Bad gifts

“But he was good, Will could see that now. Not good as in obedient and uncomplaining; it was more of a mindset kind of good, where you looked at something like a pile of crap presents and recognized that they were given with love and chosen with care, and that was enough.”
– Nick Hornby, “About a Boy”

When I was nine my grandmother gave me the most disappointing gift of my life. She prepped me for weeks before Christmas about it, playing “bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a house” guessing games, conferring loudly about it with my aunt, and making me rigid with anticipation during an already stressful season. I couldn’t imagine what could be so good that people were literally more excited for me than I was.

Christmas, post-lunchtime, I was so anxious I hardly ate anything. We were in my grandma’s basement which, incidentally, used to be a Mexican restaurant and had a mural of a bullfighter and a cactus painted on the wall that scratched your arms when you walked too close. I sat at the table across from the bull. As soon as the dishes were cleared, my cousin handed me a box wrapped in red paper dotted with Christmas trees. There was clearly envy in his eyes. Obviously word had spread.

I tore the wrapping paper off to find a box with a picture of a doll on the front. The doll was a little blonde girl (like me!) holding a smaller doll like a baby. Two dolls! Pretty cool, I thought. Gift of the year? Not really. But maybe it did something…

Oh, it did. Grandma took it out of the box and turned it on. The first thing I noticed was that it was a black doll, which would have been fine except that hair braiding was definitely out due to its short Afro hairdo and I was also going to have a very hard time passing her off as my biological daughter-doll. The second more terrifying aspect was that it was mechanical and when it was switched on, it played music and rocked the baby doll in its stiff little arms while opening and closing its eyes. I hugged my grandma and thanked her, but didn’t take my eyes off that doll.

Before I even left the table I had decided that her new home would be my mom’s bedroom closet. Occasionally, one of my brothers would put her on my dresser so that when I flipped on my bedroom light switch at night, she would be staring at me from across the room. My mom claimed that once it turned on by itself and she was going to throw it away but she was afraid my grandma would find out. I would have been afraid it would have reappeared on my dresser, covered in trash, blinking at me hatefully.

The thing is, I never let on. My grandma went to her grave believing that I loved that gift, just as she should have. Because she meant well, and sometimes loving people means lying about things, even if it’s terrifying and blinking at you and rocking a dead-looking baby doll.

“I could see my mother going in Spaulding’s and asking the salesman a million dopey questions. And here I was getting the ax again. It made me feel pretty sad. She bought me the wrong kind of skates–I wanted racing and she bought hockey–but it made me sad anyway. Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”
-J.D. Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye”

It didn’t look at all like this:

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