On the subject of getting back into the habit of buying gifts now that the economy is gradually opening up to serious post-pandemic purchasing, let me say this: It was my wife’s 59th birthday. Fifty-nine is not a “special” birthday, like 18 or 50 or 90, but it is one you want to take seriously, because it is the last year of undifferentiated humanness, the last year you are allowed to think of yourself as no different from anyone else. It is the last year anyone can, however delusionally, consider themselves not old. Fifty-nine may be the end of the beginning, but hissing, sad, sagging 60 is the beginning of the end.
In any event, 59 is not an age you want to be messing up on, giftwise. Perhaps I was out of practice, after the housebound, curbside, no-roaming-the-store-for-ideas shopping deprivations of COVID. I considered a new blender, because we need one, but you do not want to be giving someone a blender, or any metaphorical equivalent, to “celebrate” turning 59. Someone who is turning 59 wants to believe in the future, in psychological autonomy and the possibility of the unplanned. The present you give a 59-year-old should reflect those possibilities.
That, at least, was my theory. I have too many theories about gift giving. I was raised by an insecure (albeit entertaining) perfectionist and learned early on the art of anticipation, the skill of heading my accuser off with diversionary generosity before she even knew she was peeved. Darwin would have called this an evolutionary advantage. It’s a habit that readily morphs into what I wanted to believe was a talent for giving presents, because it encourages watchfulness: You take notice of what is missing in a life, what gap needs to be filled. You anticipate need. Someone struggles with sectioning a grapefruit over breakfast, you give them a runcible spoon. Your brother complains of a flyaway collar in August; in December, you give him a set of collar stays, preferably in three different but convenient lengths.
Of course, you can overdo the gift-giving ritual, rendering it borderline unseemly and craven if you try too hard to be appreciated. My mother – not that there’s any connection! – was hard to please on every level, but especially the unconscious ones. To counter her global anhedonia, my brother and I once decided to give her a fox coat for Christmas. She opened the box, plunged her hands into the fur, burst into tears, said “This is too much!” and locked herself in her bedroom for the rest of Christmas Day. She didn’t even come down for dinner. I’m still not sure who did what to whom: Did our generosity make her feel inadequate in return? Was that our fault? Did she feel that her demands (even for love) were being bought off with an expensive (and possibly less personal) gift – and that she was therefore being deprived of any possible complaint, and thus of all her bargaining power? I have no idea. The other day in the sunroom I stumbled across the book On Kindness by Adam Phillips (psychiatrist) and Barbara Taylor (historian). It’s a short but zesty analysis of the origins of generosity. “Every small child has to ensure that it has the parents it requires to survive and to grow up,” Phillips and Taylor write. “To do so, the child must be lovable enough to induce the parents to look after her. And this is where kindness initially comes in, as a bribe to the parents, an insurance policy against deprivation or neglect.”
Good to know! But it was still my wife’s 59th birthday and buying a present was difficult in the middle of Ontario’s extended spring shutdown. You had to shop online, which requires a more decisive mindset than I possess. You have to know what you want before you know what you want (which is why online shopping will never replace the in-body version, no matter what the so-called experts say). I had decided on a range of presents from me and the dog and my son (my daughter was taking care of her own). The dog had chosen to give my wife a subscription to the Flower of the Month Club – a bouquet on her birthday and a new bouquet once a month for six months following. The boy would proffer a superlight walking jacket from Arcteryx, the women’s version of one of my own my wife had taken to borrowing. Those gifts were inspired.
It was my gift that would fail. I had been casting about for a present. I surveyed a lot of jewellery, but nothing spoke to me in my price range (the jewellery I admire never does). Jewellery is a fallback gift anyway, and default gifts are an admission of defeat. Surely, I can figure out what my partner wants after living with her for more than three decades. So I told myself.
And then one morning as time was running out, in a newspaper advertisement for Gerry Weber sportswear, I saw the item I needed, the Universally Appropriate Gift: a tan linen blouse, with pink and green and white stripes. You could tuck it in or leave it out, tunic style. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t exorbitantly expensive. It looked elegant and comfortable on the model, who looked to be in her late thirties. The linen was high quality, soft and easy to wear from the start. My wife had owned a greyish-brown striped linen dress somewhat like it when we first met, but that was a miniskirt; this was a tunic. “She’ll be able to wear it,” I told myself, “to a wide range of functions.” Lesson one: If you find yourself repeating that line, you are on the wrong track, friend. You are rationalizing the gift’s lack of specific appeal.
