On a recent trip to France, I visited many tourist sites—Monet’s home and garden at Giverny, the Palais Garnier Opera in Paris, the Papal Palace in Avignon. One thing they all had in common, I discovered, was that once you got in the only way out—sortie, in French—was through the gift shop.
That put me off a bit. I’m OK with gift shops; all over the world they stock similar items—playing cards, stuffed animals, scented candles, and the like. But making a visit to the gift shop compulsory—that seemed a little crass.
And yet, the more gift shops I visited—and the more I thought about them—I began to see in the requirement to “exit through the gift shop” an unexpected bit of wisdom.
It got me thinking about mortality. I’m in my 70th year, and while these days that’s not considered very old, it is certainly closer to dusk than dawn. Naturally, at times, I’ve found myself wondering how I’ll manage the final exit.
Now, considering my French experience, I’m thinking I may just exit through the gift shop.
I don’t mean buying stuff. As the saying goes: “A burial shroud has no pockets.”
What I mean is that I’ll try to focus on the gifts of life for which I’m most grateful and, as a useful way to give these thoughts some order, I’ll imagine them as standard items in a gift shop.
In my imaginary gift shop, for example, there’ll be the usual deck of playing cards, but on the back of each card, instead of photos of famous landmarks, will be images of the people I’m most grateful to have had in my life: two cards for my parents, one each for my brother and late sister, one for my beloved partner, three for my kids, one for their mom, two for my sons-in-law, five for grandkids, one for my best teacher, and half a dozen for closest friends.
In my mind, I can flip through these cards, shuffle them, and cut the deck, but on each one will be the face of a person whom I have felt blessed to have known.
My gift shop will also have stuffed animals: a big one for the tricolor Collie of my childhood; a smaller one for the lovable Lab-Dachshund mix—just 11 inches high—of my children’s early years.
There’ll be scented candles, too, but these won’t be lavender, lemon, or rosemary. One will be the sweet smell from childhood of autumn leaves burning at curbside. Two others will evoke my dad: one, the aroma of tobacco from the pipe he smoked when I was young; the other, the smell of ink that would hit my nose the moment I entered his print shop.
Is there a gift shop anywhere without bobble heads? In mine, they will be of editors, therapists, rabbis, bosses, and colleagues who guided me in work and in life, and to whom I always remain grateful.
There’ll be tiny souvenir spoons, too, each with the name of a home or restaurant where I had a great meal made all the better by good conversation with friends.
And there’ll be decorative coffee mugs. On the outside of each is an inspiring or clever inscription that helped me stay grounded or on track. One says, “Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday and all is well.” On another: “Character is what you do on the second, third, and fourth try.”
Finally, my gift shop will have jigsaw puzzles but not of lovely landscapes or seascapes. Instead, they’ll depict difficult situations—losses and assorted troubles, some of my own making—that in my life I had to work through and resolve. I include them because with hindsight we know that sometimes it’s only through wrestling with the tough puzzles that we grow.
So, there’s an inventory of my gift shop of gratitude—the one through which I plan to exit. You might want to construct your own gift shop, too. Any time—especially the holiday season—can be a good time to start.
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article first appeared in Next Avenue, a publication produced by Twin Cities PBS.