Cherished, after all

Included with the invitation to the Christmas party was a note that was almost too good to be true. "Bring a castoff for the gift swap!" it read. Something you've been trying to get rid of for years, it said between the lines.

My mind darted to our attic cache of rare and unusual Christmas gifts from wellmeaning friends and relatives. Did we dare?

I found the stack of boxes right where we'd put them when we moved in. Storeboughts on the left and hand-mades on the right, the latter looking sturdier with every passing year.

On top of the pile was the bright red ski sweater my sister-in-law had labored over, purl by purl, for two and a half years. Sixteen inches wide and 48 inches long, it came complete with two extended arms that dangled jauntily below the waist. Just the thing for someone with a pet orangutan, we'd decided. Still, it seemed a shame to give it up.

My husband might grow into it someday.

I opened the next box and pulled out a wad of lumpy gray string. Unraveled, it didn't look like much, so I began untying some knots. Then I remembered our niece's macrame class. I looked down. Her prized cross-eyed owl lay sprawled at my feet. It wouldn't do, not now.

Christmas '76 had been a banner year for owls, though. Where was that wrought-iron sculpture Carol and Bob had sent us? The one that looked at first like a sleepy owl, then more and more like a cheshire cat, and finally a mirror in the shape of an Olde English "M." Extraordinary metalwork from a basement lathe. Perhaps it would go nicely in the garage.

Therem was the perfect swap. The bird feeder with the mangy red bow that Marsha had given Charlene, that Charlene had declined, that Marsha had given us. Of course, if either of them showed up at the party, it would mean the end of several friendships. Probably not worth the trouble to rewrap it. Carol and Jerry's jar of homemade something that was neither molasses nor maple syrup seemed somehow risky after all these years. And the William's handembroidered tapestry of the cathedral in France we had notm visited also struck an inappropriate note.

There was always the bag of unidentified odds and ends, captive testimony of the truism that it's far better to give than to receive. But we were still trying to figure out whether they were kitchen or bathroom accessories.

Only one box was left. I reached in and came up with . . . gold.

It was the only present my mother had ever made for me -- a massive, six-sided candleholder of gold-colored glass ashtrays glued end on end.

I remember that Christmas in all its glory. After two years overseas, I was coming back to a new home, hoping for a quiet reentry to suburbia. But in typical southern Florida style, Douglas Drive was ablaze with tiki torches. A huge "Welcome Home" banner hung perilously from our tile roof, and there were neighbors, total strangers, popping out from behind palm trees to yell "Surprise!"

Every house on the block was lit up for the occasion, but the show across the street from us was worth the air fare. Reindeer pranced across the roof, wise men and pink storks prayed together on the lawn, and every grapefruit tree was decked with dazzling lights. It must have been the lights that touched off the unprecedented gift-making in our home.

I looked through the boxes one more time. Part with these mementos of Christmas? Not as long as there are giving hearts --

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