Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Receiving End

By Margaret Renkl

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Now that the number of shopping days until Christmas has dwindled into the single digits, I'm beginning to make my own wish list. Any day now my husband will start wondering what he ought to get me, and, if I'm not prepared with suggestions, he'll strike out on his own, convinced that the best gift of all is a surprising gift. It's true that being surprised is often a good thing on Christmas morning, particularly if the gift is something a person has always wanted yet never really dreamed of getting, but being startled on Christmas morning is something else altogether. I'm not sure I'm ready for another antique whaler's harpoon this year.

Ordinary gifts hold no allure for my husband, who is at heart both a non-materialist and a true romantic. There are only two things in this world that he actually cares about--his 1965 Gibson guitar and his 1972 Volkswagen bus. Everything else we own could burn up in an apocalyptic fire and he wouldn't miss any of it--not a single item of clothing, not a book, not a stick of furniture, not even the sepia portrait of his grandmother wearing her bridal gown and carrying a bouquet of lilies big enough to disguise her as part of Birnam Wood. If the children and I were safe while our house burned down, I honestly think he'd stand on the curb and watch the blaze with a peculiar, almost satisfied smile on his face. He wouldn't even flinch when the windows blew.

Being married to a true non-materialist has its advantages, but none of them comes to mind when it's time to spend money. A non-materialist like my husband is sometimes willing to exchange money for fun, but he is generally loathe to exchange money for durable goods. Why buy music, he wonders, when you can learn to play it yourself, or simply turn on the radio? Why buy books when the library will lend them to you for free, and store them as well? Why buy a new sweater when all you need to do is patch the old one or dye it a new color or cut the moth-eaten sleeves off and use it as a vest?

This attitude makes buying gifts a form of torture for my husband, because gift buying requires that a person 1. shop, 2. part with money, and 3. bring another unnecessary object into an already crowded house. In the early years of our relationship, he solved this problem by making gifts himself or by buying only the kind of gift that he couldn't rig up at home. It was a plan that yielded some startling gifts on Christmas morning.

The first year we were dating, for example, he gave me a set of cassette tapes called "How to Sing Bluegrass Harmony." We didn't know each other well enough for me to admit I find the sound of bluegrass music (which he loves) extremely irritating, even when performed by people who have good voices. To make matters worse, I am not one of those people. I was the kid in grade school who had to sit out the singing of rounds and who was always assigned to stand next to the child with the most powerful voice. If overwhelmed by a nearby person of good voice, I can sometimes maintain a melody, but I cannot--no matter how expertly instructed--sing something different from what the people around me are singing. Eventually, even the man who loved me enough to marry me and stay with me through good times and PMS had to concede defeat; he would sing his part and I would sing something that branched off in an uncharted, atonal direction. The harmony instruction tapes, a romantic idea in theory, just didn't work out in reality.

Still, I have to admit that some of his nicest gifts through the years have been entirely homemade--poems, candlelight dinners served picnic-style in the middle of our bed, 100 handmade coupons (during my first pregnancy) offering everything from backrubs to dinners out in the middle of the week to promises to take over all my turns to clean the bathroom. The note accompanying the coupon book said, "Here are some little things I can do for you while you're doing the biggest thing for us."

A woman who has even once received a gift like that has a hard time making a Christmas wish list. After someone has given you a real poem of his own composition or a hundred promises to pamper you like a big, fat queen during three full seasons of pregnancy, how are you supposed to settle for slippers or a new red sweater or even the book you're dying to read, long before it's your turn on the library waiting list?

Still, reality proceeds apace, and the truth is that the demands on free time posed by employment and parenthood, as well as the natural reluctance to offer a repeat performance of what's intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, make such unparalleled gifts harder and harder to conceptualize as the years unfold. Twelve years of birthdays, pregnancies, anniversaries, Valentine's Days, and Christmases can deplete even the most creative person's ideas for free or nearly free surprises in the romantic category. Inevitably, the day comes when such clever ideas begin to dry up like so much dust in a creekbed in July, and the dreaded question arises: "Honey, what do you want for Christmas?"

So I've been thinking, and I believe I've come up with a manageable list of wishes, none of which is very expensive and, in keeping with the non-materialist's credo, most of which are not even "things" at all:

I'd like total control of the thermostat for the duration of this pregnancy. If the phone rings during dinner, I want to let it ring. For the next 12 months, I wish to be free of even the occasional obligation to scrub dog vomit out of the rug in the den. I'd like all houseguests from now on, no matter which side of the family they come from, to be sent away after three days. I want to be permitted to shut off the evening news the very second a rapist or child molester appears on the screen. When I call my mother long-distance to ask one more time how long it takes to bake a chicken, I'd like not to see my spouse roll his eyes or hold up the cookbook I could have consulted instead. I want to eat fresh apricots all winter long, no matter how much they cost.

More than anything else, though--more than either odd presents or romantic surprises--all I really want this year is to keep the treasures I already have: my funny children, a happy home, and the lovely, fascinating man who long ago gave me every real gift I could ever wish for.

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