Simple Gifts


I spent most of this past week in New York City, attending our semi-annual family gatherings. I love New York at Christmas time. The bustling crowds, Salvation Army bells, and the smell of hot chestnuts wafting up from the streets bring me back to childhood, memories of something exciting about to happen. Anticipation was the best part. I have since come to realize that the best gifts are the simplest ones.

As a child, presents on Christmas day were fraught with anxiety. Would I get what I wanted? Would my presents be as good as my siblings’? Would my parents like what I gave them? I was so attuned to the emotional charge around gifts – the judgment of whether I showed enough appreciation in receiving, or made the right choice in what I gave – that it sapped much of my joy. I was usually in tears by the end of the morning.

Gifts are meant to be a symbol of love. The problem with so much emphasis on what we buy, or even make, is that if they don’t fulfill the other person’s hopes or expectations, and be misconstrued for insufficient love.

So what’s the answer?  One came last week while sitting with my 99-year-old father in the home where I grew up. He was settled in his usual chair in the library when I arrived to say good morning after a breakfast out with a cousin. As usual, he was delighted to see me. He loves companionship, and loves the company of family best of all.

I drew up the chair next to him and sat down. We talked for a few minutes before I noticed his eyes drooping. He had been to an office party the night before, with several hundred people, and appeared to need more sleep. I said to him, “Dad, I love your company and also need to do a few emails. Do you want to close your eyes for a while?” I knew he would not admit to being tired, but this approach seemed to work. His eyes relaxed into sleep almost immediately. Sitting together in silence was
the greatest gift we could have given each other.

What are the best kind of gifts for you?

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17 Responses to Simple Gifts

  1. Susan M Greene, diGA-RDC says:

    What a beautiful moment. I am so glad I read your book. It was so touching. I am glad it is on my Kindle and I reread it as often as I wish. Thank you.myour blogs are marvelous. As a New Yorker and Artist, I have so much to thank your family for….especially THE CLOISTERS. IT HAS BEEN A PLACE OF PRAYER AND REFLCTION AT ONCE A MONTH. Now at almost 78 And moving soon to Cabrini on the Hudson I can not just jump on the subway or city bus as I did but I still go there in spirit and unity. Do you know of the Focolare Movement…..I feel you would like to know about it. I have been a member since 1985. Look up and Living City Magazine. I am delighted to know you. Uno,Susan

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      How wonderful to hear how much the Cloisters have meant to you Susan. I like to think they have inspired peace and contemplation for many. The views across to the Palisades were saved by my grandfather so that the whole experience, both inside and out, would be a rest for heart and soul.

      I did look up the Focolare Movement. Thank you for mentioning it. I love the meaning of the name’s origin, of hearth and family fireside. That’s what I intend to inspire in my blog.

      With blessings and wishes for good health this coming New Year — Eileen

  2. John says:

    Unconditional love, i.e., life without expectations is blissful.

  3. Elaine M. Naddaff says:

    Hi Eileen, MERRY CHRISTMAS ! The photo of NYC you posted glows. It is special to read that you enjoy returning to “home” for family visits and time with your father. You may be like my youngest sister who spent every dinner with my father, after my mother passed away. My dad’s eyes lit up, when she and her husband and two sons would greet my dad for dinner every evening!

    Rest assured you were never deprived, never neglected, never overlooked, never forgotten, never left out for good reasons, never Neva… Being the youngest has its privleges.

    All I wish for this Christmas will come true. Coal stays out of my stocking! I am grateful.

