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Gift Tags

12/30/08 5:55PM By Kristen Laine
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(HOST) This holiday season, commentator Kristen Laine has been thinking about family stories - how they're created, changed and passed along.   

(LAINE) Here we are, halfway through the holidays. Every present that sat under our tree has been opened and is gradually making its way to a place on a bookshelf, in the playroom, or - parental hope springs eternal - neatly folded in a drawer. Wrapping paper fills our recycling bin. The tree no long sucks up water as if it's sap. Soon we'll take it down and split it for firewood. Out with the old, in with the new!

A few small pieces of paper didn't make it into the recycling bin and won't go into the fire, either. They were a special gift this year - not a present, exactly; more like the opening to a story.
 
When I was growing up, my family moved every two years or so. My father graduated from college with an engineering degree and a job with the Aluminum Company of America, which manufactured everything from bottle caps to airplanes out of the new wonder material. The company started Dad on the factory floor and hopscotched him from plant to plant as he rose through the ranks into management.
 
We'd move: new home, new school, old life gone. Even though we became pros at packing, moving never became easy. That may be why, somewhere along the line, I noticed my father's Christmas gift tags. I don't know why he used the back of his old business cards for the tags on our presents - his engineer's appreciation for straight lines and neat corners, possibly, or his immigrant thrift - but every year, as far back as I can remember, those bright white rectangles decorated our presents. Each small card was a little love letter from Dad, a host of superlatives in block letters - "beautiful," "special," "smart." And also, if you knew what lay on the other side, a chart of my father's career, signposts of our lives.

This year, my children were home when a box arrived. Inside, we found presents, each identified by a card written in my father's clean hand. "Look," I said, lifting up the corner of one to show my children its business side: That's a job, I told them, that my father held 40 years ago, in a factory that closed 20 years ago, in the town where I went to high school.
 
 A few nights later, I went down to the tree and peeled back more cards, read more job titles. Taken together, the cards gave me the sudden sense that I could see the full sweep of my father's life. He retired earlier this year, six months shy of 75. He won't be adding any more business cards to his collection.
 
I doubt my father is aware that these small rectangles, turned over and taped to wrapping paper, tell a story. But this year, those small pieces of paper helped me remember a family's geography, a father's dreams, and a parent's love - and they gave me a way to tell that story to my children.
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