Lessons in Gratitude: I Opened That Box and Couldn’t Stop Crying

Yesterday’s post got me thinking a lot about gifts and gift-giving.

When I was a little girl, our school held a Christmas party where parents picked a name out of a hat and provided a gift for a classmate of one of their children. 

These types of activities no longer take place in school. Christmas parties have been replaced by more generically titled ‘holiday’ parties, and with the awareness of socioeconomic differences, parents no longer need to provide gifts for other children. Nevertheless, if you rewind the clock 30 years, it was commonplace for children and parents to participate in events like this one.

On the day of these parties each mom, (and maybe a dad or two) carried a box wrapped in colorful Christmas paper into the classroom. They walked across the room, found the child whose name had been randomly drawn from a hat a few weeks before, and presented them with a gift.

I watched as my little friends opened boxes and found brightly colored necklaces and bracelets, fake diamond rings, and all sorts of things that sparkled and shined. It was all inexpensive jewelry designed for a child, but it looked like pure gold to me. 

My friends immediately pulled the bracelets on over their hands and onto their tiny wrists. They slipped on rings and held out their hands like they’d just gotten engaged.

I was a painfully shy child, so when the mom of one of my friends approached me, I couldn’t help but stare down at the floor. My mom stood next to me as I reached out my hands and took hold of the gift wrapped in green and red paper. 

I felt anxious but also excited to find out what was waiting inside that box for me.

So when I ripped off that wrapping paper and found a small, lumpy pillow inside, I broke into tears. What on earth was this horrible piece of cotton doing inside of my gift box. 

Where was the beautiful jewelry that would make me shine and sparkle like all of my little friends? Tears streamed down my face, and I dropped the box on a child-sized table and pushed it away. I didn’t want this pillow. I wanted gifts like all the other girls received.

My behavior mortified my mom. How on earth could her daughter behave like this? Hadn’t she taught me better manners? Why didn’t I say thank you to this woman and smile? How could I be crying hysterically?

She apologized profusely for my actions. She told me to say thank you. To tell this other mom that I appreciated her gift. She said I would use it often and that it was very thoughtful of her to choose it for me. I ignored all of my mother’s pleas. I cried and cried and cried.

Rather than receiving the ever so beautiful, fake plastic jewelry I so desperately coveted, I received a doll-sized, white and blue cotton pillow with the words ‘For the Tooth Fairy’ spelled out in cursive across a tiny denim pocket.

When I received that gift, it didn’t seem bright, shiny, fancy, or unique. It seemed like a ratty old, leftover present, and I wanted nothing to do with it. 

I can’t remember if I ever thanked the gift giver, but I remember my mom begging me over and over to stop crying and profusely apologizing on my behalf.

I knew I was misbehaving when we were at the party. I knew it wasn’t right to throw a fit about my gift, but I was too young and too upset to control my emotions.

On the car ride home, my mom explained why my behavior was hurtful. I was an empathetic and emotional child, and I took her words to heart.

The pillow wasn’t particularly fluffy, the pattern didn’t line up, and the cursive was handwritten. Maybe the gift giver didn’t have the money to buy a more expensive present, or perhaps she believed that gifts from the heart are simply more memorable. 

Either way, it was clear the gift was handmade. It seems particularly sad that she took the time and energy to make something with her own two hands, and I threw such a fit about not wanting it.

What’s remarkable about this story is not just that I remember this incident, but rather that I still own that tooth fairy pillow. I was the type of girl who loved to play with baby dolls. Every evening before I got into bed, I tucked my doll into her crib, wrapped a soft blanket around her chest, and placed that pillow behind her head.

When I reached middle school and outgrew the need to play with dolls, I placed them gently inside a plastic container. As I tucked them in for the long goodnight (assuming I’d take them out if I ever had a daughter of my own), I found my favorite baby doll (an original 1950 Tiny Tears) and placed her tiny head upon that pillow.

Isn’t it funny how things turn out? I bet none of the other girls in my class held onto their cheap plastic jewelry. I bet the rings, necklaces, and bracelets were lost or broken within days or weeks.

Sometimes I wish I could turn back the hands of time. I wish I hadn’t cried and thrown a fit after receiving that tooth fairy pillow. I wish I had thanked that woman for her present and smiled just like my mom wanted me to. 

I wish I could find that woman and tell her how much I grew to love the gift she gave me.

Before my son was born, I pulled that pillow out of the plastic container where it sat for over twenty years and placed it high up on a shelf in his nursery. When he loses his first tooth, we will place it inside that front pocket and wait for the tooth fairy to arrive.


5 thoughts on “Lessons in Gratitude: I Opened That Box and Couldn’t Stop Crying”

  1. That is a sweet story. That poor woman! But you were a kid…disappointment is hard to hide at those ages, and has a lasting impact.

    You aren’t the only one: I remember I received a laptop desk for my secret santa gift in 3rd grade. I was incredibly disappointed, too, and definitely didn’t hide it well, I shoved it aside and went to play with my friends, abandoning the gift til it was time to go home. I was known as shy and smart and I guess my secret santa classmate thought all I did was study (??). We were never friends, but after that, I decided I really didn’t like the gift giver and never spoke to her again as long as we were in school together (til 6th grade).

    • I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that acted this way. It’s tough to accept life graciously when you are so young. Did you dislike her for other reasons or did you continue to dislike her because of the gift she provided?

  2. (by “laptop desk”, I mean it was a flat, hard surface with an attached bean-bag pillow underneath thing. It was designed for your lap, to have something hard to press down on while writing, with that soft bottom for comfort–maybe for the bed? I never, ever used it.)

  3. Your story is delightful. Well… I recently I got a gift I was not looking forward to. It does not even appear to be within the minimum amount of what we should each buy for our secret pals.

    To make it worse my secret pal, brought the tiny black and white teddy bear in a plastic back. He then decided to get the other person the most beautiful gift exactly what I wanted (a colourful teddy bear and some extra stuff in a nice gift box).

    So, I feel he did it on purpose to get me a louzy gift hence I dont like it nor appreciate it.


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