In today’s Carolyn Hax advice column at the Washington Post, someone wants to know whether they need to get a wedding gift for a deadbeat bride who happens to also be a relative. As in all good advice-column questions, you can feel the heat of the writer’s anger rising in waves off the screen:
Do I buy the bride-to-be a wedding gift, even though she owes me money she borrowed and never paid back? I’m not the only person to whom she owes money, by the way. It’s like we’re paying for her wedding because she’s kept the money and it rankles to have to fork out more cash to buy a gift. It complicates matters that she’s a family member. Is there a polite way to say your wedding gift is that you don’t have to pay me back?
I love this question because the letter writer “J.” clearly believes the answer should be “No, Of Course You Shouldn’t Have To Get This Dumbquat A Present; How Dare She Get Married When She Owes You Money? She Should Be Glad You’re Even Going To Her Farce of a Ceremony.” J. is writing because J.–who I will assign the gender ze/zir for clarity’s sake–wants zir righteous indignation confirmed. I love righteous indignation. I love how enraged entitled people get when faced with other people’s entitlement.
This question also makes my heart flutter in gleeful circles because it’s about weddings, which get increasingly Tim Burton-esque as the years go by and only richer folks get married; and because it’s about gift-giving, which fascinates me as a phenomenon. I’d say gift-gifting is what separates us from the animals except that it doesn’t. There was an aloof and dignified neighborhood cat that befriended my family while I was growing up and liked to use our house as a shortcut to the woods. Every once in a while, he would leave us a dead mouse on the doorstep as a token of his appreciation.
You could argue that the vermin was a toll he paid, rather than a gift he gave, but since he paid it voluntarily, is there a difference? That, I gather, is what is chafing the nether regions of our letter writer J., who, under other circumstances, would want to give the bride a gift out of the same generosity of spirit that led ze to lend the bride money in the first place. Because the loan hasn’t been repaid yet, though, J.’s generosity is tapped out, and the gift that society says J. should bring to the wedding feels more like a toll J. must pay than a present J. would like to give.
But we don’t wait to get married til we have discharged all of our outstanding fiduciary obligations, anymore than we only have children when we are free of debt. As Carolyn says, J. does not need to bring a present to the wedding. No one needs to: weddings are not bridges we must pay to cross. I think, however, that J. should bring/send something, even if it is a mere token (wine glasses to toast the couple’s new life together is my fallback). J. should try to remember and reclaim that original largeness of spirit that encouraged ze to lend money to a family member, which is a valuable impulse. If J. gets any joy from seeing this family member enter into a state of wedded bliss, J. should try to tap into that joy, rather than zir own feelings of pettiness & resentment. Not for the bride, but for zirself.
Also, it’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: never loan money you can’t handle not having repaid to you, especially when family is involved. Once the money’s out of your hands, think of it as a gift, even if it isn’t; that way, if you don’t get it back, you won’t be bitter, and if you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.