A Recovery Miracle: I Now Buy Gifts When I'm Supposed to

A Recovery Miracle: I Now Buy Gifts When I’m Supposed to

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This post was originally published on April 3, 2015.

Two months ago, I did the unthinkable. I was on my way to my cousin’s baby shower and it occurred to me that maybe, since I was 35, it might be time to actually look up her registry and scroll through the items on the list. As always, I’d already decided that I would show up empty-handed because I assumed everything on the list would be either already bought or out of my price range.

And with my family, registries were often out of my price range. I don’t know what it is about the Armenian genome, but we like to throw lavish bridal and baby showers at venues like the Beverly Hills Hotel, The Ritz or the Four Seasons and register for equally frivolous gifts. (Not yours truly, mind you—I’m unmarried, child-free and I have always been affectionately referred to as the “black sheep hippie cousin.”) One of my cousins once registered for an $800 cappuccino machine, and another one register for a $1300 bowl. No, the bowl was not lined with gold or a Dead Sea scroll, and yes I pondered how many mouths it could feed in Africa.

But things like $800 cappuccino machines, $1300 bowls and $200-per-fork sterling flatware weren’t the only items on those registries. There were cheaper options, even at places like Williams Sonoma and Bloomingdales—things like baking sheets, potholders and ice cream scoops that cost under $25. But somewhere along the way I chose to believe that if I showed up to the showers with one $18 potholder while everyone else showed up with big boxes of $2,000 sterling silver place settings and $800 Waterford pitchers, I’d look like a huge esheg (asshole).  Not only would I look like an asshole, but I’d feel like an asshole, a bigger ass than someone who showed up with nothing.

None of this would be a problem if gift-opening wasn’t the featured entertainment of these stupid showers. Unfortunately it is. Not only is the whole process tremendously boring (you sit there for an hour watching someone scratch the same silver or gold paper off the store-wrapped boxes to reveal a Vitamix, a crockpot, an air purifier or the oh-so-exciting set of nondescript wine glasses), but the bride-to-be announces to the whole room who brought what. It’s a terrible thing if you’re poor. If that’s not bad enough, they take pictures of the gift-opening ceremony. You are so screwed if you bought one shitty $18 potholder.

So for years, even though I could afford gifts within the $25-$50 price range, I bought nothing for my many cousins who all got married and had multiple children.

My mother didn’t help the situation. To this day, she still signs my name on the card for whatever gift she gets my aunts, my grandmother or my cousins, which doesn’t exactly help me develop adult-like responsibility. But it did help me skimp out on gifts, and I hid behind that signature until I was 35, just like I hid behind her skirt when I was four years old and meeting someone new for the first time.

Though hiding behind my mother’s signature for family bridal or baby showers and weddings was embarrassing, it wasn’t as bad as stiffing my friends out of gifts, which I did out of habit, even when I was in the wedding party. Convinced that a picture frame or a set of barbecue tongs didn’t count, I once again opted out.

But two months ago, something shifted. I just woke up. “You’re thirty fucking five, and you’ve been sober five years,” I told myself. “Get your shit together.” Thirty-five is sort of a personal cutoff for my asshole behaviors, things like expecting boys I like to return the sentiment, expecting to get a parking spot at 5 pm at Trader Joe’s on a Sunday or expecting to not get fine lines or cellulite as I approach 40. No, Tracy, at 35 you don’t let your mommy buy your cousin’s baby shower gift for you and you don’t stiff your best friends out of wedding gifts.

I looked at my cousin’s baby shower invitation and checked out where she was registered. Babies ‘R Us was one of the stores, and after perusing her list online, which was far easier than I thought it would be—I always thought the process was much more arduous than it proved to be—I discovered that there were many items she had requested that people hadn’t purchased, things like security and swaddling blankets, nursing pillows and bottle warmers (I had no idea bottle warmers actually existed). She had requested one set of water-squirting bath toys in the shape of jungle animals that came in this cute plastic zip-up carrying case for $9.95, and it looked like a substantial gift, something I could even be proud of. I could do $9.95, so I dragged my formerly deadbeat ass to the Babies ‘R Us near my house.

Babies ‘R Us is a horrific place for anyone who’s not a mom or a dad. Packed between the linoleum floor and the 50-foot ceilings was an assortment of toys, blankets, diapers, feeding instruments, belly supporters and all sorts of other pregnancy paraphernalia I would really rather not have known existed. I started feeling like an even bigger jerk. Here my cousin had to take care of a brand new human being and she couldn’t do so without a bunch of Babies ‘R Us shit. Unlike bridal showers with useless registries for crystal and silver, this woman really needed the stuff she requested.

I hunted through the store to find the $9.95 bath toys, and, when I finally found them, I was slightly disappointed. The toys looked way larger online—in person the little plastic pouch was the size of your hand. I contemplated buying a second one, the one with aliens instead of jungle animals, but I just couldn’t afford that (at the time I was working as a pastry chef in a restaurant, and the job paid $11 an hour).

After picking out those bath toys, buying a little gift bag and a bow and wrapping it all up, I felt tremendously proud, something I hadn’t expected. It was just the thought, the fact that I took time out of my not-so-busy schedule to check out the registry like a normal person and show up with a humble gift in hand, that made me feel like a contributing member of society.

In the past, my ego was so fragile that I had become more afraid of being labeled a cheapskate than hurting the mom-to-be or bride-to-be’s feelings. If people talked shit because all I bought my cousin was a bunch of bath toys in the shape of jungle animals, they could go screw themselves. I, for one, stood a few inches taller that day.

And I repeated this.

For the cousin who requested the $1300 bowl, I actually checked in with her mother, my aunt, and asked if it was okay to buy something off the registry (not from Williams Sonoma or Bloomies), because I knew I could get her a badass French rolling pin and some spatulas at the restaurant supply where we pros shopped. She wrote back with, “Of course!! Her registry is just a pie-in-the-sky wish list. Even Grandma bought something that wasn’t on the registry.”

I’m glad I had the balls to check in. Since the age of five, I thought you had to buy something off the registry, that you had to buy something over-the-top expensive. Finally, at 35, I’ve taken the pressure off myself and started to act like a decent friend and family member.

But my mother still signs my name on those cards.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.