I didn’t inherit any aptitude for gift wrapping. Whatever chromosomal matter it is that makes most women capable of tucking, taping and adorning paper-covered boxes so they look fresh out of Macy’s—instead of frigged up beyond all recognition—bypassed me completely. Those genes definitely skipped a generation. And by the time they resurfaced in my daughters’ DNA pool, they were a bit special.
Oh, the girls started out just fine, teaching themselves to perfectly fold corners and criss-cross ribbon as soon as manual dexterity would allow. But somewhere along the way, sibling rivalry mixed with a legacy of twisting holiday traditions, and the Decade of Packing Wars began in earnest.
The presents themselves didn’t really matter. But, oh boy, what was on the outside did! Keeping the containers hermetically sealed from the recipient as long as possible was the real prize. Because, when it came right down to it, whatever trinket could be bought with high school allowance money and still be left intact after the prying and ferreting necessary to unearth it was more trinket than treasure. Yup, it was the thought that counted. And whichever sister started thinking like a structural engineer right after Halloween usually claimed victory at Christmas.
If I remember correctly, Helen started it all, as big sisters often do. Inspired by Photoshop and a printer that could finally keep up with her imagination, she turned a Becky selfie into custom wrapping paper. Unfortunately for Becky, the picture was not the stuff of which party cakes or personalized coffee mugs are made. It was taken after a skiing fall, when a hard face plant onto the icy slope left her with a rather large headlight scab and the dazed look of potential road kill. Thanks to Helen, what should have been for Becky’s eyes only ended up immortalized in a collage under the tree that year, and the first shot of the Decade of Packing Wars was fired.
Becky retaliated in style, and soon both girls were lobbing gift grenades back and forth with such force that the “normal” gifts got lost in a fallout of paper, scissors and rock-hard sealants. It’s all sort of a blur now, but here are a few of my recollections.
- Nothing says “I care” like a huge glistening ball o’ duck tape
These days, it comes in every color of the rainbow and in enough holiday patterns to be festive in and of itself. It’s even the featured art form at our annual Rangeley Building Supply kids’ Christmas craft expo. But back when Becky first let loose with yards of duck tape to encase her sister’s present, she was a trend setter, for sure. Relying on the good, ole silvery kind as her media, her mastery grew while her sister’s hopes of extracting her gift dwindled. Those little craft expo kids should have seen the Origami splendor Becky could bestow when she wanted to magically hide a dinky $4 surprise in $14 worth of duck tape!
- Some dis-assembly required (AKA: “Dad can you grab the screw driver(s)?”)
The wrapping paper was innocuous enough. But the box underneath was not. Once Helen ripped away Santa in his sleigh, she saw the real barrier to whatever special sister gift was to be hers that year. It must have been another Becky retaliation year, because she went at it with guns blazing, and her Dad’s power drill smokin’. She’d always been an avid student of what was going on in Tom’s workshop, and it certainly showed when Helen uncovered the wooden box that her sister had so meticulously hand crafted just for her. ‘Twas not a nice wooden music box or jewelry box that could be flipped open to find little velvet-covered compartments and a pretty pair of earrings. It was a plain plywood box, unadorned except for the screws drilled into every inch of its cover. And it made noise—jingling and jangling each time Helen shook it! Intrigued, and no stranger to a tool box herself, she asked Tom to go get her a screw driver. “Better bring a Phillips head and a flat one!” she called after him. Half an hour and a sore wrist later, she popped the lid off the box—to reveal that it was filled with another pound of screws…and a note from Becky instructing that her present was hiding under her bed.
- Open with caution…and a chisel
Helen was pleased to have found a nice piece of tapestry she knew would make a perfect decorative accent for her sister’s dorm room. But could she fold it lovingly and put it in a gift bag? Never! This was a double-retaliation year, and she just happened to have Plaster of Paris. She was considerate enough to put the fancy cloth in protective plastic—and give her sister a chisel to chip away at the layers and layers in which it was encased. ‘Twas not an under the tree present, but an outside on the back deck present. Good thing we were blessed with unseasonably mild weather that year as we watched Becky hack away out there, covering everything in a flurry of white Christmas plaster.
- Frozen in the front yard
And then came the year when there was just enough snow for Becky’s present from Helen. An early thaw had Helen worried, but a few inches fell by Christmas Eve, and she was overjoyed to bury her sister’s special surprise in the front yard. We lived on a busy road back then, and passersby must have been curious about why we had a snow obelisk with a Jolly Roger flag stuck atop it out next to our well pump. Good thing Becky hadn’t spied it yet. That would have spoiled the fun she had stopping traffic as she dug for her little trinket with the plastic shovel and the treasure map her big sister left under the tree for her, all specially wrapped, pointing the way to the front yard.
- All I want for Christmas is a skin graft
In hindsight, Becky should have called a truce already. But how could she know that this would be the year that, in the course of her costume design business, her sister would gain access to materials that could shape-shift at the slightest variation of temperature and touch? And how were Tom and I to know that instead of just playing Santa—delivering Helen’s special gift (tee hee) to Becky while visiting her in The Keys—that we were actually pawns in the final Packing Wars skirmish? What we casually carried through airport security looked, to us, like a small green and red package tied with a festive bow. What it ended up being, however, once in Becky’s possession was a dirty bomb that should have put TSA on high alert. ‘Neath the wrapping paper was a plain plastic cylinder inside which, immersed in a mysterious goo, was an envelope containing a gift certificate.
“We should go roller skating next time you come home,” Helen said that summer. The thought was nice, buying a gift certificate to the local roller skating rink so she and her sister could act like little kids again for an afternoon. But the afterthought, the one that took hold around Halloween about how to showcase her sentiments—not so nice. To this day, Helen claims the mysterious goo was supposed to dry to a semi-hard foam that would harmlessly encapsulate her gift till Becky pulled it from its shell. It wasn’t really meant to stay in the gelatinous, Super Gluey state that came bubbling out all over Becky’s hands when she pried the plastic apart. It wasn’t supposed to stick Becky’s fingers together and then stick the envelope to her stuck-together fingers on the night before she had to help run a SCUBA dive boat, wasn’t meant to not come unstuck when we doused Becky with nail polish remover, then Jim Beam, and any other solvents we could find in our luggage.
The sisters never did go roller skating, partly because the gift certificate didn’t withstand the trauma. And partly because Becky called Helen a friggin’ biotch for thinking it was somehow funny to make her rip the top layer of skin off her fingers and then immerse them continuously in salty sea water. But they did call a truce. They made up, like nice sisters do, both able to laugh about it a few Christmases later. We were all in the Bahamas for the holidays and Becky had just taught her sister to SCUBA dive. “Right about Halloween, when I knew Helen was going to come visit, I started dreaming of hiding her present underwater,” Becky told me.”Like under a rock next to a moray eel at about 30 feet.” But payback, she decided, from a SCUBA diving, costume designing big sister—who still had a digital photo of her making a goofy scab face—would really be a bitch.
Merry Christmas everyone. Play nice!