no matter what day it is, or wherever I may be, I am apt to consider, this would be perfect for a loved one. In this way, I find, people stay close with me all the time.

These ideas are humbly offered as lessons learned by a reformed, lazy gift giver. The wisdom and beauty gleaned from my mother continues to last as miraculously as the oil itself, beyond the eight nights of Hanukkah. There is magic in each of us, in every encounter and challenge, if only we are receptive and courageous enough to partake of it.

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