It was several years ago in December.  My family was gathered at my sister’s house for our annual holiday party – the one we don’t have anymore – and it was after dinner when we began to pass out presents.

I should probably backtrack and tell you that the latent ghost of Martha Stewart sometimes lives inside of me – or at least she sometimes visits like my body is a time-share in the Poconos.  I realize, of course, that Martha Stewart is alive and therefore should not have a spiritual presence, but I think women like that – Connecticut-bred specimens who can fashion potpourri out of a pinecone and tree bark in seven seconds flat – are probably powerful enough to exist on more than one astral plane at a time.

My Martha gene came to me in a thunder-filled rush while I was wrapping gifts for the holiday.

Why, Nell, she said smoothly, wouldn’t it be an extra-special touch if you took some festively-wrapped Christmas candy and attached it to the presents?  You could use this invisible tape so the lucky recipient will not see any marks!

Martha, I told the floating deity, you are simply a genius.  And, if while I’m away at my sister’s house, you can make this omnipresent version of yourself pry open my linen closet, I would really appreciate if you could go ahead and fold my fitted sheets, because I watched the show where you taught viewers how to do it, but that shit didn’t make any sense to a normal girl like me.

The presents festooned with pretty chocolates were a hit.  They were like presents topped with another present wrapped in a perfectly curled ribbon bow.  And all was right in the world until Spot, my sister’s white Maltese – a dog with no spots whatsoever – toddled by with a strip of red and green aluminum foil plastered to her nose.

“Spot,” asked my sister, scooping her off the floor, “what is on your face?”

Leigh peeled the piece of foil off the dog and examined it like she was a CSI officer at a crime scene.  

And then hell broke loose.

“It’s the chocolate!  From the presents!  Spot ate the chocolate!  She could die!” 

Involuntary canine manslaughter had not been on my To-Do list for that particular holiday season.  I felt terribly that I had put that sweet little doggie in jeopardy, but really:  who doesn’t immediately eat chocolate off of a gift?  Why was it even lying around in the first place?

A quick call to an animal hospital assuaged our fears that Spot would have to eat her weight in chocolate for it to be toxic, and though she only weighed seven pounds, she had not consumed nearly that much candy.  And as the night wore on, she actually looked mildly pleased with herself for discovering the joy that is Godiva.

The dog lived for a few more years.  But I still can’t help but wonder the kind of centerpiece for a rustic table setting Martha Stewart could have created out of a dog carcass.

That holiday maybe wasn’t my finest moment, but it wasn’t all bad; I gave some really great presents to some people I really love.  And I am actually that weird specimen of person who likes giving gifts even more than getting them.

Something happens in someone’s life – celebratory or tragic – and the first thing I think about is what kind of basket should I send?  Cookies?  Herbal teas and a box of Splenda?  A basket of porn wrapped in baby blue tissue paper?

I choose my gifts carefully.  I am not a last-minute shopper.  I make lists.  I think about the person’s face and what the expression will be when the tape and ribbons are ripped free.  I love the look of surprise and the realization that I can make someone happy by showing that I really know who you are.  

It’s a gift all its own to truly be recognized by someone else.

On her 6oth birthday, I decided that I was going to get my mother a movie from every decade of her life.  I teach Film and all, but choosing one film from an entire decade is not easy.  I thought about what she liked and which films over the years had stayed a part of her, as well as which movies had somewhat defined her evolving existence.  Just researching the movies took me down my own bumpy stroll on Memory Lane.

I’m not sure anymore exactly what I picked, but I do vividly remember wrapping DVDs of Easter ParadeGentleman Prefer Blondes, and The Graduate.  I agonized about giving her Kramer vs. Kramer– I didn’t want it to be a subtle indictment that she had put me through a divorce, but I knew she wouldn’t look for hidden motives in my gift.  I don’t do hidden motives.  I simply don’t see the point. 

On her next major birthday, my sister and I tracked down the people who had loomed large in her life – her entire life – and asked them to write her letters which we then put into a scrapbook we presented to her.  My sister has amazing scrapbooking skills, something Martha Stewart clearly forgot to drop off to me with a gluten-free muffin basket, so Leigh put the book together, and I think it’s one of the happiest moments of my life, watching my mother read testimonials about how much people simply adore the woman she is.

When a baby is born to someone in my life, that baby is getting a bag crammed with Cookie Monster plush dolls, bathrobes, and teething rings.  I know that Elmo has inched out Mr. Monster in terms of merchandising sales, but that peppy red monster can suck it.  In my world, it is Cookie Monster who reigns supreme – and I will do what I can to help him retain his prowess.

What do you get your good friend who says she needs a Bridal Survival basket, something you didn’t even know was a real thing, but apparently it’s a heap of stuff that a bride might need in case of any emergency that could befall her on her wedding day, barring a black swarm of locusts or Nickleback releasing new music?  Well, you maneuver a giant cart through CVS and you load in the following: 

·      Mints

·      Gum

·      A mini sewing kit

·      Safety pins

·      A Tide-to-Go pen

·      Antibacterial gel

·      A stress-release doll for dealing with future in-laws and caterers

·      A tampon, though you know she will use that sewing kit to remove her own uterus if she must rather than have her period on her wedding day

·      A huge box of Runts

·      A gigantic box of Sprees

·      Advil, which really won’t work if she gets one of those migranes she always gets, but I don’t   have the hard stuff, and though she’s a wonderful friend, I’m not so sure I’d part with something like Vicodin if I had it.

