We often joked that she was my favorite aunt and I, her favorite niece. She was my mother’s only sister; and I, my mother’s only child. But even if our extended family hadn’t been so limited, Aunt Mary would have won the position.
She was one of those “quality” people—one who never got in a hurry, applying great patience to the most minute details.
It was that quality—and an artful eye—which combined to create the gifts she gently placed under the tree of our family’s Christmas Eve gatherings.
The package was always easy to spot. The paper was tailored and taped with precision. The ribbons were crossed around the box, gathering into a large rose-shaped bow—my aunt’s trademark. And beneath the handmade bow would be my name, accented with multicolored glitter.
Each Christmas I thrilled to my aunt’s creations.
One year it was a long, narrow wall plaque. Near the bottom edge, a small Japanese girl approached a bridge which served as the entrance to a pathway leading through a botanical garden.
As the path led to the top of the frame, it created the impression of walking deeper into the garden.
But the most unusual element of the plaque was not what it portrayed, but what it was made of—pebbles! Every drop of water, every flower petal, every inch was an accumulation of minute, colored pebbles. Each stone was spotted with a drop of glue, then delicately placed so close together that they created a flowing picture.
Another year, the box was especially large. Opening it, I gently lifted out a blue-dyed piece of canvas, the backdrop to a treetop filled with nests, complete with baby birds.
The tree was real bark; the nests, straw. The plump baby birds were small cotton-filled pouches covered with rows of colorful feathers, each bird had an open beak of split corn kernels.
As the years passed, my aunt’s health began to fail. Nevertheless, each year she managed to put a handmade gift under the tree—embroidered pillowcases, monogrammed handkerchiefs—all beneath a rose-shaped bow.
She continued to do this every Christmas until the one preceding her death. In the course of the year, Aunt Mary had become totally bedridden. Because she was unable to work, her savings had been quickly depleted by medical bills. Even if she had been physically capable of producing one of her elaborate creations, her limited funds would not have permitted such an expenditure.
But she wasn’t physically capable. She had become so weak that eating became a painstaking task that often took more than an hour. Assistance was required for bathroom trips. Bathing was done bedside. Her once surgeon-steady hands now shook uncontrollably as her arms laid alongside her emaciated body.
That Christmas there weren’t any glittering boxes with rose-shaped bows. But there was one with my name on it, scribbled by the shaking hand of my aunt.
Aunt Mary apologized repeatedly for the shabbily wrapped box. I continued to assure her it was just fine. But as I opened the lid, I couldn’t help but wonder what Aunt Mary could possibly have made for me this year.
Wrapped in shredded newspaper laid a small ceramic bird.
“I know it’s not much,” began my aunt.
“It’s beautiful,” I interrupted.
“It’s not anything like the other Christmases,” she continued.
“I understand,” I tried to comfort.
“I knew you would,” she said sadly. “I just hate that this Christmas has to be a green stamp one.”
I knew what she meant by her emphasis of this.
“Green stamp one?” I asked, trying to change our thoughts.
“Yep!” Aunt Mary chirped in a voice much like her youthful self. “Right out of the S&H Guidebook to Finer Living!”
“Well, I think it’s lovely,” I concluded, gently hugging her neck.
“Good! I’m glad,” she said jokingly. “I had to lick a lot of stamps for that bird!”
We all laughed. The humor sounded so much like my aunt—the way she was before.
“She did lick a lot of stamps,” my mother said seriously as we were leaving my aunt’s house. “She also stuck every one of them into the books.”
“She did?” I asked astonished. “How? I mean, those little single ones? It must have been …”
“Painstaking?” finished my mother. “As much as any of your other Christmas presents. She even went to the store and picked it up herself. I took her.”
Suddenly I realized how much the small bird represented. I tried to visualize the hours her shaking hands labored to place so many stamps, and the effort to dress and make the difficult journey to purchase the gift.
As I thought, I found myself gaining a new perspective on the gifts brought to the baby Jesus. Rather than seeing the material value of the Wise Men’s offerings, I realized the love they expressed in making the journey themselves, rather than sending messengers.
Instead of viewing the shepherds as paupers in comparison to the kings, I realized the great value in the gifts they brought, giving of the painstaking, daily labor of their lives.
My green stamp Christmas was the one when I learned the most about giving! From three kings, a few shepherds, and my favorite aunt.