Prompt 174. The Worst Gift I Ever Got
& Marie McGrory on the gifts that stick
I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts. One of the most iconic was from Christmas more than a decade ago, when a brown paper bag appeared under our tree. It was from my younger brother Adam, and when I went to open it, I thought to myself, Terrible wrapping job, but at least it has some heft. I opened the bag, and the first thing I pulled out was a pair of aviator sunglasses, which I immediately noticed still had the price tag attached—75 cents. I thought to myself, Hmm. A little cheap, but that’s alright, there’s something else in here. So I reached back into the bag and pulled out that something else: a moldy, half-eaten chicken sandwich.
I can’t even begin to tell you how hard we laughed that morning, and how much joy that story has given our family in the years since. Those flimsy aviators and my brother’s half-eaten, forgotten lunch, was the worst imaginable gift and simultaneously the best, in that it is the gift that keeps on giving.
I’ve come to think of gifts by category—the ones that make a great story, the ones that surprise you, the ones that astonish you with how thoughtful and creative they are. In the last month, since starting chemotherapy, I’ve been the recipient of so many extraordinary gifts and much generosity, from close friends and family and complete strangers too. Since I left home, my friend Cat set up a P.O. Box for me, and thanks to the kindness of this community, she’s basically a postal employee now.
One of the most extraordinary surprises was from my friend Marie McGrory, whom I met years ago, when I was first in treatment, and who after that first meeting arranged to have a Senbaruzu made for me. (If you don’t know what that is, just keep reading!) This time, Marie came up with what she calls “The Things for Feelings List.” She built a spreadsheet where family and friends could send me things to do, read, or watch, all organized by how I’m feeling—like if I need a good laugh or a good cry or an all-consuming escape. It’s both a modern, multimedia mixtape and a hug from my most beloved humans.
Given all that she and this community have taught me about thoughtful gestures, I asked Marie to write a prompt on gifts. I couldn’t be more pleased to share it with you.
With love and so many paper cuts,
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174. The Gifts that Stick by Marie McGrory
In the last few years, I have fallen into the anti-waste, sustainably minded, wannabe minimalist type who asks my family for very specific gifts. “Hi Mom, I would like this shower curtain for Christmas.” “Hey Aaron, could you buy me these shoes in this color for my birthday?” It is satisfying and feels good to get just what you want. Yet when I think back to the best gifts I have ever received, they are not things I wanted. In fact, they were not things I had even considered. The gifts that have stuck with me for years seem to be a magical potion of time spent, thoughtfulness, love, and a dash of surprise.
A favorite gift is actually from a group—a group I can visualize, but cannot individually name. It came in a large but very light box around my eleventh birthday, when I was a few months into treatment for blood cancer. I was back home in New York City after living abroad in Vienna for my dad’s job, and my middle school friends were an ocean away. As I peeked into the dull brown cardboard, I was awed to find an explosion of colors—every color on the spectrum, and patterns and glimmering metallics too. They were origami paper cranes, some big, others tiny, some with crooked wings or unbent heads.
I learned from the card that the gift of one thousand paper cranes, called a Senbazuru, was a wish for good luck or good health in Japanese culture. I knew at that moment, looking at the hundreds of cranes, that this expressed a measure of love and thoughtfulness that I had never received in a gift. I am not sure what my classmates expected I would do with them. For many years I was unsure of what to do with them, but these folded papers have grown with me and made my life richer in ways I could not have imagined. The origami cranes have decorated every home I’ve lived in. They have inspired me to gather friends to fold cranes for our loved ones who are sick, each time providing a new, meaningful memory. They have led to new connections and powerful time spent teaching others.
When I look at the cranes two decades later, I’m still filled with love. I’m still reminded of the power of community. I’m also reminded of what my mother always says: “The little things are really the big things.”
Your prompt for the week:
Write about the most thoughtful, meaningful, or memorable gift you have ever received.
Marie McGrory is a lefty, a cancer survivor, a tea lover, a visual storyteller, and lots of other things too. She is an innately curious human who spent years as a photo editor and creative producer at National Geographic. Currently, she is on a road trip moving out west to embrace her love of outdoor adventures and to learn more about farming. She is happiest when she is working to make a direct impact on our food systems, building a more regenerative future, and bringing people together for thoughtful celebrations. You can most often find her on Instagram scheming her next adventure.
A note to paid subscribers
To accommodate the vicissitudes of cancer treatment, December’s Studio Visit with Lena Dunham will be my last for the foreseeable future. In its stead, I’ll be sending out my Dear Susu column, where I answer questions about writing and life and anything in between. In the first installment, I answered a question from Jeanne, who feels the urge to write but isn’t sure how to share her words with the world. Read the column and find instructions on how to send in your questions by clicking here!