The family gift giving tradition dictated that a gift must include something in the presentation. It had to be, at the very least, elaborately wrapped, even if that elaborate wrapping was the most bizarre or ugly thing anyone had ever seen. It ought to come with a riddle on the tag, forcing the recipient to not only to guess the identity of the giver, but the content of the gift . And lastly, it should show up in an unusual or unexpected way, like the gift Maren found sitting beside the bed of her parents’ guestroom on Christmas morning..
She put on her robe and slippers and headed to the kitchen. The gift-giver was probably lurking nearby. It was too much of a big set-up to not want to be around to witness her reaction. Maren decided to pretend she didn’t see it. Not mention it. That’ll show them, she thought. Two can play at this game. As she made her way through her parents’ large rambler, she could hear the rest of the house waking up. Excited nieces and nephews harassing their parents to get up so they could tear into the contents of their stockings, water rattling through the pipes (probably her father, who insisted he be the first to shower), footsteps crisscrossing the floor boards above, and her parents’ cat meowing at the back door.
Maren was mildly surprised to find her mother and younger brother Jefferson already in the kitchen preparing breakfast; the usual Christmas morning fare of blintzes, apple cinnamon compote, sausage links, bacon, fried eggs and mint hot chocolate. Or leftovers from Christmas Eve dinner, if that suited. Maren poured a cup of coffee, wrapping her cold fingers around the hot mug and hovered over the warm steam for a moment before taking a sip. She plopped down in a chair at the kitchen table.
“Can I help?” she asked. Her mother gave a little startled surprise. “Oh! I didn’t hear you come in! I’m surprised to see you…I…what…what are you doing here?”
Maren made a face. “That’s a weird thing to say, Mom. Why wouldn’t I be here?”
Her mother didn’t answer. She looked over to Jefferson, who did not look up from his task. Maren’s mother went back about her business, but kept giving Maren confused glances every now and again.
Maren’s mother’s confusion concerned her. Her mother’s health in the past year was notably fragile. Could this the first sign of actual decline, she thought? Is this how people first notice dementia, or, God forbid, Alzheimer’s? Maren looked over to her brother, hoping to make eye contact and confirm that he also thought her comment strange, but Jefferson kept his focus on cooking.
The ruckus of the rest of the family upstairs came booming downstairs with Maren’s nieces and nephews leading the way, making a beeline for the living room. Maren’s eldest sister Karen entered the kitchen, declaring a very merry Christmas to everyone. She gave Maren the same slightly startled look as their mother.
“What are you still doing here?” Karen asked.
“What do you mean, what am I still doing here? Why are you being so weird? Jeff!?”
Jefferson lifted a hand of caution, “Hey, it wasn’t my idea. Obviously it didn’t work. Told you so,” he turned from the stove to look once at his mother, Karen, and then Maren before returning to his cooking.
From the living room came protests from the children that everyone better hurry up and get in the living room to see what Santa brought. Maren jumped up with her coffee and went in to the living room, followed by Karen. All activity came to an abrupt halt. Their eldest brother Ivan, his wife, Karen’s husband, and all their collective brood gave Maren the very same look of astonishment.
“She’s still here,” Karen flatly announced, making her way over to her family.
“It didn’t work?” Karen’s husband asked.
“What didn’t work!?” Maren demanded.
Maren’s father spoke. “You saw the gift in your room, right honey? Ivan?” he continued, turning to his eldest. “You put it in there like we discussed, right?”
“Yes, I did! Like you said to…put it on the bedside table so she wouldn’t miss it,” Ivan replied.
Maren smiled and, digging in deeper to her plan to pretend she didn’t notice the gift when she awoke, innocently asked, “What gift? I didn’t see anything.”
Karen, Ivan and their father left the living room and headed down the hall to the guestroom without a word. From the stern looks on their faces, Maren could see that they were taking the situation a little too seriously. “Oh, c’mon, guys!,” she called after them. “I’m just having some fun.”
