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Guest Prep

The hidden meanings of summer-houseguest gifts.

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They picked me up from the train station. I swam in their pool. I ate their crab cakes. I sat on their patio and sipped a gin-and-tonic and gazed at their backyard fireflies. I slept in their sheets. I dreamed under their roof. I read their New York Times. They dropped me off at the train station.

The hosts of a summer weekend are sometimes saints, sometimes drill sergeants. No matter which, they must be thanked. And the coded messages a gift can telegraph need careful parsing.

Missteps are all too possible, and can even be so bad as to appear taunting. Venison pâté for the vegan. Johnnie Walker Blue for the recovered alcoholic. I once gave a family a seemingly quaint early-1900s book about child-rearing. After reading it thoroughly (unlike me), my host finally told me that its premise was that families be kept “pure.” I had bequeathed her some racist propaganda.

Hosts can smell desperation. One must beware of backing them into a corner with a case of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame. One must have dignity. Promises of grand favors should not be used to wheedle another invitation to Shelter Island. And there’s the danger of the heart-on-its-sleeve present. A guest who brings an elaborate collection of packages, tied with curling ribbons and festooned with cards, might be the one who will get blind drunk at dinner and tell everyone everything they never wanted to know about her pending divorce.

Your gift should be tailored: What’s proper to one host is boring to another. A favorite couple, whose Southampton summer house is a carefree, adults-gone-wild circus, don’t want my home-baked scones. They don’t want table linens from Provence or a bouquet of lilacs. Good manners on those weekends is a big bottle of Russian vodka and a case of Red Bull.

The choice can hinge on whether the gift is brought to the house—in which case one feels the good citizen throughout the stay, although the end is anticlimactic—or sent afterward: a nobler finish, but lacking the satisfaction of an actual handoff. It’s a pleasure to provide Saturday’s breakfast of caviar cream cheese, smoked sturgeon, and pumpernickel bagels picked up from Russ & Daughters. But if the party lamented the lost art of letter-writing during the weekend, it’s fun to send a couple of boxes of orphic Parisian stationery from Bergdorf’s.

A good present stamps an emblem on the time spent together. It can mark solidarity: If my host is another single girl, a rose-pink Chanel lipstick stands for the possibilities we both love in a summer evening. It can celebrate what was best about a weekend: If a host family’s home is particularly insulated from the crazy modern world, send the children sparklers, rock candy, and Tintin books to commemorate the rare simplicity of the visit.

I stay away from the middlemen, like RedEnvelope. My currency is obscurity, and I like to give combinations of things. Esoteric and utilitarian, together, usually add up. A mid-century Chesapeake Bay cookbook from the Strand with a bottle of Pernod for the lobster-bisque recipe. A bohemian pairing of sandalwood incense and peach brandy.

The sweetest version of this approach came from my brother’s girlfriend one August. My family woke up to the smell of heaven. She’d brewed coffee brought from Seattle, and picked blackberries from the woods to make a crumb cake. We devoured the breakfast. It was beautiful, spiritually—and materially—decadent, and ephemeral. Like the best weekends.


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