Gifts of the Magi, the Chanukah 2009 version

A year ago, the screaming in the car began.

“Speed up Daddy! Go faster! I have to see what it is! Gooooooooooooooooooooo!”
“Isabelle… ISABELLE!! Look over there! What is that?!?”
“YES! YES! YES! I can’t believe I saw it! AWESOME!!”

It started (as so many things in our house do) with a sullen comment by a grumpy teenager. Isabelle stated (with the absolute authority that only 14 year olds can muster) that nobody ever came to our state. People only moved away.

“Not true,” my wife countered,  “We see people from other places all the time.”

To prove her point, the two of them began looking for out of state license plates on cars. While this didn’t necessarily prove people LIVED in our neck of the woods, it would certainly show that they came (or at least came through) here.

From there, the rules of the “game” were established: License plates were only valid if they were on cars or personal-type vehicles (SUV’s, minivans, 4-wheel trucks, etc) but not on tour busses, 18-wheelers and the like). Both my wife and daughter had to see the license plate for it to “count”. But they didn’t have to see the SAME license plate. So if my wife saw “Maryland” on Monday during a grocery run and my daughter saw the same state on Wednesday on her way to music lessons, it counted.

A list of states, along with pictures of their license plates, was carefully checked off every time a new state was identified. Within 3 months, half the list was spotted. By 6 months only 10 states remained.

Hence the screaming. My daughter (ever the competetive one) was not going to fritter away any chance to check another state off her list, just because some stuffed suit bureaucrat thought that 80mph was too fast for a suburban side road. Never mind the chance that dear old Dad would have to look the officer in the eye and explain the situation (probably before being cuffed and brought to the psych ward for evaluation). If my darling daughter could finally check off “Wyoming” it would (in her mind) all be worth it.

Then about 4 months ago my wife got the idea that this would make a great gift. Through the miracle of eBay, we could purchase license plates and present them to our daughter. At a 1-8 dollars a plate (plus shipping) it wouldn’t exactly be cheap but it wouldn’t be the most expensive gift either. And it would provide years of stories.

Then 3 weeks ago my daughter pulled me aside, practically hovering off the ground with excitement.

“I know the PERFECT GIFT for Mommy!” she exclaimed (her only mode of speech), “I found LICENSE PLATES on EBAY!! I can get her the ones we’re missing! Isn’t that AWESOME!!!”

I sipped my coffee thoughtfully while my brain screamed “POKER FACE! POKER FACE! POKER FACE”. Then I managed to sound surprised and engaged as I said “Hey, that’s a great idea.”

After she left the room (promising to email me links so I could buy the stuff without my wife knowing), I sat with my feelings: The irony, humor and pure joy at their reciprocal thoughtfulness ran in counterpoint to the frantic manufacturing of stories this was going to require. I had to somehow pretend to purchase license plates for my daughter but ensure that the plates that had yet to be delivered didn’t fall into her hands; And I also had to assemble the entire gift under the watchful gaze of my wife without her seeing the missing items.

I won’t go into the details of how I pulled this off, but I will state that I probably violated at least 4 federal laws having to do with mail tampering, along with some late night (early morning, actually) “sleep problems” when I put everything together which left me the equivalent of a walking zombie. And then there was the moment that my wife thought maybe she would save the license plates for my daughters birthday (which comes shortly after Chanukah this year) instead. Describing emotional distress I claimed I would suffer should have won me an Emmy at least.

When the presents were finally unwrapped, everything became clear. We actually laughed until we cried.

Here is the gift from my daughter to my wife (including the all-but-impossible to find “Hawaii” plate)

…And here are the rest of the plates, hung on a curtain rod and with gaps where we eventually added the missing 3.