Beach sand spread before me like a shimmering moiré ribbon. It was 9 in the morning, Dec. 30, and I was just starting my weekly 4-mile walk. Weather reports from the East Coast called for freezing rain, but here in Huntington Beach the expected high was 78. Not that I’m gloating. I dipped my toes in the water and waded through a thick, white foam that felt as if I were
walking on a head of beer. That’s when I noticed it: a lovely pink rose. A small patch of foam, captured by the long stem, swirled in tight circles, forming a vortex that followed the curl of a leaf. I picked up the flower, held it to my nose and took in a pleasant mixture of sea spray and rose water. A few yards down the beach lay another rose, and another.
Then I understood.
Perfectly preserved by the cool coastal water, the flowers had drifted to shore after a burial at sea, bringing with them a slight trace of ash and the weight of a sad goodbye. Loss at Christmastime has to be the worst, I thought. It casts a pall over every holiday to come.
I had planned to spend the day returning a gift blanket that was too small for my bed, but I’d been dreading the trip. Crowds and long lines make me cranky, and I dislike being in shopping malls during the holidays, knowing that so many people have so little. Now, with the burial rose still in my hand, the whole idea just seemed trivial.
I had the beach almost to myself. Only a few people had planted their umbrellas to claim their seaside plot. A young boy played in the wet sand, his mother looking on. He was digging a hole, which he fortified with a wall of sand. But each time a wave breached the wall, it would destroy his hard work. In 4-year-old frustration he yelled at the ocean, “Stop it!” But the next wave not only breached his wall, it brought with it an invader—another pink rose.
The boy picked up the flower, but instead of smelling it, he held it to his ear as if listening to the ocean. Then he looked up and down the beach. When he spotted more roses, he ran along the shore giggling and gathering flowers, as if on an Easter egg hunt. When he had a bunch so large that he needed both hands to hold it, he raced back to his mother.
“I got you a present,” he said, thrusting the wet bouquet toward her. “Happy birthday!”
She thanked him. “But it’s not my birthday.”
I could tell from her expression that she, too, had guessed the origin of the roses. But she hugged and kissed her son anyway. She seemed to understand that a gift is not about the object, but about the spirit in which it is given. Watching them, what at first had struck me as impossibly sad was transformed into something joyful. Those sad, sad roses got a second bloom.
The next day I packed my unwanted gift blanket in a shopping bag. But instead of taking it back to South Coast Plaza, I took it to the McDonald’s where I get my morning coffee. A familiar figure—a homeless man with whom I’m on a smile-and-nod basis—was huddled over a small coffee at his regular table by the door. I approached him.
“Could you help me? I seem to have an extra blanket. Do you know anyone who could use it?”
When he glanced into the bag, his brows shot up into McDonald’s-like arches. “Yes,” he said. “I think I do.”
It was so much more fun than standing in a return line. So I’ve decided to make this particular way of returning gifts a new part of my holiday tradition. Next year I’m actually hoping for more things that don’t fit. Regifting doesn’t have to be tacky, and it doesn’t mean you’re cheap. It simply means you know when you have enough.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue.