Tuesday, December 16, 2003

It's a Wrap

I received a big box of Christmas gifts in the mail the other day. It was from our friends in New York…friends whose gifts always are so beautifully wrapped, they could make even Martha Stewart’s gifts look as if the family dog wrapped them.

I removed one gift that was the epitome of Christmas perfection in flocked green paper with dainty red bells all over it. The huge satin bow held a gold tinsel wreath. In the center of the wreath sat a small teddy bear wearing a Santa hat. The gift tag was gold with mother-of-pearl glitter on it, and was written in calligraphy. The other gifts in the box were even fancier.

I didn’t know whether to frame the packages and hang them on the wall, or put them underneath the tree.

To be honest, my idea of wrapping Christmas gifts involves slapping Dollar-Store paper and a tag on them. And if I run out of tags, I use permanent marker and just write the person’s name across the paper. Sometimes I don’t even use scissors. I just tear the paper with my hands or rip off a chunk with my teeth.

This, of course, has elicited such “subtle” comments such as, “You must have really been in a hurry when you wrapped!” or, “Who would have guessed that such an ugly package could contain such a lovely gift?” from our friends in New York.

My wrapping techniques (or lack of) also must be a source of embarrassment to my mother, who once worked as professional Christmas gift-wrapper in a Manchester department store. In fact, even after all these years, she still is affectionately known as “the lady who can wrap anything.”

Back when my mother worked as a gift wrapper, the store offered free gift-wrapping, no matter how small the purchase. So people took advantage of it. BIG advantage of it. My mother ended up wrapping everything from a box of paper clips to a round, tufted hassock that didn’t come in a box. She still refers to the hassock as her biggest gift-wrapping challenge (and ultimate success) ever.

And then there was the distinguished-looking man in a suit who handed her a stack of 12 pairs of lacy panties and asked her to wrap each one individually. “They’re gifts for my employees,” he said. To this day, my mom says she still wonders just what kind of “business” the guy ran.

One day, the gift-wrapping staff was short-handed, so I decided to help out my mother (and I use the term “help” loosely here). She gave me a crash course in gift wrapping and made it look easy enough for even someone like me to handle. With a mere glance at the box to be wrapped, she tore off exactly the right length of paper from the huge roll and wrapped the package in 20 seconds flat. When she was done, the wrapping didn’t have a single wrinkle or crease anywhere, and the corners were so sharp and crisp, you could have speared olives with them.

She also patiently demonstrated how to pull just enough ribbon off the spool to go completely around the package in an attractive kitty-corner design. And as a finishing touch, she even spiral-curled the ribbon by pressing her thumb against the edge of it and swiftly sliding it along the edge of her scissors.

Well, I tried, I really did. Not only did the gifts I wrapped have the lumpiest corners on earth, I couldn’t get the ribbon to stay where I put it. So I stuck tape all over it to hold it in place. That’s when I first discovered that “invisible” tape looked terrible on shiny paper. In fact, it sort of resembled something an ambulance attendant might wrap around you if you were bleeding to death.

And forget about curling the ribbon. When I slid it against the edge of the scissors, I nearly de-thumbed myself.

Still, I was determined to do my duty at the gift-wrapping counter. Believe me, it wasn’t easy. After struggling for 15 minutes to wrap an octagonal-shaped jewelry box that had more corners on it than a New York City intersection, I handed my masterpiece to the customer. He looked at it and frowned. “That looks terrible,” he said.

“Whatta ya want for free?” I snapped. “A museum piece?”

I learned that working as a gift wrapper, even for a short time, definitely affected my Christmas spirit in a Scrooge-like manner.

In fact, I found myself counting the minutes until my one-and-only day as a professional wrapper finally would come to an end. Before that day, I’d never even realized that there were enough hands and necks in the whole state of New Hampshire to wear all of the gloves and neckties I’d wrapped.

So now, thirty-three years later, I’m sitting here staring at the mountain of Christmas gifts I just bought…all of which need to be wrapped. Maybe I can sweet-talk my mom into wrapping the ones that are going to New York, so I finally can make a positive wrapping impression on our “Martha Stewart, Jr.” friends.

And then while my mother’s at it, maybe I can convince her to wrap all of her own gifts, too.