Wishful Thinking One writer recalls the challenges of checking off the gift list of a big-hearted shopper.


Santa Claus may be the only person more generous than my in-laws during the holiday season. If their grandchildren make a list, they check it twice to ensure that holiday wishes come true. For all his joy in giving, though, my father-in-law has a few gift-getting quirks. He is all about efficiency and making lists. Nothing wrong with that. I love getting someone precisely what he or she wants.

Last year, in early December, before I could request his list, I received a long text from him around 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight. He explained that the vacuum he wanted was on QVC RIGHT NOW (he’s big on ALL CAPS). The text read how I assume the employee gift exchange at Consumer Reports is handled: model number, links to ratings and other online retailers and detailed price comparisons. The latter was for my benefit. He is always trying to save us money, a noble trait. After 25 years as part of his family, I know when to pick my battles, so I turned on QVC, shopped via TV remote and then replied “DONE” to his text. (The vacuum was a hit.)

Several years ago, my father-in-law lost a great deal of weight. By November, he needed a new wardrobe. Understandably, his Christmas list was filled with new clothes. We were all proud of his hard work and were thrilled to buy what he needed. When I asked him for his sizes, he handed me a hand-written inventory of what he had already bought. I was instructed to check off what we wanted to “give” to him from the list.

I was confused. He was already wearing these things. Did he want new ones? Did he want cash for Christmas to reimburse him for what he had purchased? No and no, he assured me.

On Christmas Day, my husband’s family arrived at our house for dinner and to exchange gifts. Still unclear on the protocol surrounding his gift requests, I had nothing under the tree for him, as instructed. I did, however, have several twenties wadded in my pocket to palm him Tony-Soprano-style when we sat down to dinner.

As we pulled gifts from under the tree and amassed unwrapped piles at our feet, we noticed several packages piling up around him. Odd, since we had all “shopped” from his list, thus no packages or cards. What made it even more bizarre is that my father-in-law does all the wrapping for himself and my mother-in-law, so his presents in his pile were ones he had wrapped.

He tore into the first package with the glee of a preschooler. Its contents? A pair of tan chinos from my husband, me and our sons. Yes, these were slacks he had purchased weeks earlier and had been wearing and laundering up until the point at which he had wrapped them. The best part was watching him feign surprise with the opening of each “gift”— shirts, pants, a jacket, sneakers — he had selected from his closet while exclaiming, “This is just what I wanted!”

I don’t remember exactly when or how we gave him the money for his “gifts.” At the time, it was definitely Yuletide in the Twilight Zone, so perhaps I am suppressing the exact transactional details. What I do remember is how thrilled he was with what he received and how happy it made him to open presents. And every Christmas, it makes us just as happy to re-tell this story. It’s a family favorite that always brings a laugh, especially from my father-in-law. (The greatest gift he gives his family is not to take himself so seriously.)

The next year, No. 1 on his wish list was underwear. I skipped straight to No. 2.

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