They say it's not the gift that counts, it's the thought behind it. But in my family, it's the wrapping. We observe an unspoken rule that we must disguise each gift so cleverly that the recipient can never guess what's inside the package.
My son Jon once stayed up late Christmas Eve creating a three-dimensional, construction-paper mouse, 15 inches tall, wearing a cowboy hat. Jon designed the mouse as a camouflage container for a heavy metal vise he gave his older brother, Dave. The package replicated the hero of a treasured childhood book, "The Mouse and the Motorcycle."
Dave and Jon grew up in the mountains of the Philippines, where my husband and I worked as Bible translators. We raised our family in a woven-bamboo house beside a logging road, far from TV or electric lights.
Every day the boys hurried through their home-school assignments and dashed outside to pick guavas or to spear fish in the river.
On birthdays, the brothers spent hours camouflaging a single gift. Often with their dad, they cut odd shapes out of cardboard and unwound miles of cellophane tape. They created false-bottom boxes. They weighted a package of stationery with stones. Once, they taped a necklace inside the wing of a paper airplane.
They worked far into the night, in total silence, intent on their separate projects. I went to bed fretting, wishing my sons would seize this chance to talk, to bond, and build rapport.
But no fretting for my sons. On they proceeded to The Art of the Invisible Tag. They cut a flower out of gift wrap and attached it so perfectly to a duplicate spot on the paper that you had to squint to find it.
The wrapping continued, and the silence, and my fretting.
Once, I almost joined the boys' club. Instead of mystery wrapping, I devised a mystery gift for mechanical Dave: a bundle of screws, bolts, and wires fished out of a radioman's wastebasket. On Christmas morning, Dave unwrapped it and asked, "What's it for?"
The gift didn't seem to work quite as well as I had planned.
The year Dave left for college, Jon presented me with a package made entirely from Lego blocks - including ribbon and bow. Designing it, Jon must have gone back in memory to when he and Dave slept under mosquito nets on palm-slat beds, each boy with fireflies in a bottle for a night light. By day, they built Lego castles (with hardly a word spoken) and battery-lit cable cars that ran along strings. When a trolley crashed and became Lego smithereens, they only laughed and dug in again.
Eventually, we all returned to America, to live in distant states, and I found something new to fret about. Would my sons keep in touch with each other?
During a recent Christmas, we finally found ourselves under the same roof again. Late into the night, I listened to Dave and Jon tell bilingual jokes from childhood and reminisce about their lack of success with spear fishing. At one point Dave said to me, "Mom, remember all those radio parts you gave me? I had so much fun inventing things with them - it was the best present I ever got."
My sons talked on, picking up threads of phone and e-mail conversations I didn't know they'd had. I began to see I'd been wrong to think they hadn't kept in touch. And, gradually, I began to understand something else: the closeness my sons had created during all those silent hours.
Looking on, listening in, fretting all the while, I thought it was just little plastic bricks they were connecting, just cardboard and paper they were gluing together. I thought it was just ribbons they were attaching, not family ties.
Now I saw they were building a relationship to last a lifetime.
Christmas ended, and my husband and I rode to the airport. Snow covered the ground, but memories of the holiday warmed my spirit. As I pictured my family around the tree, I realized that among the open packages, the bows, and crumpled papers scattered across the floor, I'd overlooked my real gift - the very one I'd wished for.
Now I saw it: my sons, close and connected. Communicating, in words and otherwise. What a clever disguise they had wrapped their brotherly bonds in: silence.
Once again, my sons had kept the family tradition, created a camouflaged package - and mystified Mom.