What's in a Gift

When I was a kid I used to sit facing away from my twin sister when we got gifts. Sometimes we’d sit back to back as we opened the presents so neither of us would see the gift first. My twin and I are not identical. I am and have always been six inches taller than her. When we were kids I was very shy and she was radiantly outgoing. In our high school days, I was a swimmer and she was a star actress in the high school plays. Though genetically we were only as similar to each other as we were to our younger sister, our main identity was always “one of the twins.”

I’ve always loved giving gifts, but, because of my early twin years, I’ve never liked receiving them. I hate my birthday and every year I grit my teeth and wait until the day is over. When I meet someone on the street who has young twins and I tell them I’m a twin they usually ask if I have any advice. “Do not give them the same gifts,” I always say, “And, give them separate birthday parties if you can swing it.”

Giving gifts is an opportunity to show another person that you are thinking about them, that you care about them. For the gift giver, it’s a chance to say, “I saw this and it made me think about you.” The gift tells the story of how the giver sees the recipient.

But for me, because I’m a twin, the receiving part of the experience got tainted early on. It was always tangled up — especially when we received the same gifts — in the confusion of what they saw in me and what they saw in her.

Growing up, on holidays and birthdays when the time for gifts arrived I always choked up. What would I get? Would it be the same as my twin? And if it was, was it more suited to her than to me? I could never see clearly. I always read into it — that she was loved more; that they understood her better.

I remember in seventh grade Tracy Latimore gave me two tiny glass animal figurines (one lion and one bunny) from the Hallmark store. I don’t remember what she gave my twin sister, but it was something completely different. I felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and connection with Tracy. She knew me. She could see that I was different from my twin sister. She gave me a gift that reflected me alone, not half of a whole.

The Christmas of my freshman year in college my mother gave me a pair of leggings and an oversized sweatshirt. It was 1991 and that was the style. But I’d misinterpreted the gift. I cried my eyes out and locked myself in the bathroom for an hour because all I could think was that she thought I was fat. No matter the gift, she really didn’t have a chance.

Another year, just after I’d bought my first house, my mom sent me a set of tea towels with mushrooms on them along with a bag of dried shitakes for my birthday. I have always hated mushrooms. I pick them out of my foo