On a Bad Gift

I hate to be impolite. And I don’t want to be ungracious. And I know that, if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. Still, I just can’t keep silent anymore: I received a bad gift this weekend.

Complaining about a bad gift falls into the category of asking someone how much they weigh, telling a woman her dress is unflattering, and mistaking someone’s pregnancy status. Come to think of it, maybe a bad gift is somehow related to weight? I digress. The point is: you’re taught from an early age that you don’t complain about gifts. It’s the thought that counts, right?

Well, I have to complain.

I headed to Richmond, Virginia this weekend for a weekend of shopping, eating, and relaxing with Hubby, my mother-in-law, and my aunt. Food, family, and furniture shopping; it’s a good recipe. Unexpectedly, as we arrived for dinner Saturday evening, my mother-in-law and aunt pulled birthday gifts out of the car for me. Ahh, how sweet! The great weekend just got even better!

We sat down to dinner at a moderately priced steak house at a high-end mall, and, upon greeting us, our waitress asked if someone was celebrating that evening, noting the presents at the table. My family kindly informed the waitress that we were celebrating my birthday, and we were all smiles. Now, I certainly did not expect to receive gifts during dinner, and I certainly did not expect the waitress to take note. But…since she did…I could not help but wonder if I had just stumbled upon yet another gift. Maybe a cute cupcake with a lit candle…on the house. Or maybe a nice piece of pie…on the house. Or, still even better, a large piece of chocolate cake, with “Happy Birthday” written in dark, decadent chocolate syrup…on the house. I saddled back in my chair, momentarily considered loosening my belt, and decided to dig on in to this wonderful birthday dinner.

As I could have predicted, the dinner was terrific. The salad was tasty. My meatloaf was a homey, inspired choice, and my cosmopolitans made everything go down easier. As our waitress cleared the table, I smiled with the smug satisfaction of knowing there was definitely room for dessert…on the house. And, thus, when she set the dessert menu down on the table, I knew it was really for everyone else. Surely. Still, as a man that doesn’t count his cake before it’s baked, I agreed to take a few bites of the chocolate cake the rest of the table was ordering. After all, I didn’t want to flaunt my good fortune. I had enjoyed a great meal, loved lively conversation, and received wonderful, thoughtful gifts from my family. One must remain humble.

Maintaining my emotional equipoise was challenged, however, as our waitress delivered the chocolate cake ordered by everyone else with nary a birthday cupcake, slice of pie, or tower of cake in sight. After pausing for just a moment, allowing for the large group of singing waiters and waitresses to serenade me and deliver my birthday cake, it sadly dawned on me that there would be no recognition of my birthday from the restaurant. What had started so promising, with such beauty and charm, had been nothing but a birthday gift mirage. I consoled myself with bites from the family’s chocolate cake and moved on. I had faced bigger disappointments in life.

But, then, it happened.

My gift arrived.

The waitress approached our table with the bill, looked at me, and explained, “Here at [restaurant name redacted to protect the cheap], we don’t do birthday cake, we do birthday cards!” She handed me a card that, indeed, correctly read “Happy Birthday.” When you flipped the card over, approximately ten members of the waitstaff had signed their first names: Steve, Lucy, Mark, Tom, Betty, etc. I looked at the waitress and summoning every ounce of my Southern hospitality roots, gave her a sweet Kentucky “Thank you so much! How nice!”

After my waitress had taken approximately three steps away from the table, I realized I had just received one of the worst “gifts” ever. Now, I know a card is different from a gift…and, trust me, I was keenly aware there was no real gift here…but, still, when you anticipate a gift of dessert…on the house…a card in its place constitutes a bad gift. It may have been slightly better had I been swell chums with the ten members of the waitstaff that signed my card, but I didn’t know any of them. Complete strangers. You could have signed the card “Zurla, Queen of the Amazons,” and I would have accepted that Zurla worked there. I do not know these people!

The birthday card was that rare gift that made you feel worse for having received it. Even with a bad gift from a loved one, you can fall back on the fact that, truly, it is the thought that counts. But, here, it was painfully obvious that the only thought that had occurred was, “How can we avoid giving anyone anything of value when they spend their hard-earned dollars to celebrate with us?” It is 100% scientifically accurate to report that, had the restaurant not given me the card, I would have felt better. That’s a true gift fail. Not a bad guess at my shirt size. Not an earnest attempt to acknowledge a hobby that I no longer enjoy. Nope, just total failure.

I quickly bounced back from my bad gift, and it did provide me a chuckle or four the next few days. In the end, though, it did remind me that, if you want to give someone a gift, or even if you just want to acknowledge them, a little thought goes a long, long way.

And, speaking of thought, I did have a thought before leaving the restaurant. As we stood up from the table, gathered our belongings, and walked away, I left my birthday card on the table. After all, I cared as much about their card as they did my birthday.

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