I would be hard pressed to remember every Christmas gift I have ever received. Of course, I'll always remember the Christmas I was pregnant and Jason got me diamond earrings. I'll remember the dress I received one year that a relative promptly proclaimed as "hideous." I'll remember the not-an-engagement ring that Jason gave me when we were dating. I'll remember the yellow puffy stuffed animal that still sits on my bed at my parents' house.
And never, for as long as I live, will I forget the year I got blue eyes instead of brown.
That year there were four identical boxes under the tree. This tag had "Stephanie," that one had "Tyler," and those over there had "Andrea" and "Jacob." Love, Mom.
With four kids, lots of grandparents, cousins, pets, aunts, uncles, and a mom and dad, you can imagine that under our Christmas tree were piles of presents. My parents didn't hold back the gifts until Christmas Eve. They were there for us to organize -- that side of the tree was for my presents, that corner for Andrea... -- and gently shake. We'd search the creases and corners of the wrapping paper to see if we could get any hints to the contents of the gift.
The four boxes were a total mystery. What could they be? What would we all be getting? Our imaginations never strayed to thoughts of socks, or pajamas, or shoes. These were real gifts. We knew it.
Christmas morning came, and we four kids tumbled into the living room after an early morning of opening stockings in my room. The 14-foot tree sparkled with tinsel and bubble lights, and there! beneath the tree! the four boxes.
Other gifts may have been opened, carols may have been sung, but the only thing on my mind was the box. Finally, with our own respective boxes in front of us, we simultaneously opened. For some reason I dawdled behind in opening, so I saw what everyone else got. My mom had made us -- hand stitched, hand stuffed, hand painted -- dolls. They looked kind of like Cabbage Patch dolls, except better because, oh! because they looked like each of us. Tyler's with sandy blond yarn hair, and blue eyes. Andrea's with long red hair, and brownish eyes. Jake's with brown hair, and brown eyes. The dolls were us.
I finished opening my present, ready to hug her close to my heart. Imagine my surprise when I saw that my doll wasn't the same. My doll was a real Cabbage Patch doll. One that my mom had stood in line for, paid extra for, bought in the knowledge that I wouldn't want a hand-made doll. My good manners kicked in, and I smiled and thanked my parents. A real Cabbage Patch doll with a shiny vinyl face and birth certificate.
But something wasn't right. I looked at my blond haired doll and noticed, of course, that she had blue eyes. I knew all blond haired dolls had blue eyes. I was old enough to know the doll codes: red hair with green eyes, brown hair with brown eyes, blond hair with blue eyes.
The wrong color.
The present opening celebration continued, but my subdued manner finally caught the attention of my mom. Stephanie, what's wrong?
I had always been proud of having blond hair and brown eyes. Dark brown, chocolate, without even a suggestion of blue. Norwegian in every way but the eyes. Those eyes were from my dad, a gift that I wasn't ashamed of. Yet, somehow, looking at this homogenized doll felt like ridicule. Being teased. Made fun of. For being different. Bitter tears of disappointment streaked down my face, even as I thought, "I should be grateful." I realized what my mom had done. She had thought I wouldn't want a hand-made doll. She had thought I would prefer the store bought one, the doll that all my friends had. She had tried to make Christmas special for me by getting me the gift that was at the top of the list. The real, not the fake.
Turns out, real and fake are sometimes in the eye of the beholder. I didn't want blue eyes. I wanted brown eyes. I wanted one that was like me, so that our four dolls could play together and be little replicas of our selves. And of course, it wasn't just about the eyes. It was also about something else -- something I couldn't articulate at that age -- about having something from my mom that I couldn't get from a store. "You didn't make me one," I cried. "You made one for them, and not for me. And her eyes are BLUE." Tears tears and more tears. (Can you believe it, I'm even crying as I type this up.)
I know I surprised my mom. She had guessed incorrectly about the state of my materialistic heart. Maybe it made her smile. Maybe it made her laugh. I hope it made her proud.
The best Christmas present I ever received wasn't the one that I got on Christmas, but the one that my mom gave me a couple weeks later. My very own Stephanie doll. Blond hair. Brown eyes.
The perfect color.