When I was a girl, a little brown-haired friend invited me to her birthday party. I got a real Rainbow Brite invitation in the mail with my name written on the envelope in purple pen. It was so official. A real invitation meant there might be store-bought cake smothered in unholy amounts of store-bought frosting. A real invitation meant there might be party games with real prizes and goodie bags filled with stickers and candies. My brothers seethed with envy.
The week before the party, Mom drove me to the mall so I could forage through KB Toys to find a gift for Jenny. The boys scampered off to ogle over Micro Machines and He-Man figurines while Mom ran across to Hobby Lobby because she thought yarn was more interesting than Barbie. As if.
I was left alone in the aisle of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and Pound Puppies and an overwhelming amount of sparkly things. “Just pick out something you would like,” my mom had suggested the night before.
“But make sure it’s under ten dollars,” Dad added. He did not understand that I could not buy a Cabbage Patch Doll for under ten dollars. “It’s just a birthday party.”
Just a birthday party. Clearly, he did not know that the invitation had real glitter. This couldn’t be just any gift. It had to be perfect.
But standing in the toy store, surrounded by dazzling displays of perfectly packaged toys in every shade of pink and purple imaginable, I had no trouble picking out a toy that I would like. I just couldn’t find one I wanted to give.
Suddenly I saw the perfect toy. It was a My Little Pony Sticker Factory. It came with rolls of blank stickers and scented stamps and glitter pens so some lucky girl could make her own one-of-a-kind pony decals. Plus, as a special bonus, the package included 15 limited-edition Puffy Pony stickers. Be still my heart.
It was the only package left. I grabbed it off the shelf and waited for my mom to come back and pay. My hands shook. I had found the perfect gift.
“How fun!” my mom said when she saw it. My brothers rolled their eyes.
She wrapped the present for me on the day of the party because she knew how to make the corners just perfect and I didn’t. It was the most beautiful present I had ever seen. I held it on my lap on the way to the party and thought about my own sticker collection, which I had carefully arranged in an old photo album.
I had been saving stickers for my whole life, or least since the first grade, when my teacher put a sticker on my paper that smelled just like a dill pickle. But I only had three puffy stickers, and one of them wasn’t even sticky anymore. Now Jenny was going to have more than a dozen limited-edition pony stickers. My heart hurt.
The closer we got to Jenny’s house, the worse I felt. I loved stickers more than anything else in the whole world. Once, I thought I’d lost my album. I almost died. Now, I was about to give away the very last My Little Pony Sticker Factory to little brown-haired Jenny, and she was going to be the only girl on the entire planet who could make stickers that smelled like cotton candy.
Then I had an idea. I opened my backpack and slid the present in. When my mom pulled up to Jenny’s house, I scampered out and waved good-bye before she could remind me to be good.
Jenny’s house was full of streamers and balloons. Her parents had set up the basement with Pogo balls and roller skates and even a set of stilts. There was a giant Rainbow Brite piñata and Rainbow Brite napkins and Rainbow Brite plates . And there was a plastic Rainbow Brite tablecloth decorating a table full of presents.
Everyone else had dropped their gifts on the table. There were dozens of them. My plan could not have worked out more perfectly. Jenny would never even notice that my gift was not in the pile.
Jenny’s parents led the games and passed out the cake (store-bought, as I had hoped). Then it was time for the presents. “Why don’t each of you girls go and get your gift from the table,” Jenny’s dad said.
“That way, Jenny can thank each one of you and I can write down what you brought,” her mom said as if this was not the worst idea ever.
All the other girls scampered off to the table. I followed along and hoped no one would notice that I did not have a gift. But I was not so lucky.
“Kristie? Can’t you find your present?” Jenny’s mom said in front of everyone. “Girls, did anyone grab Kristie’s present by mistake?” All the girls looked at their presents and shook their heads.
“Maybe it fell under the table,” Jenny’s dad said. He got down on his hands and knees before I could say anything. “Don’t see it!” came his muffled voice.
That’s because Jenny’s present is in my backpack, I thought. I could have said it, right then, and everything would be okay. Everyone would think I had just forgotten to put it on the table. I could have said it, but I didn’t. Instead, I looked at Jenny’s mom and lied. “I must have left it in the car,” I said.
“Oh, that’s alright,” she said. “Those things happen!”
Jenny opened the rest of her presents and soon it was time for my mom to come again. I grabbed my backpack and tried to keep the present from crinkling inside.
Later that night, I carefully unwrapped the My Little Pony Sticker Factory from its beautiful wrapping paper with the perfect edges. I crumpled up the paper and hid it in the very back of my closet until I could sneak downstairs and hide it in the trash where no one would find it.
Then I crawled under my blanket and opened the package. It smelled like cotton-candy, just like the package promised. The limited-edition stickers were indeed puffy. They were brilliantly colored and shiny with newness.
But I couldn’t put them in my sticker album. My mom might see the, or my brothers, and everyone knew brothers couldn’t be trusted. I couldn’t even stamp my own My Little Pony sticker because I would have to hide that too.
Worse still, I felt sick. My heart didn’t hurt, but my stomach did. I looked at the present, Jenny’s present, and I realized it didn’t seem so wonderful anymore. I had envied my friend’s gift. I had resented her because she was going to get the very thing I wanted the most in the world. Then, I had betrayed her. I had taken her good gift and tried to keep it for myself.
For weeks after the party, I worried. I worried that Jenny would remember she never opened my gift. I worried that her mom might ask my mom about it. I worried that I smelled like cotton candy and puffy stickers.
Days and weeks went by. The gift was forgotten. But not by me. I would think of this gift for years to come because it revealed a weakness in my heart that could not be attributed to normal childhood selfishness.
Far into my adulthood, I would find it difficult to rejoice when the gifts I desired where given to others. Just this past week, a friend of mine was given the very thing I have desired. If I could pick out any blessing for myself, I would have picked the blessing God gave to her. But God did not give it to me, and I felt a pain in my heart like I felt years before, when I had to attend a Rainbow Brite birthday party with a gift I wanted to keep for myself. It was back, the same ugliness I had let rule in me as a kid.
It took me a whole day to be truly happy for my friend without any thought to my own lack. It took me a whole day to get over my self-pity. As I struggled with my own selfishness, I felt just as ashamed, just as greedy, as I did when my hands held a stolen gift.
But I am not a child, and my Father does not have limited gifts to give. He is able to give abundantly the very things I’d like to take for myself, if I could. My childish heart might tend toward tantrums, but I have learned enough to know that a gift freely given is much better than a gift selfishly taken or enviously desired. It might not be my turn now, but I don’t have to worry. My Daddy has enough puffy pony stickers to go around.