Gift-giving ninja, I am not. I’m well intended and I try hard but I’m not one of those people who just seems to know how to find the perfect gift. I think it’s partly because I am super picky about what gifts I like to get and I overthink everything so instead I am the queen of the gift card. And socks. I give a lot of socks because I figure pretty much everyone wears them, right? Plus they come in fun colors, are comfy and one size fits most.
But there was one time I gave the perfect gift, one that sent the giver into such a state of ecstasy she jumped up and down screaming in joy. Want to know what this gift of all gifts was? A Three Musketeers Bar. And a dollar bill.
My Aunt Barbara, affectionately called Bobs by her six siblings, loved three things in life: Dollar bills, Three Musketeer candy bars and Pepsi. Once she’d fed the dollar bill I’d given her into the Pepsi machine and claimed her cool blue can, she’d completed the trifecta of awesome and we all settled in for an evening of watching The Sound of Music on repeat – her favorite activity. And considering I loved all of those things too, it was perfect.
My Aunt Barbara in the middle with my grammy and my very young father! (I think this pic was taken somewhere around 1980?)
This little ritual was repeated any time we visited her but most notably at Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, so the tradition went, my dad loaded all of us up into our brown station wagon and we made the trek to Aunt Barbara’s group home. And we never showed up without bearing her three favorite things. My brother and sister and I would argue over who got to hold what but in the end it didn’t matter as the first thing she did when she saw us was to start frisking us looking for the goods. Once she’d eagerly swooped them all into her possession she’d look at us with glowing eyes and squeal with glee. “Oh, Tah!” she’d gush to my dad (whose name is Tom), giving him a sly wave that said oh you shouldn’t have! But of course we should have – we knew she expected it of us! And her joy totally gave her away.
Which was why she was so fun to give stuff to. Delighted by these three small things, every single time; Aunt Barbara never changed, never grew tired of the ritual. But we did. As us kids grew older, she stayed locked in her same small world. By age three we knew more words than she did. By eight we became cognizant enough to notice that no other adults squealed when they got a candy bar. By 12 we were taller and stronger and instead of being as enraptured by the pop machine as she was, we learned to help her figure out the right way to put the dollar in. By 15 I was over it. Or so I thought.
My Aunt Barbara had Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome , a rare condition present from birth characterized by a grouping of symptoms including short stature, broad thumbs and toes, distinctive facial features and, most notably, an IQ between 30 and 80. (“Normal” IQs are 85-115). To be clear: It wasn’t that I didn’t love her. I learned early on, watching the tender way that my father cared for her, how special and beautiful she was. It was more that in my teenage idiocy I allowed my love for her to be clouded by my annoyance at her constant flapping, my inability to understand her speech, my dislike of the strange antiseptic smell and stranger noises of the various homes she lived in, and my fear of her otherness. I wanted to spend my Christmas Eve at home drinking hot chocolate and bugging my parents to let me open just one present, like every other kid I knew, instead of hanging out and playing rule-less checkers with her roommates who were also disabled.
At 15, I thought I was too cool for lots of things, not just my Aunt. I was wearing a lot of black at that time, having just entered into my wishing-I-was-a-pretty-Goth-like-that-girl-from-Evanescence phase. I was introverted, geeky, withdrawn and completely at a loss with what to do with ALL the FEELINGS. Looking back, I think I was probably in the beginning of my first major depression. But that can be hard to differentiate from the normal angst of the awful that is teenagehood.
At any rate, the last place I wanted to be Christmas Eve was in a dingy rest home with people who had as little control over their bodies as I felt like I had over my emotions. My stomach growled as we walked up the icy steps, the residents already excitedly crowding at the windows to see who was coming. As we entered my dad started his shtick of pretending to have forgot Bobs’ gifts, patting down his pockets and saying loudly “Where is that dollar bill? Maybe I left it home?” I remember rolling my eyes. I ignored Aunt Barbara’s growing excitement as she declared “Yah!” meaning that she knew he had it somewhere. At last he triumphantly presented her with the dollar and my mom gave her some other small gifts – underwear, a new toothbrush, a toy. Then I dropped the candy bar into her hands almost as an afterthought, so quickly I barely noticed her jumping up and down and clapping with joy.
