I have received great gifts in my lifetime — a guinea pig when I was eight, a nice pair of trendy blue jeans in high school, countless books I spent days devouring, but there is one gift that stands out among all the others: a photograph.
The story begins in December of my junior year of college while visiting my partner, Brandon’s, family in New Mexico. I had never been to Albuquerque before, so I spent the week exploring all the city had to offer. On one chilly afternoon, Brandon and I stumbled upon an art collective (the Albuquerque Photographers Gallery for those curious) and scurried inside more to fight off the cold than to enjoy the art.
I felt an instant connection to a photograph by artist Mellany Herrera. The shot, which had been edited to be nearly void of color, focused on a bare-branched, larger than life tree and the bench beside it.
I found myself returning to look at the photograph again and again while we chatted with the artist running the collective at the time and walked around the gallery, enjoying the other beautiful work.
The scene spoke to me in a way that felt magical.
But I was broke — and besides had to fly back to school with a suitcase that was already stuffed. I left the gallery empty-handed.
Fast forward to my college graduation. Brandon was incredibly excited to give me my gift so I knew it had to be good, but I didn’t expect to unwrap that gorgeous photo I had fallen in love with the year before.
I stared at his gift, speechless.
The best part of it wasn’t the photograph itself (though I still find the composition to be equal parts compelling and haunting) but the fact Brandon remembered how the photograph had made me feel… sixteen months later.
If you want to give exceptional, memorable and meaningful gifts remember what left your loved one breathless; remember what it was they fell in love with.
That’s it. Pretty simple, right?
I can see you rolling your eyes. If it were that easy — we’d all go around making our loved ones cry tears of joy on a weekly basis.
Here’s how to make it work on a practical level:
Take note at the time:
Brandon said he knew from the minute I fawned over the photograph that he would buy it for me when I graduated college… even though I wasn’t set to graduate for another three semesters.
If you see your mom/sister/child/spouse fall in love with something, write that down even if there isn’t a major holiday for months, even years. We don’t all have the memory of an elephant (geniuses, especially), but surprising someone with an item they talked about a while back will make that gift extra meaningful.
Keep a running list on your phone, in your planner or on your computer and return to that list whenever you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift.
Buy the gift then and there:
If it’s practical and you’re able to, buy the gift on the spot (or later in the day/week if you want it to be a surprise) and take your memory out of the equation.
You can remind yourself that you already have the perfect gift when a holiday rolls around by setting an alert on your phone or sending an email to your future self, using this website.
Go beyond stuff:
People are often inspired by non-tangible items (and that’s a good thing). Maybe they heard a song on the radio, then played it, again and again, all night — surprise them with concert tickets. Maybe they were consumed by a meal you had together — surprise them with a cooking class focused on that same genre of food.
The point is, you can give someone a gift that nods to a particular moment in time with experiences as well. Be creative and don’t limit yourself to the physical.
If you’re having trouble finding something (tangible or otherwise) that left your loved one in awe — try truly listening to them next time you’re out and about.
Some people have a quiet demeanor and won’t go shouting from the rooftops how much they loved that painting. But they might study it for a long moment, comment on its elegance and use of color.
And if you’re not sure — ask. Say, “that painting seems to really speak to you,” “you really love this song,” “that chef’s knife is calling to you,” and listen to their response.
Take the pressure off:
Know that you don’t have to give the best gift ever every single time you give a gift. Even I know that’s not plausible.
But when your dad turns 70, or your daughter graduates high school or your best friend in the world has a baby — dig deeper and give them something that comes from the heart. Something that says: I listen and I care.
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