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Holiday Guide Feature

The Gifts That Count

The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

By Raymond Cummings, Lauren Bender, Charles Cohen, Alex Epstein and John Barry | Posted 11/18/2009

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Like Another Hole in Your Head

By Alex Ebstein


Deanna Staffo

Up until high school, the holidays (and my late-November birthday) were a platform for my sister Rebecca and me to assert our maturity through our wish lists. If we were lucky, the holidays would then bring (along with the staple books, gloves, and replacement of the seasonal clothing we'd outgrown) an age-appropriate present, i.e. high heels, one's own CD player, etc. We were always careful in our selection, thorough in our reasoning, and tactful in our presentation. Through our campaigning, we simultaneously received our first mountain bikes, shared game system, and shared telephone line with a shared answering machine, despite my 18-month seniority. This trend began early on, after I made an unsuccessful effort to ask for a present that I would not have to share.

In the weeks before my 6th birthday, which itself was only days before Hanukkah, I had my heart set on having pierced ears. As a girl who collected bugs and sported a neatly cropped bowl cut, it would be my first real grasp at femininity. This probably coincided with my first crush on a boy and my discovery of MTV, but I can't be sure. I began to compile lists of my friends with pierced ears, I interrogated my babysitter (and then style icon) Michelle, memorizing the ages at which she had gotten her first, second, and even third cartilage piercings. I knew which jewelry store had the best selection of piercing studs, their store hours, and that they had walk-in hours on Saturdays for ear piercing. But most importantly, I felt 6 was the earliest age at which one could make this kind of decision.

Despite my anticipation that this permanent bodily alteration would be considered a big deal, my parents needed very little convincing. Probably taking my new-found interest in my appearance and grooming as a good sign, they put up no memorable fight. Instead, at the mention of my interest, my mother showed me the earrings she had worn as a young girl and had saved for Rebecca and me when we could wear them. I picked up a pair that looked like tiny chandeliers, and held them up, imagining my immediate physical likeness to Ann Wilson from Heart. As if potentially receiving my mother's earrings wasn't cool enough for a 6- year-old, Michelle had heard the news and excitedly whisked me upstairs to show me her earring collection, promising that I could borrow them after I'd gone through with it. She handed me shaped studs, hoops, and tiny gemstones in encouragement, holding them up to my ears in the mirror to show me how they would look. It seemed the world of adulthood (or at least young-adulthood) had suddenly swung open to me.

Admiring a pair of opal studs, I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted for Hanukkah. Earrings were something that Becca couldn't ask for, I wouldn't have to share them, I wouldn't have to wait my turn to use them, she and I wouldn't match and, best of all, earrings were a "big kid" gift. "I got those at the mall," said my babysitter seeing me pick up the opals again. "I can get you a pair like them for the holidays!" Getting my ears pierced seemed to be a rite of passage that would quickly lead me down the road to a later bedtime, wearing makeup, reading fashion magazines, and, eventually, driving.

Amazed at the ease with which I had suddenly become a hip young lady, rather than the messy, outdoors-y tom-boy I was used to being, I began to preemptively brag to anyone who would listen. "This year, I want pierced earrings for Hanukkah because I am old enough for pierced ears," I told my grandfather on the phone. I encouraged my parents to spread the word to the rest of my extended family. As my birthday neared and my sense of entitlement grew, I eschewed my sister's requests to play with her on the playground and would instead sit next to my babysitter at a picnic table while Becca ran around in the sand.

"When are we going to take you to get your ears pierced?" my dad asked that evening. Realizing there was still a step between old me and fashionable, mature me, I called for immediate action. We woke up early the next day and went to the jewelry store owned by a friend of the family. There was already a line of girls, and even a baby, waiting to get their ears pierced. One by one, girls would disappear behind the curtain and come out with pierced ears. As we got closer, however, you could hear a sickening snap and tiny screams and cries. Soon, it was just the baby in front of me. The woman who was piercing ears pulled back the curtain to release a sniffling little girl, and to beckon the baby with a terrifying gun-like instrument. I crumpled. My dad had to carry me out, hysterical to the point of nausea.

My birthday had come and gone without my bravery returning. It coincided with Thanksgiving, so my babysitter, who was home with her family, did not know of my failure. Thoughtfully, my mother called my pediatrician who offered to pierce my ears during my annual check-up. He took out a pen to mark my ears and, to the amusement of all the witnessing adults, I became violently hysterical again.

We came home with a clean bill of health, but otherwise unsuccessful, for an early dinner and to light the first candle on the menorahs. As we each opened a present for the evening, I realized, with alarm, that my presents were all of a similar size. As Becca began to assemble a small stable with plastic horses, I lifted the lid off a small pair of gold-hoop earrings.

I had managed to convince everyone but me that I was growing up, as evidenced by my pile of Hanukkah presents that I would not be able to enjoy. Rebecca, seeing me without a toy, invited me to help her introduce the miniature horse set to the Barbies upstairs, which saved the evening from being a total loss.

Sobered by the realization of potential holiday disaster I went back to the doctor's office, squeezed my eyes shut, and came home with pierced ears. That night when we opened our presents, I received opal studs from my babysitter. Rebecca opened a picture book from my parents, which we looked at together, and a pair of clip on earrings that my mom had helped me find for her earlier that day. Together, we went upstairs, put on our matching tutus from last year's holidays, and ran into Michelle's room singing, "Oooooh, barracuda!"

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Related stories

Holiday Guide Feature archives

More Stories

Stuffed (11/18/2009)
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford

Present Tense (11/19/2008)
City Paper's 2008 Holiday Guide

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