A few weeks ago, with only four days to go before a wedding shower I was to attend, I realized I hadn’t bought a gift. I looked at the couple’s wedding invitation and saw they were registered with both Amazon and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It was easy. In less than five minutes I’d located their list on Amazon, bought something in my price range, and chosen shipping and payment options.
I might not have thought twice about this mundane transaction had I not, later that exact same week, come across a list of the wedding presents my first husband and I had received when we got married in the early 1980s. I don’t remember saving the list. The yellowed pages with faded blue ink smelled of mildew from long storage in a New Jersey basement. My sister’s youthful handwriting instantly took me back to that gift-opening party we shared with immediate family all those years ago.
The joke we told each other in those days was, “How many crockpots did you get?” Most couples in our circle didn’t set up a registry. It was something better-off families did at what we considered high-end department stores like Harris’ and Broadway in San Bernardino, the nearby “big city.” The rest of us just crossed our fingers and hoped the potluck of gifts we opened would help furnish a decently balanced starter household.
If you received a wedding or shower invitation back then, saying yes meant you were committing yourself not just to the expense, but also to the time, effort, and creativity of buying a gift. Some people tended to give the same thing to about every couple. My mom favored stainless steel bowl sets. Others took greater risks and bought presents that played off something special they knew about each couple.
The list I found shows that most of what we got fell into the safe, practical category: a kettle, blender, mixer, sets of baking pans, cookie sheets, dozens of towels and sheets, and almost miraculously just one crockpot.
But there were the bolder choices: a pewter creamer and sugar bowl set, an inlaid-abalone vase from Vietnam, a dramatic glass salad bowl at least three times the size of any I’d seen before, a delicate glass pitcher perfect for breakfast juice (or sangria for two, I discovered later), and an exquisite ceramic quiche dish. I have and love all these pieces still.
What startled me was seeing that a few gifts actually launched my husband and/or me into new, lifelong passions we otherwise might never have pursued. His grandparents gave us a handmade patchwork quilt—“grandma’s garden” pattern in gentle pastel colors. It was love at first sight for me. I’d sewn my own clothes and dabbled in cross-stitch, knitting, and crocheting, but I’d never considered making patchwork or appliqué quilts. Within a year after our wedding, I started trying my own quilts. I mastered a few easy patterns, then broke away and started making my own designs and combining patterns as needed. Over the last three decades I’ve made a couple of dozen quilts, each giving me hours of in-the-zone joy as I played with colors, shapes, prints, and textures.
One friend gave us two original orange crate labels from the long-gone orange groves that had dominated the acreage in our hometowns in Southern California. Labels were glued onto the narrow ends of wooden orange crates to identify where they came from, and unused stacks of labels had been thrown carelessly into nooks and crannies of barns and warehouses, where they were discovered decades later. These antique lithographs pulled us into their tiny paradisal landscapes of sunshine, snow-capped mountains, and rows of orange trees nestled in lush green valleys. The notion that such colorful and elegant designs had been part of everyday transactional commerce fascinated the budding cultural historians in both of us. This pair of labels whetted our appetite for more. During the year before we moved to New Jersey, we spent many happy hours in antique stores combing through dusty boxes of labels and buying new favorites. After moving East, we had to use catalogs and mail order to fill in our collection. Several rooms in my house today are decorated with original orange crate art, and the labels still make me smile.
One of my college professors gave us two classical LPs, one with a Mozart concerto that became one of my all-time favorite works to listen to (I write about it here). We also got five different vegetarian cookbooks, titles I hadn’t known before. Two of them, by Anna Thomas and Sally Pasley, became indispensable to me in the kitchen for a couple of decades.
Most of the 100+ gifts we received are long gone, having served us well until they broke, wore out, or were given away when we had to have something bigger or better.
The gifts that had the most staying power were those we didn’t know we needed or wanted. Sometimes others know best. Or, at least, they know different. I’ve noticed over the years that the outfits my sister and husband buy for me aren’t ones I would have chosen for myself but often become my favorites. Other people can see potential where we can’t. They take greater risks for us than we do for ourselves. What we each know and prefer is like what we can see by the light of a campfire. What’s beyond the blaze that might be perfect for us can only be seen when the sun comes up and illuminates the whole world of possibilities. It’s other people who bring on the sun.
I like the idea of crowdsourcing the future for a couple-to-be. It’s hard to imagine any but the oldest souls forgoing a wedding registry in favor of a trust-the-universe approach. So I won’t hold my breath. But just once I’d like to get a wedding invitation that, instead of listing where the couple is registered, reads, “Surprise and inspire us with unique things we’d never think to ask for.”