Nothing that can be wrapped in a box could ever compare to the “gift” of my older sister, Dawn. I still miss her keenly around the holidays, but I am thankful that she was a part of my childhood. Today, as Christmas approaches, holiday memories poignantly remind me of how love, life and loss can redefine the true meaning of “Christmas gifts.”
Christmas was always a formal affair in my home growing up. We took turns opening gifts one at a time—the excitement and curiosity excruciating for a child. Still, my mother had a talent for making events quite special. My sister Dawn, brother Chad and I enjoyed our earliest Christmases, never questioning the magical ways mother’s “gifts” of creativity and attention to detail added to the festivities.
Our parents divorced in 1968 when divorce was still uncommon. Dawn, the oldest, held the family together. Nine years older than I, Dawn was half mother as well as half sister to me. She could say things to our parents that my brother and I could not. She challenged our parents on many things — in part, I believe, to look out for us and make our lives better.
I particularly remember a Christmas when, upon receiving a very nice shower cap, Dawn told my mother, “All of your gifts are so ‘practical.’” The statement was not so much a complaint as a challenge to broaden my mother’s thinking about gift giving. Looking back on the honesty and impact of those words, I realize they were one more Christmas “gift” whose value only time would teach me.
Christmas in 1971 felt hollow. How could it not? Dawn had been killed two months earlier in a bicycle accident near the university where she was a freshman. My mother and the man she would marry the following year sat stiffly on the sofa as my brother and I opened our gifts. We had no other family members over and we did not visit any other family members that day. The table was not set, since we went to a hotel for dinner.
After we opened presents, Chad, 14 at the time, entertained us by wrapping my skinny nine-year old torso in big pieces of spent gift-wrap and ribbons. Decorating me as if I were a “gift” to my mother did not make up for the absence of Dawn.
I did not appreciate at the time how hard the next several Christmases must have been for my mother. Looking back now, I appreciate how she continued to make the holidays special for me, complete with nice (and not always practical) gifts. I like to think both my mother and I have Dawn to thank for this.
In my first semester away at college, my mother informed me that Christmas gift-giving was for children. As I was seventeen and on my own in school, I no longer qualified. The kid in me was shocked. How could my mother do this to me? She hadn’t stopped giving Chad Christmas gifts and he was four years older!
Yet, in her mind, she had fulfilled her annual Christmas obligation for my benefit after Dawn died, and was relieved to release herself from it. My fragile young ego took years to understand this was one of the best “gifts” my mother ever gave me. It freed me from feeling I had to give gifts to others just because it was Christmas. It helped remove me from the materialistic pursuit that Christmas can become and allowed me to focus on what is really important in life.
This Christmas I may give and receive many “gifts”. Yet, I know nothing that can be wrapped in a box will ever compare to the nine years of love, compassion and attention I received from Dawn. While I will always feel her loss, her memory and the memories of family holidays both poignant and precious, bring back as many smiles as tears. Her presence will always live in my heart. What a gift!