Blog 29: How a Trip to Nicaragua Revolutionized My Gift Giving

A hand- carved wooden container I bought in Nicaragua and gave as a remembrance to my parents.

To be honest, my new perspective on gift giving began in 10th grade Earth Space Science as I received a gift-wrapped roll of LifeSavers candy from Kim for Christmas.  It wasn’t much of a gift, but it was wrapped nicely, and it was so nice to be included in her gift giving that year.  I tucked that roll of tropical flavored Lifesavers into my memory bank for two reasons:  one, that just a little something is nice to receive, and two, don’t eat a whole roll of tropical flavored LifeSavers one after the other in less than 90 minutes. Trust me on that last one.

Second, fast forward to senior year of high school, in a new school.  Valentine’s Day.  I signed, addressed the envelopes and distributed a box of Pink Panther valentines.  One valentine went to Reni, an exchange student from the Philippines. She tearfully thanked me for that valentine, to cost much to matter, which was also true of the Lifesavers.

Then, when I went on a service learning trip sponsored by The Ohio State University to Nicaragua on an adventure led by Dr. Katy Borland, whose specialty is anthropology and folklore, I learned of “recuerdos”, which I’ll translate as a remembrance.  Not as formalized as a gift, the emphasis was more on sharing something that would remind the recipient of you. I left a dress that a woman had admired as a recuerdo, left an Ohio State t-shirt as a recuerdo, and I received loofah fresh cut from a tree as a recuerdo.

I’ve come to recognize gift-giving takes two different forms: one gift meets a need, the need for a new laptop, a need for cat carriers that I can’t afford, a need for a new shirt, or a carpet cleaning machine. Gifts can be a means of meeting materials needs in a way that preserves the receiver’s dignity and gives the giver the gift of making a difference.  Other gifts are “recuerdos”, they make it clear that the person is remembered, held in a special place in the giver’s memory and the giver wants to be remembered as well. A  remembrance holds carries less emotional baggage than a present, it does not require a huge investment of money or time: it can be as simple as bringing a box of chocolates to the family Christmas to show that the family’s love is remembered and this tastyoken expresses that memory. Linda’s favorite Christmas memory is the brown-paper lunch bag with homemade hard candy, an orange and some cookies made by her grandmother for all her grandchildren. Expensive in time and energy, priceless in the love it conveyed that is now a timeless recuerdo.

My siblings and I are now self-sufficient.For the most part, we can provide what we need for ourselves.  But it is still to receive a remembrance, a recuerdo, as a visible sign of the invisible reality that we matter to each other.  I invite you to join me on this revolutionary journey: think about sharing a token of remembrance this holiday season, whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza, Dwali or all of all the above. 

There is no such thing as the perfect gift.  You won’t find it. Instead of investing your emotional energy and money into tracking down the special  gift that will let the people you love know how much you care, let go of that false hope brought to you by the promises in the well-produced ads. Instead, gift wrap a roll of candy, or buy a lovely “good enough” present, and share it , saying, “this is for you, because you matter to me and I want you to remember my love for you.”

If they’re disappointed, then the relationship needs healing that no present, no matter how expensive, can heal. If someone needs new shoes, and you can afford to buy shoes, get him or her new shoes.  If you want to give a gift to express your love and make yourself more lovable, that is not the job of any material object.  I invitee you to share a recuerdo instead, let your care and remembrance be the gift, and anything else you give just be a token of that affection.

Today’s Prayer Poem:  “The Gift” from the book Rose


To pull the metal splinter from my palm

my father recited a story in a low voice.

I watched his lovely face and not the blade.

Before the story ended, he’d removed

the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,

but hear his voice still, a well

of dark water, a prayer.

And I recall his hands,

two measures of tenderness

he laid against my face,

the flames of discipline

he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon

you would have thought you saw a man

planting something in a boy’s palm,

a silver tear, a tiny flame.

Had you followed that boy

you would have arrived here,

where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down

so carefully she feels no pain.

Watch as I lift the splinter out.

I was seven when my father

took my hand like this,

and I did not hold that shard

between my fingers and think,

Metal that will bury me,

christen it Little Assassin,

Ore Going Deep for My Heart.

And I did not lift up my wound and cry,

Death visited here!

I did what a child does

when he’s given something to keep.

I kissed my father.

Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose. Copyright ©1986 by Li-Young Lee.

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