Note to Self And People Like Me: Help for Terrible Gift-Givers

I know, without a smidgen of doubt, that I am a wholly UNcreative and UNthoughtful gift-giver. I am - the worst. It is pathetic.

Opening a gift from me is like watching a retarded, three-legged dog chase a squirrel:  You're simultaneously hopeful (maybe she can do it!), piteous (poor Kate, it's not her fault she's retarded), and trying not to laugh.

It is inevitable: I try to put together cute little themed gifts, and it's not until I'm wrapping my well-intentioned offering that I see it for what it really is:  an eclectic mish-mash of loosely-related clutter.  Every time I think, "I should have chosen one nice item!  Kate: next time buy one thoughtful, lovely thing."    Occasionally I do remember to buy a single item, but it's always the wrong one.  I suppose this is a marginal improvement, as one nice item can often be exchanged, or at least re-gifted at next Christmas's $5 gift exchange.

I am totally incapable of generating a gift idea by myself.  I think it's an actual, physical brain abnormality.

The thing is, though, I love to give.   I yearn to give sweet, timely gifts that touch people.  Little tangible offerings that bless and move them.

These two parts of me are in constant conflict: the blundering idiot gift-chooser, and the eager giver.  So in order to save myself from future embarrassment, I've started compiling a cheat sheet for myself.  I've collected my memories and notes to self about the things that helped me the most and the things that moved me the most.  And in the event that there are people out there like me (I'm banking that there are), I thought I'd share.

For graduates:

Makeup:  If you can get an inside source (sister, friend, breaking & entering), restocking a makeup bag is an awesome, unexpected gift.  That junk is expensive, and for most freshmen girls, an absolute necessity.   A pretty bag full of her concealer, powder, blush, mascara, and lip gloss - perfect.

A gas card:  Because if there are two things we know about college students it is that 1. They are poor.  2. They must go to cool places.  This is especially useful for a guy who wants to take unsuspecting college freshmen on dates.

A gift card to a restaurant:  Because cafeteria food leaves something to be desired.  Of course, make sure it's to a place near campus.

An awesome bag: My junior year I received an amazing leather purse that was all at once grown up, professional, beautiful, stylish, and super-functional.  I crammed it full and carried it all over campus every single day for the last two years of college (and beyond).  I like these: (One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven.)

Dorm Room Kitchen Supplies:  Not just any kitchen supplies - roomates will hate your guts if you move in with useless crap that they have to make space for.   The following were essential in preparing edible food with only a microwave and a mini-fridge.

  • Tupperware chicken roaster - for serious home-cooked deliciousness. Shred leftovers and add BBQ sauce for a sandwich; or a tortilla, sour cream and produce for tacos.
  • A large bowl - for boiling water (hello pasta, my love), for serving, and for Snicker Apple Salad.  Oh yes.
  • A colander - for rinsing produce and draining pasta.  It doubles as a serving bowl for chips & popcorn & grapes.
  • A cutting board & knives with covers - for all the freshness that the produce aisle has to offer.

Cash:  This is never a bad idea.

For newlyweds:


That said, the most useful wedding gift we received was one I never would have thought to ask for.  It was a case full of every kind of hardware fastener imaginable.  In it I've found every nail, screw, mount, wire, anchor, and picture-hangy-thingy I've ever needed.  I've hung shelves, racks, plants, bird feeders, art, and a hundred pictures in the last five years, and I still look on this little case so fondly and with gratitude.  He is my home improvement buddy.  He and my stud-finder. And lots of white paint.

Something like this (only ours was larger: stacked 3 high and with 3x as much stuff).

For housewarming:

My favorite gifts have been things for the first morning in a new home, before anything is unpacked.  A box of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts for breakfast.  Toilet paper.  Paper plates and plastic silverware.  Groceries that don't require the unpacking of appliances to cook:  Complete pancake mix, deli meat and great bread, spinach or crab dip with crackers.  Gallons of tea.

I also love art, but I realize that this is a risky gift because decor and taste vary so much from couple to couple.  Gift with caution. For what it's worth, I love these and would happily hang them in my home:  (One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.)

For a new baby: The best gifts were on two opposite ends of the spectrum:  the super-practical and the super-sentimental.  The stuff in between is no man's land and you should steer clear.  Here we my favorites in each category.


