“People who like sweet things are people who want to be happy.” — Kim Mi Young, Fated to Love You, Ep. 2
I like extravagant gifts: costly travel, pricey meals, good wine, undivided attention, genuine laughter at a joke I’ve made, forgiveness. I don’t often get those things and when I do, typically, I give them to myself. This is, in part, because grown-ups told me, when I was small, that it’s impolite to ask for gifts, immodest to carry myself as though I expect or deserve them, imprudent to confess aloud that I desire them.
I come from a line of women unaccustomed to getting what we want, unaccustomed to granting ourselves permission to voice our desires. We have never known what could be asked for without the answer of a scold or denial, without the answer of silence or a promise unfulfilled. My grandmother, a middle child among ten siblings; my mother, the only child of a single teenage mother; me, born to my single mom when she was 19: We weren’t offered much in the way of lavishness.
That history matters.
Some families are run spare and hectic, in households where extravagance, if it ever stopped by, would have nowhere to sit, no uncluttered surface on which to settle.
By the time I was seven, my grandmother was doing fairly well, working as a court stenographer, a career from which she would retire after nearly 30 years of service. I grew up watching her take cruises to Caribbean and South American isles. She came back with textiles and key chains and magnets for me, t-shirts I never wore painted with the colors of toucan plumes.
She went to jazz concerts and stretched out on lawns to hear woodwind trios manically convey whatever they could without words. Sometimes she took me with her.
And other times, she took me to plays and performances. We saw Jelly’s Last Jam with Savion Glover and Maurice Hines. We saw Spunk, a play that adapted three of Zora Neale Hurston’s best short stories. Twice, we saw the Boys Choir of Harlem.
In those halls where choral sound rose to the rafters, where the patter of a dancing legend’s tap shoes echoed offstage during a scene that portrayed his death, where a south Floridian negro dialect was performed just as Hurston wrote it, I came to understand what money could buy– not just a night at the theatre but exposure, not just access to a performance, but the sense that you are sharing emotion and wonder in tandem with whoever sits beside you. Only you, in that great hall on that one night, will ever have seen the show precisely as it was performed in those hours. Tomorrow, someone will recite the line with another inflection or remember, that time, to say a word they often forgot, or, someone with a certain rogue sparkle in eye, will improvise. But tonight, you all bore witness to this incarnation. It will not come again.
Nana, in her extravagance, taught me that happiness does not reside in the moment for me, but in the recollection of it. In the process of recalling what marvels I’ve had, those marvels magnify.
For holidays, she bought me gifts I never requested. I didn’t ask for many things by name, so she had to guess. She bought me a Sega Genesis Game Gear one year, a toy I did not realize she knew existed. I politely played, watching the blue, spiky-haired hedgehog move through a gauntlet of chores toward some goal I was meant to help him reach. When the batteries ran out, I never requested new ones. I did not ask for any other game cartridges.
I was often mistaken for ungrateful or stoic or sullen over those kinds of gifts, played through once and set aside. But I remember receiving them. I remember wanting to share them. I remember that they were given to me because someone wanted to see my eyes widen with surprise and with glee.
In the end, all true gifts are experiences, the material encasing them meant to harbor something far more meaningful. Whether or toy or a theatre ticket, the happiness is in whatever action follows your grateful receipt of it.
How painful it becomes to live lowlier than you ought, to cloak yourself in denial of need or of pleasure, to constantly settle for less than you’d like. Over time, it means forgetting what you like. It results in an uncertainty of what would truly make you happy and, for a time, it seems it seems that you are in a state of perpetual discontent. Nothing is ever quite as pleasant as you’d want it to be.
There are ways to end this. Each one begins with opening your mouth, with saying: I want. and allowing it to be both public and true. Let it breathe I want. and animate I want. and demand undivided attention.
Photo credit: my five-year-old daughter
When I got the email, I was afraid to say yes. I waited nearly two weeks to respond. What if there were strings attached to the offer? What if I said yes, admitting just how much I wanted the gift, and it never came? The email, as soon as I acknowledged it, could become a broken promise, a wish unfulfilled. It was possible.
But what if there were no strings and the gift did come on the promised day? What if, like the heroines of myth and of fable I’d long been admonished not to emulate, my wish — once confessed — came true?
In all confession, there resides an element of risk. Courting rejection in exchange for a chance at delight: this is the writer’s only real ambition. This risk is nearly a friend, a long-familiar.
So I said an eventual yes, and the company let me choose any gift it offered. I said yes, though I apologized for what may be viewed as greed: I wanted both the strawberries and the cheesecake trio. I said yes, with a slight blush and a bitten lip, as I always associate gifts like these with the lovers I wish I had asked for them.
In turn, the company waved its magic wand. Three days later, the package arrived: one dozen chocolate covered strawberries and a lovely assortment of miniature cheesecakes. They sent the gift, with simple hope that it would make me happy. I shared it with my daughter and my grandmother, splitting the cheesecakes between us and offering up all the white-chocolate-coated fruit to Story. They were her favorite. I’m smiling even now, remembering how delighted she was biting into them.
Happiness happens at the intersection of courage and confession, risk and recollection. I am never prouder of myself than when I choose to stand at those crossroads.