The perfect present

When it comes to presents, I've got a lot to learn. But with practice, I can only get better

How would you feel if you got two pillows for your birthday?

Not ordinary pillows though.

One is a large, V-shaped pillow to prop up in bed so you can sit back and read comfortably. The other is a flattish 2m-long bolster you can wrap your whole body around. It's called a body pillow and used by pregnant women.

Would you regard these as nice presents?

Till today, I can't quite understand why H didn't think so.

I gave him those two pillows for his birthday last July and was surprised when he didn't express delight at receiving them.

In fact, he got rather cross with me.

I realise pillows aren't the most romantic of presents, but surely the ones I chose were useful, original and funny?

I would have liked them, honestly.

For years, my mother has been giving me bedsheets for my birthday and I've appreciated them, which is why I couldn't understand H's tight smile when I presented him with the pillows.

He said it wasn't just that they were pillows. They were also unwrapped. (True, they were in two Takashimaya paper bags.)

Oh come on, I said, do you realise how big the bolster-pillow is? What a waste of gift paper if I had to wrap it.

What got him more miffed, though, was that I had bought the present only on his birthday and had given it to him that night when we both got home from work.

Presents should be given first thing in the morning, he said. That is the only acceptable time.

I was genuinely puzzled.

But it's still your birthday, I said. The day hasn't ended.

And I did put in effort, I added.

It wasn't easy deciding what to get you and I was so pleased with myself when I hit on the brainwave of the unusual pillows (a pregnant colleague had been raving about how comfortable a body pillow was).

You like to read in bed but look uncomfortable doing so. And although you say you don't need a bolster, you're always stealing mine, so it's time you got your own.

I'd nipped out of the office during lunchtime and driven from Toa Payoh to Takashimaya to get them. That took effort.

I hadn't got them earlier as I was busy at work and I couldn't have done it on weekends as we're together all the time and there was no way I could have hidden from you something so large.

I asked if he would have preferred a more expensive present. He said no. He would have been happy if I had just drawn him a card and surprised him with it that morning. (I hadn't given him a card either.)

He's right. I'm lousy at presents.

In our five years of marriage, I've bought him lots of clothes, skincare, a wallet, gym bag, sunglasses - but they were not wrapped or presented on a "special" day.

(Hope you like the wallet, I'd say. It's your birthday present okay - even though his birthday was months away.) I think I've only ever given him two wrapped-up gifts.

It's not that I don't care.

It's more that I am unromantic and don't place great store on "special occasions" such as Valentine's Day, birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas. I don't like the pressure of having to live up to the hype. Why must presents be tied to a particular day?

He, on the other hand, believes that such days ought to be marked. He draws me cards, brings me breakfast in bed (complete with pancakes decorated with fruits and nuts forming a smiley face) and gives me presents I can't complain about.

I flounder in the gifts department because I come from a family without a tradition of exchanging gifts.

Birthdays weren't really celebrated. Sometimes there would be a birthday cake, sometimes not, and it wasn't a big deal either way. My parents would give us a small hongbao or something useful (like bedsheets) and that was it.

They also didn't expect presents on their birthdays and wedding anniversary. At most we'd draw them a card or do a little collage. When we got older, we gave them money.

My sister and I aren't big on birthdays either. She might send me a card but I rarely send her one, but we'll chat on the phone. I don't even give my niece and nephew birthday and Christmas presents, and neither do they give them to me, although I wire them money sometimes, and when they visit, I buy them things.

It's not that I'm a scrooge. When I travel I like buying presents for my family, but these are spontaneous gifts not tied to a particular day and, hence, no stress is involved. Besides, these sort of presents don't have to be wrapped. Wrapping ranks as one of my least-liked activities.

After last year's pillow fiasco, though, I resolved to do better.

H and I had a frank discussion about why he was disturbed by my cavalier approach to gifting and I explained why I was that way.

We agreed that we'd make an effort (that is, I will) on just three days a year: Valentine's Day, our birthdays and our wedding anniversary.

A good marriage, I now accept, can't be taken for granted. Secretly planning a gift to mark a special day can add excitement to our lives and draw us closer.

It need not be an expensive gift, but it should be one that will give pleasure, be a delightful surprise, decently wrapped and given on the morning of the big day.

My first test was Valentine's Day.

I thought long and hard about what to give him and did research on the Internet. But he didn't need more clothes, creams, gadgets, books or a beer mug. I started getting desperate.

Then on the way to work one morning, I heard a BBC radio programme about ukeleles enjoying a revival and that was it - my Eureka moment.

I'd get him a ukulele.

He's always wanted to learn to play an instrument and, before we got married, was teaching himself the clarinet.

A ukulele is quirky (I get points for originality) and something he would not have thought to get for himself (the surprise element). It is also apparently easy to learn (he won't be frustrated with the gift).

I Googled for ukulele shops and, one evening after work, went to Race Course Road and chose a nice-looking one. I wrapped it too.

I'm writing this before Valentine's Day and am keeping my fingers crossed that he'll be pleased with the present.

Who knows, in no time at all, he might be propped up in bed - on the pillows I got him for his birthday no less - serenading me with his ukulele.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan