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Gift Rap

Unveiling the perils of the bridal registry

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Wedding registries are an intriguing concept: Create a list of everything you need for your new home and eliminate the risk of receiving gifts of mismatched silverware, duplicate toasters and porcelain figurines. By the time you return from your honeymoon, your home will be shining proof of your exquisite taste. But as I discovered when I got married last year, registries are like sausages: They seem good until you find out what goes into them.

First, there was the question of where to register. Sailing through my twenties single in New York City, listening to soon-to-be married friends titter over Tiffany's and Bergdorf Goodman, I shuddered at the thought of one day having to "ask" my guests to buy me all that stuff. When my Boulder-bred boyfriend and I got serious and talked marriage, we half-joked about registries at the liquor and hardware stores.

But once we became engaged, we looked around our Burlington home and realized we hadn't the foggiest idea of what we really wanted. OK, we really did want the booze and the bolts, but they didn't seem appropriate. Our small kitchen was bursting with assorted cookware, our shelves stocked with plates and bowls. Today, many couples who live together before tying the knot face the same conundrum: Do we really need more stuff?

Thankfully, there are now plenty of places to pick out appropriate wedding gifts, as opposed to, say, in 19th-century France, where this whole registry thing started. You can register for canoes and camping equipment at REI, or for barbecues and weed whackers at Home Depot. The Knot, an eight-year-old Internet-based company, has a neatly packaged list of honeymoon essentials -- such as G-strings and swim flippers -- while TheBigDay.com will actually take you on your honeymoon: Guests may donate money toward your African safari or surfing trip to Hawaii. Altruistic couples wishing to take the high road can register to donate money to one of 850,000 charities through JustGive.com.

We took the low road, deciding to just get, and to upgrade our chipped dishes, scratched pots and fraying towels at Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma. And after much agonizing, we even decided to add some china to the lot, since we might actually one day grow up and not want to buy it with our own money. We'd rather spend it on surfing lessons and safaris. Silver and crystal left a bad taste in our mouths, especially after we heard about the "crystal-fund" parties apparently being thrown by people with warped senses of reality.

But after we had decided where to register, we didn't know when to do it. We had a nine-month engagement. That seemed like masses of time until I began flipping through bridal magazines, which offered tips beginning with "two years out." Whoa. No wonder brides get so crazy. I also noticed an advertisement for a "couples-only" registry event at Crate & Barrel, where we could choose our gifts in the peace and quiet of a closed store, receive a free gift, and enjoy refreshments. Splendid. After I'd convinced my fiance this would actually be fun, we made plans to visit a store in Massachusetts. We couldn't wait to get our hands on the "scanning gun."

When we arrived 10 minutes after the event began, dozens of couples were already swarming all over the store, their scanners collectively buzzing as they chose placemats, picture frames and olive picks. After collecting our free gift of champagne flutes

and eating a few chocolate-covered strawberries, we each took a deep breath and started circling the showroom slowly, careful to avoid the frenzied fiances.

We didn't feel like kids in a candy store. We felt like caged animals at the zoo with the rest of the unengaged world peering in from outside. "How about this?" I'd say, holding up a perfectly innocent glass. "Too boring," he'd mutter, shaking his head and picking out a neon-green acrylic tray straight from the Jetsons. We couldn't decide on anything. With scanners hanging limply at our sides, we took lap after lame lap. I washed down Bloody Marys with mimosas, then realized there was actually no vodka or champagne in the flutes, just tomato and orange juices that were starting to churn in my stomach.

We finally left empty-listed. Don't even ask about trying to find china at Bloomingdale's.

*****

Back home, we visited the Crate & Barrel website, where we chose a few napkin rings and a couple of vases. I poked around the online registries of complete strangers for ideas while my brother, who'd already been engaged for nine months, began snooping around our registry. He snickered at us over Easter. "What is up with you guys?" he said. "There is, like, nothing on there."

In the end, our indecisiveness worked in our favor. As I later learned, the trend these days is to register well before showers and other pre-nuptial celebrations -- ensuring the guests spend their money appropriately not once but multiple times. But we, the listless couple, received some pretty cool stuff at an engagement party the weekend after Easter -- a silver tray, a glass bowl -- that we now use all the time.

Eventually, we got serious about figuring out what we wanted -- no thanks to the magazines. I ignored Modern Bride and its pullout checklist of such "modern" necessities as cold-meat forks, cream-soup spoons, perfume atomizers and, eek, porcelain figurines. We resigned ourselves to a rough future of eating our pickled pork with a plain old fork, our vichyssoise with a regular soup spoon.

There were a few more snafus. Since I had started to work from home, I began spending hours online, sneaking additions to our registry while my fiance was at his job. As my writing deadlines piled up, my eyes glazed over the endless color choices for towels, the particular features of various food processors. With all the other crazy brides doing the exact same thing, the information took ages to download, and I grew tired of constantly switching back and forth between the stores' sites. Without knowing it, I began registering for mismatched flatware and duplicate toasters. At one point, I checked the Williams-Sonoma list and was alarmed to find our request for not one, not two, but 12 sets of signature bath towels in maize.

All this effort, I realized, might be for naught: Etiquette deems it tacky to tell anyone where you're registered, unless asked. And as our wedding day approached, I forgot about our registry and moved on to worrying about the conga line of hurricanes aiming for the East Coast -- our big day was to take place in Rhode Island. Once again, my eyes glazed -- over the endless colors on weather maps, and the particular features of hurricanes Fabian, Grace, Henri and Isabel. And then items from our registry began to appear on our doorstep, packed in millions of Styrofoam peanuts. "What exquisite taste our friends have," I thought, "giving us exactly the type of items I would have chosen for myself." Oh, wait, I did choose them for myself.

Meanwhile, my fiance, covered in packing peanuts, was perplexed. "Where did this stainless-steel mixer come from?" he'd ask, having madly scrambled through the box in hopes of finding his neon-green acrylic tray. He hates stainless steel. I'd confess that the super-deluxe system had been ordered during one of my registry freak-outs. Even I was surprised by some of the registry gifts; I wrote an effusive thank-you note to friends for ceramic pie plates they'd never given; a computer mishap had fumbled their endeavor to get us coffee mugs from Williams-Sonoma.

But the greatest surprise of all was the extraordinary generosity extended by our friends and family in the months before and after our wedding -- which Isabel obligingly dodged. Some ventured beyond the confines of our imagined coupledom, delighting us with a canoe, a Chinese platter, two gift certificates for massage. Others stocked our house with a practical collection of pots and pans, sturdy dishware and a nice collection of china -- which is stored safely in the basement for when we grow up. Still others simply showed up for the celebration, which was, of course, the most important type of presence.

It is an odd feeling to have your envisioned future on display for all the world to see. The souffles you'll make, the cookies you'll bake, the vases you'll fill with hundreds of flowers. But this is the time to percolate in possibility -- be it perfect dinner parties, far-flung travel, or helping to heal a stranger.

Oh, and, even though our wedding and the holidays have passed, Valentine's Day is right around the corner. We're registered.

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