A Single Shining Marble, and Other Cherished Gifts

by Sarah Wolpow   |   December 14, 2012

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On your plate is one tiny box, wrapped sweetly in a brown paper bag that your children have decorated with clumpy potato prints. Curious, you open it, and there inside is a wonderful present: six golden, glowing hours all to yourself. They’ve given you the elusive gift of time.  

Were it only so simple to package up precious hours and dole them out at dinner.  

Ask a roomful of adults if they would choose more time or more money, and the results may surprise you. Several years ago at a workshop on fundraising for nonprofits, I heard a facilitator ask just this question. Of the 40 or so people in the room (most scraping by on nonprofit salaries), nearly everyone voted for more time.      

The two best presents I have ever given were gifts of time rather than gifts of stuff. 

The first was for my mother. My careful, conscientious mother who opens everything that comes in the door, was drowning in mail. Years ago, a friend told me he did not get any unsolicited mail. I was incredulous. No credit card offers? No catalogs from companies you’ve never heard of? No requests from charities coming in such voluminous quantities that it is questionable if your $20 donation covers the cost of printing and mailing all the requests.

But it was true. After hours of phone calls and emails I finally succeeded in dropping my unsolicited mail to about two pieces a month (note that most of the charities you support will agree to send you only one annual solicitation). For my mother’s 60th birthday, I offered to do the same for her. She collected all her unsolicited mail for a few months, gave me the two overflowing grocery bags, and I made all the phone calls. She was so pleased. Better still, this gift continues to make her happy on a daily basis, 12 years later.

The second gift was for my husband. Before children, we used to love bicycling together; after having children, a day of cycling together was rare indeed. On the morning of his 40th birthday, he found on his breakfast plate a set of clues to a mystery destination. (His favorite clue: “Turn left at the pine, don’t you shake, don’t you quiver; if you go the wrong way you’ll end up in the river”).  

A babysitter arrived, and off we went. With only three wrong turns (and nearly 15 extra miles), he made it to Wolfe’s Neck State Park, where a few friends, plus our babysitter and kids, joined us for blueberry crumble by the sea. He said it was one of his favorite birthdays, and it was absolutely free because our babysitter’s present was not charging us.

Although these particular gifts took more time and effort to carry out than most simple purchases, gifts of time do not have to be very time-consuming, and they frequently cost little or nothing. Making your spouse breakfast in bed will likely take you less time than finding and wrapping a gift (on top of the time spent earning the money to buy the gift).

Offer your friends and family coupons for raking the yard, doing the dishes, or making dinner. Take your mom out for coffee. Visit a friend you don’t normally see. Give a babysitting coupon to new parents (as the recipient of such a gift, I can tell you this is a super one). Children, too, love gifts of time from their parents and friends: a promise to bake cookies together, go on a camping trip, or see a show would all make great presents.  

Another interesting tidbit I’ve discovered along the way is that little people are very happy with little gifts. 

We are the ones that teach them to have big expectations.  

I once let a visiting soon-to-be three-year-old pick any marble he wanted from my large wooden bowl of marbles. His mother later told me that even after the big party she threw him, this was the present he cherished most. The kid who gets a hefty pile of toys when she is three may expect a bigger pile of toys when she is four. The kid who picks out a single precious swirling marble when she is three will likely be pleased with something similarly small and magical the next year.

Often the hardest part about changing gift-giving traditions is concern over how your non-traditional gifts will be received. I recently attended the birthday of a four-year-old friend. I made a batch of applesauce, tied a ribbon around a jar, filled it with the still-warm fragrant fruit, and took it over to the party.  

As everyone gathered around and the boy began opening presents, my heart started sinking. Rip after rip revealed some fun, fanciful toy: a plastic dump truck, a magnetic drawing pad, colorful action figures. I wondered if people would think I was being cheap by bringing my small jar of homemade applesauce. Or that I didn’t care enough to spend time shopping, but simply took the closest thing within reach. Worst, I wondered what the little boy would think.  

When he got to my present, he picked up the jar and walked promptly out of the room without saying a word. His mother called after him, “Where are you going? Aren’t you going to finish unwrapping your gifts?” From the kitchen came his reply, “I’m getting a spoon.”

For additional tips on celebrating special times with more meaning and less stuff, check out New Dream's Simplify the Holidays campaign.

Sarah Wolpow is a writer living in Brunswick, Maine. You can find more of her writing on her blog site, Ear to the Earth.