My mother and father had a deep commitment to keeping things equal between my sister, Christine, and me. With some years of parenting behind me, as well as a childhood to reflect on, I've found that keeping things equal is about as easy as finding two socks that match.
In our home, my daughter, Hallie, is able to judge the difference in pieces of chocolate cake so infinitesimal that there is probably no instrument to measure it. If she had the same number of Christmas presents as her brother under the tree, she would, like an airline attendant, whip out the measuring tape to calculate the total inches of her packages.
She keeps trying to use this data to convince me that her brother is getting better treatment. And I keep telling her that some days he does, but some days she does.
My parents, on the other hand, spent time weighing and measuring to make sure my sister and I had the same amounts. And we spent as much time or more disproving in some way that fairness had in fact occurred. If the items that came to us through parental grace were the same, we could find the one thing that made our gifts different: colors just a shade darker on my gift, patterns shifted on her piece of fabric to make it unique.
The tendency of my parents toward equal treatment was especially visible at holidays. If my sister got a piece of furniture, so did I. If my father opened a savings account for my sister, he opened one for me.
Christine and I were almost a generation apart. When I was 7, she was 14. I wouldn't like furniture for another 20 years -- and then only as something to sink into -- while Christine came to interior design at a young age. We were so different that though our rooms were on the same floor, we may as well have lived in different cultures. Most times we did. She spent evenings working with fabric, paints, and inks, while I was using the last bit of daylight to turn over leaves in the backyard by the lilac tree.
One of the annual Christmas maxims was that we were ''fortunate to have any presents.'' Yearly we were reminded that our family, though modest in means, was rich in comparison with some families in our neighborhood.
By the time I was 9 or so, a pattern had been established in our family. At Christmas, several small gifts would be under the tree for my sister and me, and we would each have one large gift, identical in size. It was hard, even in the face of such loving parents and honest generosity, to keep from groaning inwardly when we saw those packages. It was unthinkable to sigh aloud, and even groaning in silence produced a good amount of guilt.
The Christmas of my ninth year, I wanted a doll. It was the first year dolls were made to look real. I was actually not much of a doll person and had never asked for a doll. In fact, I was almost too old for dolls, my mother said. But once I saw this doll, I knew it was destined for me. Its face was permanently scrunched in what, I would learn many years later, was the expression that happened just before a wail that could awaken an entire neighborhood. But at 9, I thought the look on the doll's face wa s charming.
My sister wanted a sewing machine for Christmas. She had become an excellent seamstress. It was not a casual hobby; she was really good. She made clothes, curtains, and pillow covers using my mother's old straight-sew machine. She wanted a machine of her own -- a machine capable of zigzagging, embroidering, anything besides going straight ahead. Here was a basic difference between us. She could handle, even wanted, all the options on a machine, while for me something that would go only straight ahead se emed an enormous comfort.
The night before Christmas Eve, my mother and father with some difficulty carried into our home identical huge square boxes. ''There goes any hope for a doll,'' I thought. And though every child longs for big packages under the tree, I was not among them that year.
My parents were excited. My sister and I shared looks of commiseration. ''We didn't want you peeking,'' my mother said. She and my father laughed.
When the time came to open our presents, my sister went first. I watched as she opened the box. She looked stunned. Inside was a deluxe portable sewing machine. Were my first thoughts those of happiness for my sister? No. What did this mean for me? Could they have gotten me a sewing machine? I had proved as adept at sewing as I had at cooking. The domestic instincts had settled in my sibling.
I slid my box out from the tree. It was light. I allowed myself a sliver of hope. I opened the lid and there, sitting in the corner of the huge box, was the doll with the scrunched-up face.
Equality wasn't talked about as much anymore after that Christmas. I can't be sure, but I think my sister and I did less comparing. I hope so. My mother began to buy me books just because I liked to read, and my sister fabric just because she liked to sew.
Because parental grace was dispensing items that were so different, there was less chance to compare. Oddly enough, when life became less equal, it seemed to become more fair.