NO SOONER has the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie been served than we begin the exalted family ritual: the drawing of the names. There’s a certain historic economic sense to this in a family of six siblings. When we were all little girls, it was hard to make that $1.25 allowance stretch five ways, so we adopted the practice of choosing names. Instead of spending a quarter on each sister, we bestowed a generous five of them on one.
Those of us old enough to augment our finances with baby-sitting money could afford to go to the store and buy a gift that a sister might actually desire. The younger, penniless ones had to make stuff. Strange stuff. Odd things, crafted out of crud rolling around in the junk drawer.
One year, my youngest sister, Michelle, drew my name. Sigh. Michelle was always drawing my name, and I had a collection of unique and imaginative gifts made at the kitchen table and involving, in some way, homemade paste. In those materialistic, self-centered teen years, I didn’t want macaroni glued to a coffee can and spray-painted gold. I wanted real merchandise. I wanted a crocheted polyester vest, a purse with leather fringe, and a 45 vinyl single of Ed Ames singing “Who Will Answer?” That year, Santa brought none of those things, and what Michelle gave me was a true mystery: eight sections of a cardboard egg carton, cut into bits and painted with sticky blobs of color from a Prang paint box, stuffed into one leg of a pair of nylons, tied with a bow. These days, my sister is a gifted graphic artist at an ad agency, and you’d have to pay a pretty penny to get that kind of work out of her. Back in those days, I was not as spiritually developed as I am now, and to my own discredit, I probably wasn’t gracious.
Now that we’re grown up, who gets whose name doesn’t much matter. We’re each old enough to make money, more or less, and our gifts are usually identifiable within 60 seconds of unwrapping. They are often useful, occasionally attractive. It’s not so much a matter of collecting loot anymore. It’s more a matter of connecting.
These days, with three of my sisters married and raising children and the other two busy with their own lives, I don’t get many private moments with any one of them. When we gather, it’s en famille, so to speak, and it’s a big famille: Santa brings presents for 21. With brothers-in-law, squalling infants, roaming toddlers, and teens bringing home college roommates, there is little chance for me to exchange more with a sister than a glance, a wink, and a laugh. Or a gift.
At least that particular exchange allows for a message, albeit a silent one. Buying her a gift, whichever “her” it was in any given year, gave me the chance to devote undiluted thought to just that sister. Not to her as a wife, not to her as a mother, not to her as one-sixth of all of us, but to her as just herself. What would she like? Would she want it in red or purple? Is she really the faux leopard type? Does she already possess three of this particular Tupperware item?
Last year, I drew Michelle’s name. Because she is as mad for the Highlander television series as I am (and for its lead, Adrian Paul, possibly the handsomest man God ever made), I ordered a box full of exotic items from an organization of Highlander zealots in Illinois. Logo-burdened T-shirts, hair barrettes, a key chain, a wallet, and (hardest of all to part with) a collection of publicity stills of his smoldering Celtic immortalness. Silly? To you, maybe. But I understand her love of this nonsense, and I like it about her. That’s what this gift means, and she knows.
In the storm of 21 people shrieking, laughing, and tearing the paper and bows off of a pile of presents, there are a few quieter messages. See, I noticed you took up biking this year. Look, I remembered you love wool socks. Hey, all the way over here, through the crowd, I can see who you are.
In a way, the drawing of the names assigns us each one sister to single out for a moment, and in a brood of half a dozen siblings, feeling singled out is rare. Being seen as an individual, with her own odd quirks and yearnings, is possibly the best gift of all. Especially when it comes from someone who used to borrow your Monkees album and who knows what you look like in pink foam curlers. And Michelle? If you get my name, this year I want pantyhose stuffed with egg cartons.
This first appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine, December 1998