I bought the blouse anyway, online. It’s easier to commit online: You hit the button, the deed is done. The next day, I dropped by the Gerry Weber store to pick it up. I hadn’t even rung the bell (to be served at the door) when I spotted a green and white striped seersucker jacket in the window that I thought might be a better choice. But the jacket had matching pants, and the pants – this was the giveaway – had a belt of matching material. And in that moment I knew: I hadn’t just bought the wrong gift; I was in the wrong store entirely. My wife is not a matching belt kind of woman. But the store was exchange only.
I took the linen tunic/blouse home and wrapped it in a fancy bag. As mentioned, she loved the flowers and the Arcteryx jacket. The Gerry Weber package was opened; examined closely; the tunic tried on; exclaimed over; considered. “It’s almost there,” my wife said. “I admire the effort.”
“Perhaps you can exchange it for something else,” I said too quickly. “They had a nice green pinstriped seersucker jacket. Except that it came with pants that had a … matching fabric belt.”
This information stopped my wife, as I knew it would.
“What kind of a store was it?” she asked.
I explained that it was a sportswear store, featuring the work of a German sportswear designer. Her eyebrows lifted: Perhaps the Germans are not known for their graceful and languid sportswear? I offered my impressions, that it seemed to sell clothes both young and older women wore, that the colours were bold but that the fabrics were expensive, instantly wearable, cool in hot weather. There was a branch on the verge of Rosedale. Another in toney Willowdale.
My wife thought for a stretch. “It sounds like a kind of” – she hesitated, choosing her words – “hip Talbot’s.”
Talbot’s, the well-known purveyor of classic establishment women’s sportswear. Talbot’s has a Misses department, some BIPOC models on its website and offers any number of what could, conceivably, be interpreted as youthful styles. But there is a certain leisured look to the Talbot’s website and store, and to its clothing – a look that almost invariably implies the nearby presence of a large yacht or a sprawling seaside cottage or at least a trust fund of some acreage. For my wife, who came of age in New York, worked at GQ and Conde Nast, who used to drag me after work to Azzedine Alia sample sales in tiny eighth-floor storerooms packed with women shedding and trying on and re-shedding garments as if they were trying to send an emergency semaphore message to someone across the bay, who knows her way around women’s clothes like a forensic actuary – for such a woman, a gift from Talbot’s bears a certain implication of her contentment with the status quo, an implication that is not altogether welcome at the age of 59. And to have a gift from “hip Talbot’s” is even worse, because it implies that she is aiming not just for comfy Talbotness, but that she is also secretly ashamed of Talbotism, and so yearns for the manufactured false haven of “hip” Talbotness, precisely the kind of slotting a contemporary woman of any age abhors, a woman of 59 possibly most of all.
And so I called the Gerry Weber store and said I wanted to exchange the tunic/blouse for a pair of cotton jeans my wife had approved on the website, in lime green. A few days after that the very kind woman who runs the store called me back and said she was sold out of lime green, but had two pairs in two possible sizes in the mint green. I drove my wife to the store so she could at least try on the mint pants and release me from the agony of my misjudgment.
The store was doing only curbside business, but my wife, masked, was allowed to try the pants on. I stood by the door and listened to a variety of conversation I had not heard in more than a year, since the first lockdowns – the saleswoman’s steady upselling (“Would you like a second pair in another colour as well”), my wife’s well-shielded replies (“No, I’m fine for other colours, thank you”). The routine was military, by the book. Neither took it personally. Lesson two, especially for people like me who are terrified by shopping: Don’t make it personal. Make it effective. She liked the mint pants and took them instead. But I doubt they were a garment she would have chosen on her own. They were a consolation prize to her husband.
“Well?” I said, on the way back to the car. “Was it hip Talbot’s, after all?”
My wife paused. “I’m not even sure about the hip part,” she said. My return to post-pandemic shopping will be delayed, as I take some time to recover.
Sign up for the weekly Parenting & Relationships newsletter for news and advice to help you be a better parent, partner, friend, family member or colleague.