But I had more important things to worry about, namely trying to figure out how many calories were in the sandwich I was going to have to eat with my family when we stopped at Subway on the way home. Like we always did on Christmas Eve. Lame. If I take off the meat and ask for fat-free cheese… no olives of course…do they have fat-free mayo? I could have one teaspoon…only eat the bottom half of the bread, it’s thinner than the top…extra jalapenos, they burn calories…lots of lettuce, get tons of lettuce…
Did I mention this was in the height of my first iteration of my eating disorder? Yep. I hadn’t eaten all day knowing that there would be our family dinner where we’d be the only people in the Subway except for the lone sullen teenager who’d gotten sucked into working the holiday. My parents would make me eat something. Plus, there was all the candy in my Christmas stocking to worry about the next day! Not to mention all the rich holiday foods! Maybe I could feign a stomach ache and get out of Subway?
Aunt Barbara interrupted my reverie with a sharp elbow to my ribs. She was never one for subtlety. “Baby?” she asked. I nodded. For some reason, she always remembered that my parents had had one baby – me – and then forgot about the rest of my siblings. I gave her a grouchy hug and sighed, “Yes, I’m baby Charlotte.” She grinned, breathing heavily in my face. She loved baby Charlotte. Grabbing my hand, she dragged me around the room, showing me off to her friends like a new toy. I recoiled, trying to draw into myself, make myself smaller, tinier, thinner.
At last we settled down on her bed to watch, yes, The Sound of Music. To this day I can still say every word of that musical right along with Julie Andrews. As I watched Leisel bound around the benches in the gazebo belting “You are sixteen, going on seventeen!”, I envied her tiny waist. Even Julie Andrews, the ostensible nun, was lithe as a reed in her chaste nightgown, hauling Leisel in over the windowsill. My stomach growled again and my head felt hazy.
“Take it.” Aunt Barbara had to repeat it three times before I noticed that she was shoving her Three Musketeers bar at me. “Take it!”
“You want me to open it for you?” I asked, bewildered. This was not part of the ritual. And frankly, she never had a problem opening packages. The candy was usually gone within the first few minutes of our arrival.
“No! You!” It became clear to me in that moment that she wanted to give me her beloved candy bar, the one I’d just given her, the thing she loved almost more than anything else. And as she shoved it towards my mouth I realized she wanted me to eat it.
“Noooo,” I said, pushing it back at her. “It’s yours!”
She put it in my hand and pushed it back to me. My stomach growled louder and the saliva pooled in my mouth, just from holding food. I wanted to give it back to her. I wanted to eat it. I wanted to go home. But as I looked around at the dozen or so adults who were disabled I realized that I wanted to stay there with her forever because it was the one place where it was 100% guaranteed that nobody cared a whit what I looked like or what I weighed. I was lucky I had a body that worked. I was blessed to be able to have the motor skills, mental capacity and wherewithal to basically do whatever I wanted.
And right now I wanted to eat the candy bar.
Barbara watched me as I gingerly took a bite, nodding as I smoothed the silver wrapper back just so. At first I was self-conscious, nibbling just the thin chocolate layer on the outside. But when I noticed that she had returned her full attention to Captain Von Trapp and the Von Trapp Family Singers, I ate with abandon. She didn’t care. Nobody there cared. So for one brief, bright moment I didn’t care either. And it was so, so good.
We drove home not much later. I ate the sandwich at Subway, Barbara’s gift temporarily granting me sanity. I even smiled as my dad sang loudly. I was happy being there, in a fast food restaurant on Christmas Eve, with my family. I was happy I’d gotten to see Barbara, to watch her face light up just like it did every time we walked in the door. I’d thought the ritual was boring. But I was wrong. It was beautiful.
