My sister, Katie, has a birthday this week and I haven’t bought her a gift yet - but that’s sort of her fault. She’s given me a big head and very high standards to live up to by calling me the Best Gift Giver of the family. It’s a lot of pressure. If I don’t come up with something that will either make them cry with happiness or scream with joy, then I’ve clearly fallen down on the job.
Art is a favorite to give, especially sentimental, personal art. My go-to for this is local watercolor artist, Darryl Anderson. Katie celebrated her 30th birthday at The Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, so I found a photo of the building and let Darryl work his magic. She cried. Our baby sister, Alex, majored in theater at Ole Miss and for graduation I had Darryl paint a picture of Fulton Chapel where most of her performances in college took place. Katie chipped in for half. Alex cried.
Once for Mother’s Day, I sent scanned copies of handwritten recipes to a woodworker I found on Etsy who laser carved them into a cutting board. The board is on an easel in my mom’s kitchen where we can all see my grandmother’s distinctive, cursive handwriting when we’re there. Mom cried.
After my dad’s parents passed away, we grandkids were encouraged to come take any mementos we wanted from their home before it was readied for sale. I brought home a corduroy-covered, stuffed greenhead duck that sat on the arm of my grandfather’s recliner for as long as I can remember. It has a corduroy pocket that hangs down one side to hold remotes or reading glasses. When I gave it to my dad, I think he was a little worried my mom would balk at it because it is decidedly not in keeping with her typical décor choices. We both told him to take it to hunting camp and now it sits on the arm of his favorite chair in the Delta where actual greenheads can be heard flying over in the winter. One wing was ripping from all the years of hands on it, so Dad took it to a seamstress to have it repaired. He did not cry - because that’s not his style. But come hunting season - Dad and the duck can be found in front of the fire, in a favorite chair with a remote in one hand and a worn, corduroy wing in the other.
So, yeah. I think I’m pretty hot stuff when it comes to gift-giving, which makes my fall from gift-giving glory even better. Last year, shortly before Katie’s birthday, Keifer’s Restaurant announced they were now bottling and selling their beloved feta dressing. Katie lives in California and all her little former-Jacksonian heart wanted was some of that feta dressing. This news was like the Best Gift Giver bat signal. I could make this happen. I would be the hero! She would definitely cry.
I made my first two mistakes right away. I went to Keifer’s and bought six bottles of the dressing and asked if they knew how to ship it. I did not ask how long it was good for or I would have known that not even my sister’s deep love of Keifer’s could finish six bottles before it had turned into something resembling a science project more than a salad dressing. Regarding shipping, the person I spoke with was very clear that they did not know how best to ship it, since it requires refrigeration, but that one customer had said she might try dry ice. Done. I knew where to buy dry ice. The helpful man at Jackson Ice Company loaded a Styrofoam cooler with 10 pounds of dry ice for me and even packed the dressing in the cooler as well. Hindsight says I should have asked more questions about shipping rather than forging full steam ahead with a plan based on what one employee heard one lady say she might do, but Hindsight is such an annoying know-it-all.
I headed to the post office thinking this was too easy. I’m lucky the post office didn’t call the bomb squad when I told them I had a cooler full of 10 pounds of dry ice to ship to California. They were alarmed. ‘You don’t think that will explode, do you?’ Bless it, I thought, people these days are just worried about everything. It’s not going to explode - it’s wrapped up tight and it’s just dry ice. A few anthrax-turned-baking soda experiences and everybody is being so precious about shipping bizarre substances.
The postal worker I was speaking with called his boss, who called her boss, who contacted a regional boss while she stayed on the line. No dice. They wouldn’t ship my dry ice - no way, no how. Try FedEx or UPS they suggested. By this point I needed to pick up carpool, so I drove with my cooler of restricted materials to pick up the kids. I called my mom for advice, and she said PakMail in Ridgeland would know what to do. I called and explained to my new best friend, George, what I needed to ship and how I had been turned away in person by USPS and by phone by FedEx and UPS. George, the shipping expert extraordinaire, very calmly asked, “You have how much dry ice in a cooler? Where is the cooler? In your backseat - is it vented?” Vented? Um, no. “How long has it been closed up?” A couple of hours. “You need to get out of your car and open the lid to that cooler before it explodes.” Really? “Really,” said George. I rolled the windows down as well - I can just see the headlines now, “Mother Dies in Dry Ice Explosion and Takes Out Half the Carpool Line with Her,” I mean - that would be more tragic than being the one who accidentally left your car parked in carpool lane, forcing everyone to drive around you and doing the Wave and Sorry Face-of-Shame as you dive in your car to get out of the way. George wasn’t sure what to do with me, but he knew that me and my dry ice bomb needed to come to PakMail ASAP. George probably just saved my life, so I went to PakMail.