·      Bottled water

·      A piece of white chalk, which bridal websites say you can use to cover a stain on your dress, but I included it hoping that she’d relax by playing a little hopscotch.

And you put all of those items into a basket and you stuff that basket with tissue paper you have folded into fluffy fans, and then you wrap the entire thing in clear plastic, tying it with a bevy of ribbons in colors of gold and silver and white.  And then you find a picture of Chuck Klosterman, a bearded hipster writer she loves and turned you on to, and you get a hole-puncher and you place a small hole in the picture and you string one of the ribbons through it so Chuck becomes part of the wrapping scheme.

And that, my friends, is how you do it.

What do you get a sister who is suffering from quite a lot of stress?  Tickets to see Bon Jovi, because she loves that band and its singer like it’s still 1987 and they have hit #1 again on Dial MTV.

What do you get someone who unexpectedly found himself head-first in a frightening health scare?  A copy of his favorite book of all-time, signed by the author, and a large jar of Nutella.

Duh. What else would you buy?  Flowers?  Raise the bar, ladies.

You buy engraved sterling frames when people get engaged.  

You buy supportive back pillows and books when people are feeling sick.  

You buy your stepfather sweaters all the time because he tells you constantly that his favorite clothing – all of it – is clothing that you have bought for him.

You buy one of your friends funky bold jewelry because she wears it better than anyone else and because, on the night that you threw a party to celebrate the release of your novel, she arrived with a small leather journal and a note that said to get started on the next one and you know that means she loves you.

You buy your sister only the things she has explicitly told you that she loves, because some people were never trained to hide a “That’s what you got me?” expression, and that shit is tough to see, so you learn to veer on the side of gift-giving caution because the look on her face when she is happy is a lovely thing to witness.

You buy your niece silver unicorn earrings because she’s in that stage in female development where unicorns begin to mean something, and you try to buy them without looking at them too closely because unicorns are hybrid creatures – scarier than a Pegasus even with that fucked-up horn attached to their heads – so you open your eyes wide while you’re purchasing the earrings online, making the whole thing a somewhat blurred experience and not one that threatens to settle within your subconscious forever.

You organize a Secret Santa exchange at work with your friend Joanne, and when the only other person in the department besides you who is Jewish complains that’s it’s called Secret Santa, you laugh and let Joanne change the name to Secret Armadillo after that episode of Friends where Ross couldn’t find a Santa outfit and instead dressed as a puffy armadillo for his kid.  And when you pick names out of a hat to find out who you will be buying gifts for, you pick the name of your Jewish buddy and you go out and you buy wrapping paper with Jesus’ face plastered across it, and you make sure that every gift you leave for him over the course of a week is covered in the face of a leader and his apostles.  

At the end of the week he will laugh when you tell him that it was you all along, and he will see that you got him the coffee table book of The Grateful Dead he had heard about and wanted, and he will hug you and he will know that you care about him tremendously.

You wonder what you will give someone for finishing her Doctorate and for defending her dissertation.  

You consider what someone wants to unwrap on his third year of sobriety.  

You delete the list you have already started on your phone of the presents you planned to give but won’t anymore.

You find yourself shopping online and buying yourself something every time you purchase an item for somebody else.  You tell yourself that if you keep spending money on thongs for yourself, you will have less money to buy things for others.  You nod at this self-wisdom and buy just one more lace thong because it’s just one and really, how big of a deal is one teeny tiny thong?

You start buying gifts early and you wrap them in one long paper-strewn evening.  Your entire living room is buried under ribbon, raffia, and scotch tape.  You choose exactly which tag to put on each present based on who the recipient will be.  You know only certain people should get a tag with a realistic-looking angel on it.  You cart all the gifts back upstairs to your office and lay them out in the order of when you will see each person.

You watch your dog saunter by with a silver adhesive bow stuck to her hind leg and you also realize that she’s got a dab of blue glitter glue on her ear because somehow you must have dropped some on her when you were writing a name on a stocking for an adult.  You decide she looks good with a little sparkle and you let her keep walking.

You make baking mixes in mason jars for some of the people you work with and you stack the ingredients like you’re making a grown-up version of sand art.

You buy your yoga teacher socks that can be stuck in the microwave and heated up to soothe her itty bitty feet – feet so small that it’s hard to imaging that she can even get around – and you also give her a small bottle of CK One, because you have known her since you were five years old, and that’s the perfume the two of you started wearing when you were seniors in high school.  She will laugh when she sees it, and you will too.

You will look forward to the days everyone unwraps the gifts.  You will immediately start considering what to buy next year.  You will feel a real sense of pride when someone tells you that you should be a Gift Giver for a living, and you will consider changing your career for more than a second.

And then you will take all of that leftover ribbon and the tags and the tissue paper and the metallic gift bags and the wrapping paper and you will pretend that you are organizing it neatly before you just stick all of it in a basket that you shove into the back of one of your closets until next year– and you will close the closet door and you will feel lucky that certain people are an undeniable part of your life.