I have a question about gift giving … for thank-you gifts, not Christmas. During a recent severe illness, I was helped out by multiple friends and neighbors who between them brought me food, cooked, helped prep my house for winter, etc. I want to thank them all, but I face a problem that is very typically Vineyard: These people come from such varied backgrounds that what would be an appropriate gift or gesture for one person would seem either lame or weird to another. How do I thank everyone for the same thing in a way that is both evenhanded and yet meaningful to each?
I’ve found myself in similar situations not once, but twice! I handled it differently each time, fairly intuitively — and intuition is important, because thank-you gestures come from the heart at least as much as the head. Ultimately you should be guided by what feels right to you.
There are two ways to go about this, and now that I’ve tried each, I recommend them both (as above: to decide which, go with your gut). Either 1) find something everyone likes, and give it to all of them at once, or 2) quietly customize the thank-you gestures to the individuals, and don’t worry about them comparing their gifts. They have better things to do with their time. (Actually, maybe not. It is winter on the Vineyard, after all.)
The first time I found myself with a disparate group of people to thank, my husband and I threw them all a dinner party. That worked out great, because hey, who doesn’t like being fed? And this time of year, everyone likes excuses to see other human faces, be they familiar or new. Everyone we wanted to thank was literally receiving the same thank-you gift, with the added benefit of all of us having a jolly old time together. In fact, if budget and schedule allows it, I’d recommend saying thank you to everyone all the time by having them come to dinner, at least in the off-season. You’re killing four birds with one stone: expressing gratitude; doing something creative; enjoying agreeable company for yourself; and fostering community.
If throwing a dinner party is impractical due to money, time, or logistics, have them all over for brunch, or tea, or a nightcap. If your house is too small for such a gathering, have a few folks at a time until you’ve feted them all (in which case, serve the same thing each time, on principle).
If being social is not your thing (or their thing), try Approach No. 2: Offer each something he or she would personally value, rather than what is considered valuable by some supposedly objective Miss Manners or Emily Post standard. Tune in to what works for that person. This might result in gifts that are inequitable by monetary standards — but most people don’t chart gratitude by price tags. My personal example of this is based on an off-Island experience, but I was struck by how Vineyardy it felt at the time. A project I got involved in led me to spend time crashing in friends’ guest rooms up in Boston for awhile. I divided my time chiefly between two families who inhabited the same neighborhood and the same tax bracket, but were culturally worlds apart. One was very nuclear-family-oriented (they had one guest room), while the other was extended-family-oriented, with “extended family” defined roughly as “all human beings we have ever met” (they had four or five guest rooms, and I could never distinguish who was stopping by for tea vs. who was stopping by for a month).
I gave the first couple a thank-you gift certificate to an upscale restaurant I knew they liked.
I didn’t know what kind of restaurant the other couple liked, so I asked their daughter for suggestions. She said that if I really wanted to express my gratitude, I should help her mother with the ironing.
Me: No, I want to offer something more gift-like than that.
Her: She’s costuming a play for the local elementary school, and all the costumes need ironing, so seriously it would be super-helpful.
Me: I’m happy to help with the ironing, but I want to get them a gift.
Her: Well, I guess you could get them a bottle of wine.
Me: A bottle of wine is hardly sufficient to say thank you for a week’s hosting.
Her: Right; that’s why you should help with the ironing.
… So I helped with the ironing.
After being there a few days, I realized that my giving them a gift certificate would probably have made them feel awkward. And expressing my thanks to the other couple by offering to do their ironing would have been even more awkward. So I adapted my need-to-express-gratitude to the people I felt grateful toward, and everybody felt appreciated. And there was much rejoicing.
If that is true in Boston, imagine how much more true it would be on Martha’s Vineyard! Somebody needs cordwood. Somebody else needs help stacking the cordwood they already have. Somebody else wants to spend an evening sipping whiskey in front of a cordwood-fueled woodstove. Each of them gave you what you needed. To the best of your ability, return the favor.
That’s my take.
Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse and is the author of “I, Iago.” Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.