Jesus once said 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' He said quite a lot of things, but that is one of the better ones.
But it's hard to get your head round it when you're a kid. My Mum's best friend was Fran Smith. Mum went to school with Fran at PLC, they were very best mates. And I can remember Fran coming to visit when we were little kids. She was 'Auntie Fran' and to me she was the picture of elegance. She was slim, she had excellent hair and she drove a nice car. She called Mum 'Mazza', in a way that seemed stylish. I've used Fran as the basis for a character in one of my books.
As far as we kids were concerned, Fran had only one fault, and that was that she didn't know how to 'receive' a gift. Mum loved Fran and whenever she came around she would have a little gift ready for her. It was never jewellery or anything expensive like that. It was usually a cake or something interesting that Mum had bought at an auction. Mum was always in the auction houses buying boxes of things called 'sundries'. These were brown cardboard boxes full of things that didn't really deserve to be auctioned on their own. So you might get a box containing a Rupert the Bear book, some dolls, a bicycle pump and a wood carving - all for two dollars. One of the weirdest things we found in a sundry box was a bicycle pump that seemed to work backwards. Rather than blowing air out, it sucked the air back in. You could use it to deflate bicycle tyres, if you ever felt the need. None of us knew what the strange thing was (this is years before the Internet) but Mum - through talking to a scientist - found out one day that it was a 'smoke tester', used in his daily work and could he buy it? Mum sold it for a lot more than she paid, so we were all happy. I kept the book and my sisters kept the dolls. The wood carving was set aside. When Fran came around one night, Mum had the wood carving all wrapped up nicely in pretty paper. . She thought Fran might like it. And she did like it, but there was one thing about Fran that we could could never understand. She would actually abuse Mum for giving her a present. The conversation would go like this:
Mum: Hello Fran.
Fran: Hello, Mazza.
Mum: Would you like a cup of tea?
Fran: Look, I'd love one.
Mum puts the kettle on.
Mum: Oh, by the way, Fran, I was at an auction the other day and I found something nice that you might like.
Mum hands over the carving wrapped in gift paper. Fran frowns.
Fran: Oh Mazza, you shouldn't go buying me gifts.
Mum: It's just a little thing. Open it.
Fran: You're very naughty for buying me a present.
MUm I just thought you might like it.
Fran: Oh Mazza, I hate you for doing this.
Fran unwraps the present and admires the wooden carving.
Fran. Oh, it’s beautiful.
Mum: I'm glad you like it.
Fran: You're terrible to give me things. Oh, It's so pretty, I really hate you.
Mum: It's nothing. I got it in a box of sundries.
Fran: Mazza, I can't possibly accept this. You're awful, giving me things.
Mum: But I like to.
Mum brings in the tea.
Fran: Oh, and you made a cake too. You're very naughty to go to effort.
Mum: I just bought it, I didn't make it.
Fran: Mazza, you're horrible, you little shit, going to all this effort. The wood carving and now the cake.
Fran: Yes, milk please. Well, I feel so spoiled by you that I can hardly bear to look at you, you grotesque harpy. What a bitch you are! Presents and cake …
Mum: I think the cake might actually be a bit stale. You can dunk it in your tea.
Fran: Oh Mazza, this is delicious. You've been too nice to me. I don't deserve it, you horrible cow. Christ you make me sick sometimes with your generosity.
Mum: Oh, I don't mind. You're my friend.
Fran: Ooh, this tea is nice.
Mum: Would you like a chocolate biscuit?
Fran: Mazza, if you dare to offer me a chocolate biscuit I will burn your stupid ugly house down. Oh yes, just the one, thanks.
Auntie Fran, you see, had great difficulty in receiving. She never thought she was worth it. I've exaggerated the conversation just slightly. Fran would never have called Mum a 'shit', but it's how we kids heard it. What was the matter with Auntie Fran? She was Mum's best friend but she was always abusive when you offered her a present. Of course, when we grew up we learned that this is fairly common behaviour - people pretending to be cross if someone gives them something unexpected. But as a kid, I just couldn't understand it. I vowed I would never be like Auntie Fran and if someone gave me a present I would always be grateful. Actually I overdid it a bit. When Mrs Wittingham nextdoor gave me a bag of lemons from her tree I practically collapsed with delight. 'Thank you so much, Mrs Wittingham, for these very beautiful fragrant lemons. I love them all.' Mrs Wittingham backed away nervously. Grandpa gave me an old dictionary once when I was in primary school. It did look fine, with its leather binding, but I overdid the gratitude, with 'I don't know what to say for this precious gift.' Dad sighed and told me to say 'Thank you.' But my whole sense of gift-receiving etiquette had been completely bent out of shape by Fran's expressions of hatred to Mum for giving her presents. Sometimes we would ask Mum not to give Fran a present, so that we wouldn't hear Fran's endless litany about how awful Mum was. We didn't like to hear Mum being insulted for being nice.
We've lost contact with Auntie Fran, but I hope she has learned how to receive a present. The Queen will be a little miffed when she sends a 100th birthday card to Fran. Will Fran send it back, writing, 'You're awful' and 'Christ, I hate you," all over it?