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the dress

The Dress

Carefully, I folded the finished dress in tissue paper and placed it in a Macy’s box, which I covered with expensive foil, girlie birthday paper and a big red bow. I was filled with anticipation. It was my niece Karen’s birthday, and she was turning seven in 1972. She was my only niece then, and I wanted to give her something really special. I’d always felt that things you create have so much more meaning than things you buy.

Some History

When I was a girl, I wore mostly hand-me-downs from my sister whose clothes often came from an older cousin. The only time I ever got new things was for my birthday, and then they were sensible items—shoes, socks, school clothes. Only my precious Aunt Lil bought me yummy things like a silky grown-up nightgown (not flannel pajamas), a suede skirt with matching vest, a real Swag Bag (a small plaid purse, popular with teenage girls). These items were much too expensive for my parents who were raising five children. 

With this in mind, I made my niece a beautiful red velvet dress with lace trim. I worked diligently, making sure of the measurements (which I’d gotten from my sister), ironing the seams in a way that would not crush the velvet and using tiny hand stitches to attach the lace.

My sister had planned a family party for Karen, along with a few of her little friends. When I arrived at their house, I put my gift in the corner with the others already piled there. After singing Happy Birthday and eating cake and ice cream, it was time for gift opening.

At first, Karen started with the gift closest to her, opened the box and said “thank you” to the gift giver which was a friend who had given her a game she liked. The next gift was from my mother, a pair of jeans and blue turtleneck sweater. She liked this too and gave my mom a hug. She opened a few more gifts I don’t remember, probably toys from her friends. Then she kind of looked over the reminder of the pile and reached for my gift, no doubt choosing it for its fancy wrapping.

A Rude Awakening

Unlike me, Karen was a “ripper” when it came to opening presents. None of that mindful detaching of the bow, careful sliding of the fingernail under the tape, folding the paper before opening the box. No, Karen bore into it like a dog digging for a bone. When the bow was torn off and the foil ripped and balled and strewn across the room, she opened the box, tore the tissue aside and said, “Ugh. That’s ugly,” and tossed the dress aside.

I could feel the tears stinging my eyes. I told myself, She’s just a child and doesn’t know any better. But the truth is, I was more hurt that she didn’t like it than that she didn’t pretend that she did. Of course, my sister was horrified.

“Apologize. Right now!” she ordered.

But I stopped her saying, “It’s okay. She doesn’t have to like it or wear it,” and I wouldn’t let my sister pursue it. It’s true that I didn’t want her to wear something she didn’t like. Hadn’t I had to do that almost my entire life? Still, part of me wished she’d been able to pretend so I didn’t have to be so hurt.

When I talked to Karen about it recently, she didn’t remember the incident but said, “I’m so sorry, Aunt Linda. What a little brat I was.” Silly that it made me feel better to hear her say so 40 years later.

Accepting Reality

But here’s the thing. What a fool I was to assume this modern seven-year-old, first child, first grandchild would have the same wishes I’d had at her age. After that, I always considered the receiver of a gift before I bought or made anything. As a result, few people feel the need to return my gifts and are usually pleasantly surprised to get something they really wanted. It takes effort to get to know more about a person and to discover their hobbies, their favorites (food, movies, books, etc.) and other little tidbits to help choose a really good gift. And herein lies the truth: Isn’t the best gift giving that attention?

Read more by Linda Miller.

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