A few weeks before Christmas, I got a call from our daughter, Rachel. I heard the sob in her voice immediately, and had to calm her down so she could tell me what was wrong.
“I’m making you a Christmas gift,” she sniffled.
“How sweet! What’s so upsetting?” asked.
“Because I’m screwing it all up!” she cried. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
I smiled. “That’s OK, honey,” I said. "Don’t worry about it! It’s the thought that counts.”
“You don’t understand!” she wailed. “I’m having problems with it and you’re the only one who can help me, and I can’t ask you because I want it to be a surprise!”
I laughed a little. “Sorry, honey, wish I could help. Just forget about it.”
She was not about to do that, and she was not pacified, but she calmed down a little and we talked about other things.
Later, I wondered to myself what on earth she was trying to do. I had a vision of her back in high school, in her one and only year of Home Ec, when she made a pillow with a football player motif. I hope she’s not sewing, I thought. She’s probably making me a pillow. That pillow project frustrated her so much she said she hated sewing and never picked up a needle again. Surely she wouldn’t be sewing! She doesn’t even own a sewing machine!
A few days later, I received another call. An increasingly frustrated Rachel was on the line.
“It’s getting worse and worse! Each time I put it down I tell myself to throw it away because it’s hopeless!” she lamented.
“Don’t worry about it, Rachel,” I repeated. “It’s the thought that counts. Just put it up and tell me about it at Christmas.”
“But it’s so hard! It’s something I’ve never done before!” she sobbed.
We again changed the subject and she seemed to calm down a little.
My curiosity was aroused more and more. Something she’d never done before. Hmmm. There went my working hypothesis, since she had made that pillow back in high school. What on earth could she be doing?
The next day, ring, ring, and as soon as I heard her voice, I knew she was still trying to complete that darn gift.
“I’m determined to finish it, but I’m at my wits’ end!” she cried. “I wanted so much to make a gift for you, and it’s the perfect gift - the perfect gift! I was so excited!” She named off all the people she had talked to for advice, apparently unsuccessfully.
At this point, I said, “Look, Rachel. It’s no big deal. It’s the thought that counts, right? Just bring the unfinished gift to me on Christmas Eve, show it to me, and I’ll finish it myself, since apparently it’s something I know how to do. No big deal!”
She was unappeased. “No! Ask you to finish your own gift? That’s terrible! No! I’ve got to figure out how to do this!” She fought back tears again.
“Rachel, Rachel, Rachel,” I replied resignedly. “It’s the thought that counts. Just bring the project, show it to me, I’ll be impressed, I’m sure, at whatever you’ve done, I’ll thank you from the heart, then I’ll finish it, and we’ll laugh about this in a few years!
Apparently I’m dense.
“You don’t understand!” she cried. “I’ve hardly done anything on it! You can’t even tell what it is!” I could sense that she was starting to get a little hysterical at this point. She continued as her voice rose in increments. “It’s...it’s....it’s as if I were building you a house, and brought you to a patch of land where I had shoveled a couple of scoops of dirt, pointed at the land and said, ‘There’s your present! Don’t you recognize it? It’s a HOUSE! NOW YOU FINISH IT! MERRY CHRISTMAS!’”
At this point, I had to laugh. My mantra, “It’s the thought that counts,” was obviously falling on deaf ears. This was the most intriguing puzzle I’ve had to solve in a long time.
Finally, Christmas Eve came, and the family all gathered here for chili and to exchange gifts. Rachel took me aside. “I gave up on your present,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it, it was driving me crazy, and I just had to give it up.”
I had to ask what it was, as I was dying to know.
“It was a cross-stitch project,” she replied. “I’ve never done cross-stitch in my life, but I know you have done lots of cross-stitch and would have really appreciated a homemade gift that was perfect for you. It said, ‘LIVE LIFE SIMPLY.’” She paused. “It was perfect for you,” she repeated.
I hugged her and expressed delight and told her that it indeed was the perfect gift, and the idea that she would tackle such a complicated project just for me - one picked out for its timely message that reflected our simplicity journey - made me very happy, whether it was finished or not.
Mystery solved, we got down to enjoying our family Christmas.
The whole thing reminded me of being in the grocery store with my parents when I was a child. Greeting cards are expensive today, but I guess relatively speaking they have always been expensive, at least for my family to splurge on, and I can remember my parents not wanting to waste money on a card that would be enjoyed but immediately thrown away. So they had a mutual agreement. When my dad’s birthday was approaching, for instance, Mother would spend some time in the card display picking out the perfect card. Then she would show it to him, he would laugh or smile, express appreciation, then Mother would return the card to its place. The underlying communication in this ritual was, “I can’t afford to buy you a fancy card, but if I could, this is the one I would have picked.” No money was spent, the card was enjoyed, and that was that. It was the thought that counted.
That still rings true. Rachel took our chosen lifestyle into consideration as she chose her pattern. Then, she spent an extraordinary amount of time struggling to master a skill that she had never even tried before, reaping only frustration and disappointment. That was indeed a labor of love. I love homemade gifts, and I especially love homemade gifts picked out just for me. Rachel kept thinking the cross-stitch project was the gift, when all along it was the THOUGHT and EFFORT that constituted the gift.
I still haven’t seen the project in question, but when I do, I may decide not to finish it. I may just frame it like it is, where “you can’t even tell what it is!” Then every time I look at it on the wall, it will make me smile with the memory of this special Christmas and my special daughter. Those “scoops of dirt” are full of love in every little stitch - and the gift of love is the most incredible gift of all.