I have three sisters—an excessive quantity by contemporary standards, though far from the most egregious display of fecundity I’ve ever seen. That would have to be the Duggars, the conservative Christian fertility cultists–turned–reality TV stars famous for having 19 children and Lord only knows how many denim maxi dresses.
As it happens, the family’s compound is located one town over from Springdale, Arkansas, where I grew up. Our other claim to fame is the headquarters of Tyson Foods, the corporation responsible for the poultry processing plants that give the city its distinctive aroma: an industrial-farmyard blend of chicken guts, excrement, and despair. And people wonder why I became a vegetarian.
At high school sporting events, students from neighboring towns used to have a Springdale-taunting chant that went, “Hey hey, what’s that smell? / We must be in Chickendale!” (In our dialect, “smell” and “dale” rhyme.)
What those cruel children failed to appreciate about Springdale, though, was the beautiful symmetry of its cycle of life: Every time a terrified chicken was slaughtered and eviscerated in a killing factory, a few more Duggar babies would come into the world. If that doesn’t illustrate the perfect balance in God’s creation, I don’t know what does.
Nowadays, all three of my sisters have their own spouses and children. Throw in my husband, Frank, and me, and our sibling and sibling-adjacent total comes out to 14—still smaller in number than the Duggar brood, but too many to add to my Christmas shopping list.
That’s why my sisters and I instituted a Sibling Gift Exchange (SGX) several yuletides ago. At the end of November, the names of the eight eligible adults—the four original cast members plus their husbands—go into a hat and then the luck of the draw determines who plays personal Santa to whom. (My three nieces and three nephews get separate gifts from their Uncle Zee, which is my nickname among the family’s small fry.)
At some point, one of my sisters got the idea that the SGX ought to have a different theme each year. So in the intervening Christmases, we’ve done locally made gifts, kitchen gifts, outdoorsy gifts, and so on.
For whatever reason, I always seem to end up receiving a stainless steel–lined travel coffee mug, no matter the theme. To be honest with you, I don’t travel nearly enough to justify having as many travel coffee mugs as I now own—and I’m a travel writer.
One year there was a mix-up, and my husband got two gifts in the exchange while I got none. Maybe all the stores were fresh out of travel mugs.
That was the Christmas when the SGX theme was “Locally Made.” One of the presents Frank received was a green dish with a wavy edge. The object sort of looks like something that would live at the bottom of the sea. Now it sits on our coffee table, holding the remotes for the television, the Apple TV box, and the DVD player when those electronics aren’t in use (the DVD player is never in use).
A stamp on the underside of the dish says it came from Miller’s Mud Mill Pottery in Dumas, Arkansas. As I recall, the brother-in-law associated with my youngest sister bestowed the thing on Frank. I don’t remember what Frank’s surplus gift was or who gave it to him.
The remote dish is memorable, though—probably because it was formed from the Arkansas mud and never feels right in whatever room it’s placed in.
I identify on both counts.