“Breakfast is ready, if anyone wants it,” Maren’s mother announced as she and Jefferson came into the living room. Their father yelled from the guestroom, “It’s here! Maren! Why didn’t you open it? Maren!?”
Maren could feel all her family’s eyes on her, including the children, who strangely seemed no longer interested in their stockings. Her father, Ivan and sister came back into the living room with bewildered looks on their faces.
Jefferson broke the silence, “I told you guys it wasn’t a good idea.”
“Yeah!” Maren replied defensively.
“Who doesn’t open a gift left for them beside their bed, anyway?” Ivan asked, sounding a little angry.
“Me, that’s who! My God, look at you! I mean, it’s just all part of the gift game, right? You’re all so…intense! No one’s having any fun but me, apparently. ” Maren quipped.
Maren’s nephew Darren had slipped unseen out of the living room moments before and was now standing beside his mother. “Mom, it’s not there. It’s gone.”
“What?” Maren’s father demanded. “I…we just saw it, right there, beside the bed!” Darren shrugged. The entire family headed back down the hall to the guestroom. This time Maren followed. When she walked into the room she saw the gift was gone.
“Well, obviously Karen or Ivan removed it, or Dad,” she insisted. Her siblings and father shook their heads. “Then, Darren…huh?” Maren turned to face her nephew. “You joining in on the fun? Having a little fun with your auntie?” The boy shook his head and ducked behind his father.
Jefferson grinned. “Told ya. And now, Maren, it’s gone.” He went back to the kitchen.
Maren headed off after him, “What is going on?! Jeff! Seriously, this is probably the craziest prank anyone has pulled off with a gift. Where is it?”
Jefferson grabbed a plate and served himself breakfast. He took his meal to the kitchen table, sat down and began to eat.
“Jeff! C’mon, what is UP with this?” Maren let out a nervous laugh, trying to lighten the strangely serious mood. Maren’s parents came in to the kitchen, solemn looks on their faces.
“Maren, sit down, please,” her father said. She did as instructed. He continued, “Maren, honey, what’s the one thing you’ve always wanted?” he asked.
“Uh, dunno,” Maren flippantly shrugged her shoulders, “a long vacation in the Bahamas? Win the lottery? George Clooney?”
Her mother made a face. She drew in a sharp breath and said, “You’ve always asked for a chance.”
Maren shook her head, confused. “Yeah, well, sure. I have always wanted a chance, I guess. Who doesn’t want a chance? But not like, as a gift…is that what you’re saying? You gave me a chance as a gift?”
“Yes,” her mother said flatly.
Maren didn’t know how to respond. Her parents looked at her with such disappointment, and as the silence grew longer between them, Maren felt deeply embarrassed.
It was true. A chance is all she asked for. It was one of her favorite complaints. She wanted a chance to prove she had what it took; to move up and farther along in her career. A chance to see the world. A chance to meet her childhood hero. A chance to turn things around and start over with her recently estranged husband. A chance to make things up with her best friend from college. All the things she aspired to; her ambition to achieve amazing things; to kick all her bad habits and compulsions; her dreams of starting over…a chance is all she ever wanted.
“Ya know, you’ve had so many already,” Jefferson said, breaking the silence, “and you blew all of them. Each one, no matter what it was. I told Mom and Dad they couldn’t give you another chance, even if they wrapped it up for you in shiny paper and a pretty bow for Christmas, but that you’d somehow manage to blow it.”
Jefferson was looking straight at his sister with that wry smile of his. He got up and cleared his plate. Their parents followed him into the living room, leaving Maren alone.
“OK! Let’s get goin’!” Karen’s husband declared.
Maren heard her family start exchanging Christmas presents and opening stockings. She surreptitiously made her way back to the guestroom and sat on the edge of the bed. Laughter and shrieks from her nieces and nephews, and cheers and applause from the adults came in waves down the hall and through her closed door as she stared at the spot beside the bed where the gift once stood.