In the years since then my dear Aunt has died, gone back to my grandmother’s arms and my grandfather’s smile. She outlived all predictions by the doctors and much longer than one would expect given her diet of Pepsi and chocolate. I know she wasn’t always happy – she was a whole person with all the complexity that entails. And I’m sure my dad would tell this story differently. He spent so much more time with her, caring for her almost daily for years. I’m sure he saw her sad and angry and frustrated. I know she could throw an impressive tantrum, especially when it came to dental work. But what I remember most about her is that look on her face every time she saw us – the one frozen in time for me from my 15th Christmas. It said she only expected good things from us. She had so much trust and faith in us that it didn’t matter how long it had been since the last time we’d seen her or what we looked like or how we felt, she knew we had something wonderful to give her.
In my mind, she’s preserved in an amber bubble of joy and expectation. All those years ago I’d given Barbara the best gift she’d ever gotten (even though it was the same one she’d gotten 70 million times over) and in return, she’d given me the best gift I’ve ever gotten: She always expected us to be good and because she expected it, we were. She taught me to always expect the best of people. Make them prove you wrong. And then be overjoyed when they don’t.
So for Day 2 of Operation Give a Little: Give Someone the Benefit of the Doubt. This could take lots of forms. Assume people like you (I’m always amazed at how many people walk through this world with the general assumption that most people wouldn’t like them – I understand it but it breaks my heart). When the homeless man asks you for money, don’t automatically assume he’s going to spend it on booze or drugs. When your child empties out every single one of their toys, don’t assume they did it to be naughty. When someone steals your parking spot, give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t see you sitting there with your blinker on. Maybe they were talking on the phone to their mother.
When you meet someone new, expect beautiful things from them. Make them prove you wrong. And then be overjoyed when they prove you wonderfully right.
For myself, I got to do this several times today. The first was in the $*(&$% drop-off line for school in the morning. I’m not usually prone to rage and especially not to road rage but nothing makes more rage-y than the insane chaos of the school zone in the morning. Today was case in point: I’d been waiting several minutes just to get to the front, already biting my nails that my kids were going to be late and get yet another tardy, when a woman in a huge SUV swooped in front of me, blatantly cutting me off. Ignoring everyone else – and all the small children in the area – she careened to the front of the line to drop off her kid. Steam started to come out of my ears as she then held up the whole line to have a 5-minute conversation with her little guy.
But then I remembered Aunt Barbara. And I gave her a break. I imagined that maybe she was late to catch a flight. Or new to the neighborhood. Or maybe her son had special needs, like my aunt, and required a very specific drop-off routine full of reassurance. Or maybe she was an entitled jerk. But – and here’s the really cool part – it didn’t matter! I felt my anger drop off my shoulders like so much dead weight the second I gave her the benefit of the doubt. True my kids were tardy. But there are worse things in life. And even though she didn’t even know I’d forgiven her (and I don’t know she would have cared if she did), I was smiling and singing by the time we got to the front of the line. I was able to give my kids a happy hug and blow kisses good-bye, which in the end is more important to their well-being than being perfectly on time but with a stressed out mom. So it was a gift to my kids as well.
So now it’s your turn! Today, give someone the benefit of the doubt. Expect good things from people. Don’t assume they’re thinking the worst. This may actually be something you say out loud to someone – “Hey, no worries!” when they bump you and spill coffee on your sleeve – or it may just be in your heart like it was for me. Either way, it feels wonderful! I can’t wait to hear about how it works for any of you who want to join me!
So what’s the best gift you’ve ever given? Are you a good gift-giver? (And if so, what’s your secret?) Do you say it “aunt” that rhymes with “want” or “aunt” that rhymes with “can’t”? I think it’s a regional thing?