I remember one Christmas when the members of my large family gathered for a gift exchange. We’d drawn slips of paper from a bowl twelve months earlier, and I had selected a piece of paper printed with the name of my sister-in-law. That year, I was still trying to create the picture of a perfect family. I went about it with the alternating tedium and fervor of a child putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces. When the picture puzzle is assembled, there’s nothing to do but look at it. It takes up table space, and after a day or two of admiring its intricacy, it becomes a practical decision to break it up, sweep the pieces back into the box, and put it away in the basement.
When it was time to open gifts, the family crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in the spare room my mother had decorated with a Christmas tree. The artificial tree was made of a perforated green broomstick that accepted row upon row of wire branches with bristly plastic needles. Each branch had a color of spray paint on its blunt end that corresponded to a color-coded hole in the tree trunk. After the tree was assembled, the branches were bent into a more lifelike form. When the holiday was over, the tree was pulled apart, mashed back into its box, and put away in the basement.
I remember a few of the gifts opened that Christmas. I gave my niece a stepstool that I’d painted and stenciled. It still smelled of polyurethane. My sister and I each gave our mother a navy blue handbag, and I worried about the dilemma she’d face choosing which one to use first without hurting our feelings. Someone gave someone thermal underwear.
My sister-in-law and my brother sat stiffly, side by side, on my mother’s straight-back chairs. I remember thinking the two of them looked uncomfortable, but not because of the leather-covered horsehair upholstery.
In our younger sister’s lap, her red-faced newborn daughter lay sleeping. The baby arched her neck the same way my daughter had when she was small enough to fit in my lap, her body measuring the exact length of my thigh.
Our two unmarried sisters conducted the gift exchange. They pulled presents from the glittering pile under the tree, announced the messages on the gift tags, and handed them to the proper recipients. We watched anxiously as the package contents—and the recipients’ reactions—were revealed. It’s at Christmas that children gradually acquire the etiquette of gratitude and learn the importance of concealing disillusionment. The painted stepstool and my sister’s gift of egg-shaped wooden blocks were obvious disappointments to our little nieces. We didn’t know what they were hoping their tiny fingers would unwrap, and they didn’t know what we were waiting to see in their soft baby faces. Only adults know how to manage the pretense, and our faces hurt on the day after Christmas.
I don’t remember what I unwrapped that Christmas. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t have excited me as much as the preparation for giving. That year’s was one of our last gift exchanges. To spare the expense, our mother suggested the short-lived tradition be discontinued.
For a few more years, three of us rebelliously traded Christmas presents in private, but the puzzle was never complete without every member of the family. My daughter grew older, somber, poised, and quiet. Now, only her occasionally boisterous laughter hints at what was once irrepressible energy. Eventually, with no discussion, the three gift-exchangers acquiesced. We swept up the torn wrapping paper and the ribbons. We cleared the drinks from the table. We put the Christmas ornaments away carefully in their boxes, and we carried them down to the basement.