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Hi Elaine, I hope you have had a wonderful Christmas. You are right that being the youngest has its privileges, but every family is different. In fact I was left out, forgotten, and overlooked, but not without reason from the perspective of my siblings. I don’t harbor any blame or ill feelings towards them, as we were all simply trying to survive the best we could with a very depressed and often angry mother, and the reality of what was has formed who I am today. We are shaped by the ways we have suffered, and it informs our purpose in life. I wonder how your childhood shaped you? Blessings, Eileen

  4. Phyll says:

    Eileen, I can relate to everything you expressed so beautifully. As the youngest of 3 girls, I had the biggest pile of presents each Christmas. Modest gifts, but lots to open, nevertheless. As the years went by, I began to feel guilty and sad for my sisters, whose piles were half the size of mine. And, it bothered me. One year I asked “Santa” for a Barbie Doll but received a less-costly version, a
    Mitzi Doll, instead. Her skin wasn’t tan like Barbie’s or velvet-like. Her whole “look” was different, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. Like many of your Christmas-pasts, mine often ended in tears.

    Plus, Dad was Italian and Mom, Jewish. Even though she never said a word about it, I’m sure Christmas didn’t mean as much to her. Still, she bravely went along with getting a tree, sending out cards, decorating the house inside-and-out, and celebrating in true Gentile-style.

    In recent years, Christmas has come to mean celebrating the friends and family who are closest to me. My furry felines, Dancer, sister Bonnie, and my 96-year old Mom whose life and very Being are the true meaning of Christmas to me: LOVE. I cherish each and every day/moment with her and all of the Beings and spirits of the season—now and forever (especially fur-ever!) It’s the simple things and the magic we can’t see, yet deeply feel in our hearts, that mean the most to me.

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Dear Phyll, that must have been so hard for your mother, not to have her own traditions honored alongside of your fathers. Many people have these kinds of multi-identities. It is what makes this country rich in spirit, and complicated at the same time. I love the salad bowl of our country, and I’m aware of its simultaneous challenges. How wonderful that you are aware of both. Happy New Year to you, with love, Eileen

  5. Louise Gilbert says:

    Dear Eileen, how kind, how tender, how sweet you are!! Thank you for sharing this special moment with your father! Hugs, Louise

  6. Judith Meyncke says:

    Dear Eileen, What a sweet, sweet story. Oh, how I could feel what you were conveying regarding the gift giving aspect of your childhood. The photo you posted of our spectacular “New York City” warmed my heart so. Just what I needed. For many reasons. Thank you. The most special gift I could ever have imagined (fast forwarding to) present day is my faith and belief in Jesus Christ, my loving, supportive, fun and invigorating friends, my English Shire Draft horse, my health, the love of my small family, and being able to live in Vermont. Love, Judy

  7. eileenrockefeller says:

    Dear Judith, Thanks for your warm response. It sounds like you have a lot to be grateful for. Happy and healthy New Year! Warmest wishes, Eileen

  8. Richard Trenner says:

    Dear Eileen,

    A very nice story about you and your father at Christmastime in the city. A Christmas story, really. Parent and child together by the fireside. What is unspoken yet heard is love.

    I like to think that I can engage just about everybody in conversation—often by asking the questions and keeping the talk focused on the other person. This is partly “good manners” and partly a form of hiding from the other person as well as from myself. In any event, I talk too much. But NOT having to speak and just letting silence “happen” can also be a very good form of communication….

    I was supposed to be doing tangibly constructive things all this wintry Sunday, but I’ve spent it reading your book. I’ve liked reading it for all sorts of reasons: so many moving stories (sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes both); insights into growing up and dancing the dances of family life, scenes from places I happen to know and love (Mount Desert, Blue Mountain Lake, Middlebury, and, of course, NYC), vignettes of a few people I’ve known, and your determination to “tell it like it is,” NOT how you might wish it were or had been…. What I’ve liked best is how, in your book, you show a lot, think a lot, illuminate a lot about being and becoming—starting with what you’re given in a certain time and place, and then making something new and better in another time and place.

    Too often, I’ve allowed myself to feel surprised (amazed, really) when members of families I’ve known or have known about—families that, on the face of things, seem to be floating on golden islands—suffer tragedies, quite often of their own making. I have to remind myself that I ought not be surprised by what, deep down, I’ve already known. In this case, that everyone is a human being much more than any special type of human being—and that what we have in common is far greater than what we don’t.

