Give Yourself (a story about Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Denise Tracy

"What do you want for your birthday?" the father asked his daughter. "Do you want a doll?"

She wrinkled her nose and scrunched her eyes and thought. "No."

"A tea set?"

"A pony?"

"No, Father, I have a year to think. I want this year to be a special year, to remember."

"All right. You think and let me know."

Ellen thought. She thought of bonbons, chocolate, new dresses, hats, kid boots, books, gloves, lace collars, but none of these were what she wanted. What would be special?

Each day her father asked her, "Ellen, do you know what you want for your birthday yet?"

And Ellen would shake her head, "No, Father, I’m still thinking."

After four days her father said, "Ellen?"

"Yes, Father, I’ve decided."


"I have a riddle. It will tell you what gift I want for my birthday. The riddle is this: You cannot buy it, for it is worth all the money you have, but only you can give it."

"I need to repeat this riddle because it will tell me what gift you want for your birthday—I cannot buy it, because it is worth all the money I have, but only I can give it. Is that right?"

"Yes, Father."

"Well, now it is my turn to think about your riddle. I have to find the perfect present in the mystery."

Her father paced and pondered. He repeated the riddle over and over. "I cannot buy it, but only I can give it." He paced and pondered. Finally, he smiled, "I know what it is! I know what it is!" Now he had to think about how to give it.

When Ellen’s birthday came there was no present from her father. She didn’t expect one. After she had opened the presents from her brother and sister, from her mother and grandmother, and after the cake was all gone and the celebration over, Ellen’s father said, "It is now time for Ellen’s present from me. Ellen, come and sit with me."

So Ellen climbed into the armchair and sat on her father’s lap. "My present to you is very special. I hope it is what you wanted—for it is not a book, or a toy, or clothes, but instead it is a present that is for all seasons and for each day. This year your birthday present from me is that we will spend time together every week, just the two of us. For you are my very special daughter and I love you dearly."

Ellen hugged him. "Oh, Father, I knew you would figure out the riddle."

Her father said, "You cannot buy it, for it is worth all the money you have, but only you can give it. It took me a long time to figure out the answer, but when I did I knew what gift you wanted. The answer was simple—give yourself."

"Oh, Father, I wanted a gift to make this year special. Time together with you will make this year the very best year of my life!"

Ellen looked at her father’s eyes. "Why Father, you are crying!"

"Yes. You teach me more than any book I’ve ever read or written. By giving you time, I will gain more than I give."

It was Ellen’s turn to figure out this riddle. How could her father, by spending time with her, get more than he gave? She thought she knew, love multiplies. But perhaps she would only understand when she was older, when she had children of her own.

But her father understood. And when he wrote an essay on Giving, he wrote "Give yourself." For he knew the wonder of this gift. Ralph Waldo Emerson.