26. The Big Gift

26. The Big Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

The Big Gift

Having a sister is like having a best friend you can’t get rid of. You know whatever you do, they’ll still be there.

~Amy Li

Everyone was looking at me, expecting something. My mom and dad had their beaming “learning moment” grins on; my seven-year-old little sister was on the edge of her seat, wide-eyed, eager, and nervous.

I was fourteen and had decided I was beyond Christmas. I had proclaimed myself too old for hand-knit stockings that embarrassed me, men in red suits with whiskey-breath, afternoons spent trying to remove sticky icing from my fingers, and days spent with my family, who constantly displayed their inability to understand the struggles of teenage relationships.

As the smells of the evergreen tree danced in the air, I was too preoccupied to notice. I was thinking of the concert tickets I was trying to save up for and wondering how soon I could begin my daily hour-long phone call with my best friend.

But here we were, Christmas morning, and everyone in my family was staring at me. I blinked, clueless.

“What am I missing?” I thought. I looked at the present in my hands, ready to open it.

My brother smirked in the corner, shoving dry cereal into his mouth at lightning speed. But my sister had a look of pure anticipation.

The present was taped up messily with silver paper. This gift seemed tattered, torn, and lost. The little tag read, “To: Allison, From: Saundra.”

I looked across the tree at Saundra, my little sister, who still sat nervously.

My brain worked hard to assess the situation. Eventually, with the logic innate only to a self-centered teen, my heart quickened and I thought, “This is IT! This is going to be my biggest and best Christmas gift of the year!”

You know, the Big Gift.

Every Christmas is defined by one gift we either receive or give. It is the gift that elevates the holidays and makes us feel loved. It is the gift we fondly remember year after year.

“This is going to be the exclusive set of CDs I’ve been dying for!” my head deduced. I was set to get the Big Gift.

The nervous tension in the room now felt good and I started to ride on adrenaline. I had the spotlight and I was excited! I began to tear off the paper, slowly, from one corner, always a performer who knew how to work a crowd.

As the big unveil happened, all I had was confusion.

I peeled back the paper to reveal… a puzzle I already owned!

That first second when the gift receiver peers under the paper is the most critical second in the history of all holidays and major events. So much rides on that first second. It is then that relationships are broken or undying gratitude extended. It is that first second that makes gift giving worth it, or a terrible mistake. That first second that reveals your true feelings: “Wow, I love it!” or “Wow, I don’t like it at all.”

That first second never lies.

I was now in that first second, and it was nothing but confusion.

My sister was crushed.

“Why would she get me a puzzle just like one I already own?” I haughtily thought to myself.

I looked closer as I removed the rest of the wrapping. It was open, worn, and the box was ripped.

I quickly realized that this WAS my puzzle, pulled from my own closet!

I looked up, confused as to why I was getting my old, used, worn out puzzle rewrapped and presented to me on the holiest of gift-giving days. What was I missing? Was there a hidden message that would lead me on a scavenger hunt to my new CD set?

Mom and Dad were still giving me The Look, still waiting for me to do something, to learn a lesson, to say something beautiful.

My sister just stared at her slippers, tugging sadly at a piece of string sticking to her flannel pajamas. I had let her down. That first second crushed her; my follow up reaction of nothingness was worse.

My dad swept in to clear the ugly silence. “Your sister really wanted to give you something this year, specifically just from her to you, with no help at all.”

It turns out that my little sister, the youngest of three, was determined to keep up with the rest of the family. She was going to give each person in the family a unique gift, from her to each of us. This was the first Christmas where she understood that giving meant something.

But she was seven. She didn’t have transportation, a big enough allowance, or the maturity to form a plan. So two days before Christmas, gift-less, she got resourceful.

She hunted through the house, looking for something I treasured. She found this dusty old puzzle, wiped it off, and wrapped it. She proudly placed it under the tree, ready for me to open it.

That puzzle was her heart. She had boxed up all that she could give, her hope and gratitude and seven-year-old memories of my time loving the puzzle, and wrapped it. Determined that I would get a gift from her, she sat there on Christmas morning, excited to watch me open the very first gift she had ever independently selected and prepared for any one.

And in that first second I failed.

I would like to say that I sat with renewed interest in that puzzle, lovingly putting the jigsaw pieces back together, basking in memories of times past sitting on the floor doing puzzles. Even more, I would love to say that my sister and I worked that jigsaw puzzle together every Christmas since.

But I was fourteen. I gave her a hug, said a polite “thank you,” and began to patiently wait for the CD set to appear from somewhere under the tree.

More than two decades have passed since that Christmas. Interestingly, I don’t remember what else I received that year. I certainly don’t currently own the CD set I so desperately wanted, I can’t even say for certain that I received it.

But I do remember that puzzle. I remember the shiny paper. I remember the worn out box. I remember the look in my sister’s eyes as my selfish reaction failed her. I remember Dad giving her a consolation hug afterward, saying he was proud of her.

Since that Christmas, I have learned to control that first second. I have also learned that the Big Gift is never the one you expect or ask for. That Christmas I had received the Big Gift. I was just too blind to realize it.

~Allison Barrett Carter

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