    “WELL” (as one of your uncles liked to say), thanks for your memories.


    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Dear Richard, I’m deeply touched by your comment on this post. What moves me is not only how closely you read my book, but that you got the central theme, that at our core we are all the same. This is the message I wish for all the world to know. It might help us to feel a little safer with each other, and to treat each other with greater kindness; something we need more of that in today’s world.
      I’m curious as to whether we’ve met, given the paths we’ve intersected. Many thanks for writing. And Happy New Year! Eileen

      • eileenrockefeller says:

        P.S. are you the photographer and communications coach?

        • Richard Trenner says:

          Dear Eileen,

          Thank you for your good and encouraging words about my comment on your lovely Christmas post. (By the way, I’m sorry I had you and your father sitting “by the fireside”; you didn’t say anything about WHERE in the library you and he were sitting. I guess I was just thinking… “If it’s Christmas there must be a the crackling of logs.”)

          If there’s any fundamental message for the world to know, it is, as you say, “that AT OUR CORE WE ARE ALL THE SAME.” In a sense, I’ve “known” that message most of my life, but I’ve only really “felt” the truth and value of it in recent years. (“Knowing” without “feeling” is never enough. It’s like going to a dance and there is no music.) In large part, I’ve come to feel as well as know our “common core” by coming to accept myself. If and when you break down internal barriers, you become freer to break down external barriers. For me, that’s one of the themes of your book.

          Think of all the barriers that humans have created and respond to: race, gender, age, education, IQ, class, nationality, “regionality,” kinship, religion, sexual orientation, money, looks, “taste,” manners, speech/accent, health, height, weight, etc. These are all ways of judging and excluding because we are taught early on to focus on the differences, not the commonalities (which are so much greater, after all). When people build barriers to wall others out, they wall themselves out, too. No one can build a one-sided wall.

          How very relevant your theme–that what we all share as human beings is far greater than what we don’t. I thought of that the other when I was Skyping with my younger son, who’s at high school in New England. He seemed much less energetic, much less chipper than usual. He said that, the usual pressures aside–tests, essays, sports, college applications, etc.–nothing was wrong personally. But he said that he felt sad and anxious because of the nightmarish killings in Paris. (I’ve been around long enough that massacres, whether in Paris, Oslo, or Connecticut, carry an awful sense of déjà vu. But, at 17 my second child’s too young for that.) Now what were those killings about if not the brutal and tragic repudiation of the central fact “that at our core we are all the same”?

          Well, it’s very useful that your book is about learning to see walls and then learning to break them down (or at least get to the other side). Your central message reminds me of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

          Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
          That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
          And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
          And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

          Well, as you can probably sense, I LOVE writing letters. But I’d better be a good boy, end this letter, and do some “work-work.” Regarding your postscript, I’ll reply off-line so that I don’t appear to the world like an awful name-dropper.

          But, wait, I can’t stop just yet…! Speaking of name-dropping, here’s a story that will amuse you: A couple of years ago, a friend of mine (name-dropping alert!) Charlie Scribner, was giving a talk in the city on the recovery of stolen art. Appropriately enough, Charlie mentioned a number of well-known people from the art world–the making, collecting, and studying of art. At one point he said to the audience: “I realize I’ve been quite a few dropping names. And I know it’s considered tacky. But there’s one more name that’s just too good to pass up… As I said to Queen Noor the other day….”

          NOW I’ll stop!

          All best,


          • eileenrockefeller says:

            Dear Richard, You pose much for me to ponder. I can see why you are a good teacher, and writer and communications coach. Thank you for spelling out so articulately the need to see walls before we break them down. I really like that. And I agree whole-heartedly that it is seeing the commonality among us that will ultimately draw us together. When I rag on myself for not speaking another language fluently, I ultimately take solace in the fact that I do speak the one universal language; the language of the heart. Thanks for sharing in it with me. All best, Eileen

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