The gifts my brother gives

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MY brother is an unorthodox gift giver. I believe he views the choosing of a present as an opportunity for creative expression. Unlike me, he rarely resorts to standard department-store goods, and he is careful to vary his approach and keep alive the element of surprise. I applaud this. The only problem is, I sometimes need time to understand and interpret his gifts, and I wish that, on reception, I would be given a week or so to prepare an appropriate response.

Looking back, I think the creative floodgates opened for my brother when, after years of giving my father neckties for his birthday, he presented him with ``Excalibur,'' a full-scale sword that would have looked genuinely Arthurian were it not for the fact that its tip was a clothes brush.

No doubt this elaborate grooming aid appealed to my brother's sense of absurdity, and he said, ``At last! a person can feel heroic while removing lint from a trouser leg.''

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Excalibur inspired high spirits. It even became a perennial, for my father wrapped it up and gave it as a gift at the next family birthday party, thus establishing its unique status as a combination heirloom and albatross. Each successive birthday brought a new recipient who could only look forward eagerly to the next celebration within the family, the time when he could unload that medieval dust remover.

For Christmas one year, my brother purchased some small, colored plastic cups which had attracted him only because he was puzzled as to their function. ``They're for washing your eye,'' the clerk informed him.

Again, I think these appealed to his sense of absurdity, but they made a subtler statement. When he strewed them before us and said with great magnanimity, ``Eyecups for everybody! Eyecups all around!'' he seemed to be testing the notion that the fun of giving and receiving is not in the objects exchanged but in the attitudes of those involved.

That was an eventful Christmas, but the image that remains strongest in our memories is that of us filling those cups with water, clicking them together with a toast, and then raising them to our eyes.

Given the whimsical nature of such gifts, it was not unreasonable for me to have laughed last year when my brother's wife mentioned one of her anniversary presents. ``He gave me glass insulators, the sort that used to go on old-time telephone poles,'' she said. But, to my embarrassment, my laughter was inappropriate. My brother and his wife were interested in antiques, and the insulators were considered collectors' items.

This gaffe was fresh in my mind when my brother and I exchanged gifts last Christmas. I did not begin unwrap-ping my present until I was sure all attention was drawn to someone else's gift. That way I would have a little time to interpret what my brother had given me and to adjust my reaction accordingly. I removed the cheery wrapping paper to reveal a wooden box that had within it many partitions forming compartments. It was similar to those wooden crates that hold soda bottles, only much smaller. Finding that all eyes were on me, I responded, ``Thanks! Great! Wow!'' but continued to search the object for clues that would reveal my brother's intention.

Was it a joke gift? The fact that it looked like it needed a good scrubbing made me lean in that direction. I was about to commit myself to laughter when I saw a label on the side of the box. Surely the label would clarify things. That's what labels are for. It read, ``6 POINT. HOBO SERIES 193.'' Somehow this failed to enlighten me.

I decided it was best not to laugh, so I fell back on ``Grreeaat! Thaaannks!'' hoping that by elongating the syllables I could gain enough time to figure out the gift.

Sensing my puzzlement (not hard to do, since I was wincing and pulling at my hair), my brother said, ``I thought it would make a good shadow box,'' and I knew at last that it was not intended as a joke.

``Great. Wow,'' I replied relievedly.

In the week that followed, I deduced that the box was originally meant to hold printing press type and that it was an antique. I also learned what a shad-ow box is, and I understood how the gift could be used in that capacity. My subsequent ``thank you'' note was sincere and reflected this newfound understanding.

See, all I need is a week to figure them out.

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