Return to Sender

Sometimes the best gifts are the ones we reject


| November/December 1999


We recognize that the gift is neither good nor bad in itself, nor is it everywhere desirable. Everything depends on its context, the relationship that gives it meaning. . . . The modern individual remains wary, often with reason . . . even though theoretically, given the ideology of possession, to continue to receive is the aim of all modern life.

The World of the Gift by Jacques T. Godbout (McGill--Queens University Press, 1998).

A long-remembered scene repeated many times: I am about 16; it is 5:45 p.m. and we are at the dinner table, my mother at one end, my father at the other, my sister, Judy, sitting across from me. As always, the meal is formal--the oval mahogany table is covered with a clean tablecloth and there are three courses: appetizer, main course, dessert. And as always we are eating quickly to keep up with my father, who must be back at the office at six to see more patients. The phone rings: I can hear our maid, Josephine, going to answer it. A pause. Then Josephine comes into the dining room. 'It's Dr. Williams,' she tells my father.

My mother is annoyed: 'Why does he always call at dinnertime?' she asks, but my father is already on the way to the phone. Dr. Williams and my father, both practicing physicians, occasionally meet at Passaic General Hospital, but Dr. Williams, who has heart problems, is also my father's patient, and that is why he is calling. He knows that my father puts his patients ahead of his dinner. Soon, my father returns to snatch a hasty bite of dessert and tells my mother, 'I'll be going to Rutherford after office hours tonight. I should be back around 10.' My mother says nothing.

Another scene, equally well remembered: My father and I are in a car; he is driving--I am not yet old enough. He speaks to me in that tentative, half-apprehensive tone of voice that fathers use toward adolescent sons when they are about to propose something new. 'You know that I have a patient, Dr. Williams, over in Rutherford? Well, he's beginning to go blind and needs somebody to read to him once a week for an hour or two. I told him I would ask you--

he would pay you for your time.'

From my hesitation, my father knows that I am not liking the idea. 'You would enjoy reading to Dr. Williams,' he continues. 'He's a very interesting man. He writes poetry.' But it's no use. I make my excuses: too busy, too much schoolwork, too inconvenient--the fact is that I just don't want to read to an old friend and patient of my father's. A few days later the request is repeated, then a week after that. By this time it has become a matter of principle and I am adamant. Eventually my father stops asking.

A third scene, just a few days before this writing: Dr. Williams is long dead; my father, too. I am sitting in my living room holding a familiar book from my father's collection. A slender volume, elegantly printed on creamy, rough-cut paper yellowing slightly at the edges, it is the fourth book of a set of five, which together make up one of the great epic poems of 20th-century English literature. Opening it carefully to avoid tearing the fragile dust cover, I read that this is the first edition of Volume IV of Paterson, of which 1,000 copies were printed for the publisher, New Directions, by Van Vechten Press, Inc., Metuchen, New Jersey. And I see once more the inscription by the author, written in blue ink: 'Irving Ehrenfeld, gratefully yours, William Carlos Williams, 9/19/51.'