  • Diapers.
  • Spare crib sheets (and mattress pads).
  • Swaddle blankets.  (The Dwell Studio brand from Target are larger and softer than most others - once my kids reached 2 months old, they were the only ones I could still use.)
  • Diapers.
  • Changing table pads.
  • Wipes.
  • Diapers.
  • Infant Tylenol.
  • Pacifiers.
  • Diapers.
  • Diapers.
  • Diapers.

Sentimental: Classic children's books. Parents love them and they are the foundation of a little one's very own library.  We received Goodnight Moon, The Mitten, Madeline, Pat the Bunny, and A Family of Poems - which we've read to our children often from the very beginning.  (I also love On The Night You Were Born and Mama, Do You Love Me?)  They all have little notes inside the front cover in the handwriting of the giver - a "to" and "from" and the year of their birth.

Pee-pee Teepees. For little boys. Totally hilarious (I like the camping ones, the fishes, the sock monkeys, and of course, the santa hats).  You will be the cool one at the baby shower.   Check them out.

A homemade quilt or monogrammed blanket.  When Madeline was born my friend Megan made her a big quilt.  It was her "floor blanket" for a year, and now it's a beautiful, special keepsake.  When Sam was born, a family member gave him an awesome blanket with his name stitched on it.  I wrote a cursory thank you card, but sent ANOTHER one a month later because I grew to love the blanket so much.  The other dozens of blankets we received were great and we used every single one, but these two will stay with our kids forever.

My friend Jamie (mother of 2 boys) gave me the most special gift.  It was a little glass bud vase with a note that read, "One thing I know about little boys is that they LOVE to love their mamas, and so mamas need a place to hold all those little they roses or dandelions or clover!  Keep this nearby, ready to receive and display affection, and use the gift card for whatever you need most.  Enjoy your adventure! Love."  You can't have her.  She's mine.

I lied, there is a third category.   Something for the mamas.  Mom's don't feel human again for several months after birthing a child, and I found that the best gifts were the ones that helped me toward that end.

Soap.  Wonderful, nice, fancy soap.  I used rosemary-mint goat's milk soap, lots of lavender soap, and sweet Burt's Bees soap.  The shower was the only time I was ever alone.  It cleansed me, calmed me, and gave me just enough clarity and peace to keep going.

Earrings, or a scarf.  After you have a baby nothing fits.  Maternity clothes don't fit; regular clothes don't fit.  Fact:  right now I have jeans (maternity and regular) in EVERY size from 14 down to 7.  None of them fit.  I don't know how that's even possible.  The beauty of scarves and earrings is that they can make ill-fitting clothing a little more bearable, and they can't not fit.  This time around, my friend Aliesha sent me a pair of yellow sea glass earrings with the  sweetest, most understanding note about post-pregnancy outfits that made me laugh and cry.

I also thought that after having one child I'd be an expert kid-gift-giver because I'd remember exactly what my child was doing at 5 months, 8 months, 15 months.  Turns out that without digging through one massive folder of approximately 3.5 million photos on a dusty hard drive, I have no idea what Madeline was doing at any of those ages.  So this time around I'm taking notes.

Right now Sam is between 4 and 6 months, and at 4-6 months they are teething.  They can work their hands and arms.  They are sitting, sort of.  They are just starting solid food.  They are babbling.  They are scooching across the floor (very inefficiently).

Presently I want/love:

Sophie the giraffe: Classic toy and famous for a good reason.  Kids love her.  Easy to hold, interesting to look at, and a thousand things to chew on (horns, ears, nose, feet, legs, back, tail).  Sam flaps his arms excitedly at the mention of Sophie.  Best teething toy ever, hands down.

Bibs:  Between the teething drool and the new foods it's easy to use 4 in a day, so the more the merrier.  And since babies often wear them over their clothes, buy the cutest ones you can find.  Translation: Pictures, yes;  patterns, yes.  Words, NO.  (I like these, all from Target. Boys first, then girls.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.)

Socks:  Because by now all the socks we have 1. Don't fit. 2. Don't match. 3. Are lost.

Diapers:  At this age most babies are a size 2.  You can buy a size up, just to be safe.

Fruit chewy netty thing:  That's what I call it anyway.  This contraption lets babies gnaw on fresh fruit without choking on it.  Good for teething and introducing new foods.  Easier, cheaper, and probably healthier than baby food.   Dishwasher safe.  Bam.

 Help me compensate for my terrible-gifter brain abnormality.  What are the best gifts you've ever received?