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Deadly Sin of the Week: Greed 

Wedding gifts, heirlooms, and lost possessions

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
Dear Social Grace,
I enjoy your column and am concerned about today's general atmosphere of selfishness and lack of manners. After reading your response to the question from a soon-to-be-married couple who weren't registered but hoped for cash gifts [Nov. 22], I have to ask: Have you ever stopped to think about how presumptuous it is for people to solicit wedding gifts? In effect, the couple is saying, "We have made a decision affecting our personal lives and we want you to pay for it." One of life's injustices is that those of us who shun tradition and pay for our own household items and travel expenses are not rewarded by a society that feels uncomfortable with people who think for themselves.

Via the Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
I agree that society's disinclination to shower us iconoclasts with free Crock-Pots and matching china is annoying, but thinking for oneself is really its own reward, don't you think? I thank you for your kind letter, and I hope I can persuade you to see gift registry in a different light. Giving gifts to newlyweds and helping them establish their households are traditions as old as marriage. We've all heard stories about the abuse of this tradition (Social Grace hears plenty), but in fact, registering for gifts is done as a courtesy to the guests. It's meant to help loved ones pick a gift that the couple will use and enjoy. Guests are not required to purchase from the list -- if you just know that Dylan and Madison are going to love those Lucille Ball commemorative plates you found on eBay, then wrap them up in silver paper and send them on their way.

Some modern couples, such as the pair who wrote to me, don't want to register, either because they don't need gifts or because they'd prefer cash. Not registering leaves friends and relations to their own devices: They may figure out that the couple wants cash for travel (as I've explained, it isn't nice to ask for money outright), or they may decide that the couple really wants membership in a cheese-of-the-month club. Heck, they may give nothing but love and good wishes -- and that would still be acceptable.

Have I mentioned recently that the thought counts? We love our loved ones no matter what gifts they give us.

Dear Social Grace,
My husband and I, both in our 40s, have been married for four years. My husband's mother, of whom I was very fond, died recently after a short illness. Before she died, she gave me an amber pendant (which I had often admired). It is a lovely piece and has been in the family for a long time. I was very touched to be given this gift, and I wear the pendant proudly.

Or I used to. My husband's sister recently visited us ... and I think you see where this is going: Sis wants the pendant. Sis noticed the pendant around my neck and spent a few moments talking about how she'd always loved it. Later that evening, she took me aside and said, "You know, it would be good if you could leave the pendant to me when you die -- that way it will stay in the family."

Now, I think that this request was an unforgivable breach of etiquette, though my husband doesn't think it was such a big deal. How should I handle this request? How should I have handled it at the time? (I think I just stood there, eyes wide, mouth agape, for a minute or two, before I turned and walked away.) I haven't yet made any changes to my will.

Amber Pendant

Dear Ms. Pendant,
To my mind, silently gaping was really your best course of action. As much as I love a snappy comeback, I wouldn't have met this dreadful request with anything other than stunned silence and a wide-eyed stare: It's a combination that speaks volumes.

You've given me a good excuse to go over a remedial etiquette lesson: Kids, it's never right to tell a family member (or imply) that his or her death is an event we are counting on or looking forward to. (If said family member does die suddenly, why, your comments might even get you in trouble.)

While it is customary to leave heirlooms to members of one's family -- and marriage has brought you and this covetous woman into the same family -- the fate of your personal effects after your death is strictly your concern. If the subject doesn't come up again, you might generously try to write the whole incident off as the grief-stricken ramblings of a bereaved daughter. If she insists on the point, though, I'd refer her to the attorney handling my will ... and maybe hire a food tester.

Dear Social Grace,
I was attending the New Orleans Jazz Fest last spring with a close friend. The first day was lots of fun; we drank lots and enjoyed the music. We each had backpacks filled with stuff (food, drinks, hats, cameras, etc.). On the second day, we decided not to carry our backpacks. But on the way out the door, my friend picked up his binoculars and slung them over my shoulder for me to carry. I wasn't too thrilled about this -- I made that clear at the time -- mainly because we were supposed to be traveling light and we really didn't need them.

On the way home after a long day, I lost the binoculars. ... After we tried in vain to find them, my friend mentioned they were expensive.

My first question is this: Am I fully, partially, or not responsible for replacing the binoculars (though I didn't ask to bring, borrow, or carry them)? ... Second, this particular model isn't made any longer, and the newer versions cost about twice as much. Should I get the closest replacement model possible (both in cost and quality), or should I just cut him a check?

Thanks for your help.


Dear Jeff,
When something like this happens to two friends, one hopes that in the ensuing polite-athon (you insisting on paying for the item, your friend insisting that he won't hear of it) they work out a gentleperson's agreement. In your case, a half-and-half arrangement sounds reasonable.

Here's the lesson we keep returning to: People are always more important than possessions. When a dear friend accidentally loses our favorite binoculars, we may have to grit our teeth and silently remind ourselves of this fact (and of the fact that we did force him to carry them, after all) -- but we should then be able to move on to the forgiving smiles.

When we accidentally lose a friend's binoculars, we concentrate not on the binoculars but on our friend's feelings. "How would I feel if he'd lost my favorite sweater?" we ask ourselves. This should make us want to compensate for the loss.

If I were in your shoes, I'd call my close friend, apologize, and ask what I could do to make the loss up to him. It's called being the bigger person, and sometimes friendship requires it.

About The Author

Social Grace


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