George opened the cooler and two bottles were already frozen. This is why you don’t use dry ice for something you don’t want frozen, and feta dressing doesn’t freeze well. It separates into the various things that make it feta dressing and it’s disturbing. Almost as disturbing as when George plopped a chunk of dry ice into his cup of water and proceeded to drink the steaming water - I was pretty sure George was enjoying this. George then packed it up with Ziplock bags of regular ice and filled me in on the bad news about the southern route versus the northern route for ground shipping to California. I didn’t follow all of it - but the gist was that one was faster, but hotter and one was slower, but cooler and both were expensive for something this heavy. I sent a quick text to my mother, father, and sister Alex to inform them that they would be giving Katie feta dressing for her birthday and I’d let them know how much they owed me. I pulled up Katie’s address in my phone contacts and left thanking God for George.
Days went by as my cooler full of non-threatening ice and Feta Dressing of Love traversed the country. As she (I’ll always think of that cooler as a she because only a woman could endure being jostled around through the swamps of Louisiana, the miles of east Texas flat land, and the deserts of the Southwest to carry mayonnaise and cheese and joy in plastic bottles to someone she loves) made her long trek across the hotter, but shorter southern route to Katie - I could barely contain myself. It was going to be a complete surprise and I had already told her to FaceTime me when her gift arrived. George was anxious as well; he was either nervous about the ice lasting or was totally invested now - probably both. He finally called to tell me it had just been marked as delivered. I knew Katie was at work already but her boyfriend, John, wouldn’t leave for work for an hour. I called him and asked if he could go get Katie’s gift and take it inside to the fridge. He was happy to - but it wasn’t there. He checked all the neighbors’ doorsteps and even the nursing home office next door. No cooler anywhere. She was missing.
I called George. He dove into the dark web version of shipment tracking and found the actual note made by the delivery person which read, ‘No answer at knock, left package at door.’ I was sure someone had stolen our feta dressing and was already toasting pita and mozzarella to enjoy a homemade pita mozz with stolen Feta Dressing of Love.
On a lark, because surely I couldn’t be this stupid, I double checked the address with John, “Oh no,” he said. Oh no, indeed. I had shipped it to her old address. Neither Katie nor John would be able to drive through the L.A. traffic to track it down until they were off work. All the while, that ice was just a-melting away. George had been very clear with me, “We are pushing the limits of this ice and this cooler but there’s just no other way. Get it to the fridge as soon as possible.”
I texted Katie at work and told her I was an idiot. She said she knew; John had already told her and she would call me after work. Hours later, she called to say she would try tomorrow because it was 8 p.m. and she wasn’t up for fighting the traffic. That’s when the crying happened. It was me. I cried.
I’m pretty sure someone in my family called Katie to explain the angst that had accompanied this gift, because a little while later she called to say she was en route to her old apartment to convince someone to let her in the gates so she could go knock on the door of a stranger and ask for the condiments and ice that were rightly hers. Someone did let her in and the new tenant answered the door and, shockingly, didn’t refuse to give up the cooler full of bottled, white goo from Mississippi. The best thing I heard when Katie called to tell me she had retrieved the package was the sound of ice clinking in the cooler. George had saved me.
How do I follow that? Nothing can possibly top the Feta Dressing Fiasco of 2018. It’s a lot of pressure being the Best Gift Giver in the family, and it’s a long way down when you fall on your face. I think I’ve peaked. I went as high as I could go and feta dressing brought me back down. Maybe this is the reset button on gift-giving. This year, all she gets is a story about her in the paper and a card - I can only go up from here, right? Happy Birthday, Sis.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.