Dolphins are fine. I don’t dislike them. If anything, I think they’re very smart and nice creatures. But by no reasonable measure am I obsessed with dolphins. At least, that’s the spiel I’ve given to anyone who’s asked about the impossible-to-ignore number of dolphin-themed knick-knacks that have peppered my apartment over the past decade.
You see, for almost every birthday and holiday of my adult life, my sisters have decided to ignore whatever gift I might actually like in favor of what I can only describe as “assorted dolphin paraphernalia.”
I wish I could offer any semblance of reason as to why they started doing this, but there isn’t one. Trust me, I’ve searched long and hard for a crumb of interest I ever showed in dolphins growing up, but nothing. Alas, if my sisters have their way, I’m destined to become the dolphin-loving equivalent of those people whose home decor, wardrobe and personality revolve around a specific dog breed.
Though there is no why to explain the whole situation, I am able to recall how this all started with unmatched clarity. It was fall of 2005. I was a sophomore in high school, doing my homework at the kitchen table when two of my four older sisters, Emma and Tessa, burst through the front door. They were coming home for fall break from the University of Illinois, and even better, they’d stopped to buy me a belated birthday gift on their way.
I was still getting used to the quiet isolation of home after all four sisters officially moved out, so seeing these two clatter into the kitchen was a welcome surprise. And up until this point, all gift-giving had been abdicated to our parents, so I wasn’t expecting a birthday present. But quickly, it dawned on me: Not only did they know what was cool, they could now afford to buy me cool things.
At first, my instinct appeared to be correct. The gift they handed over was MVP Baseball 2005 for Nintendo GameCube. This was an expensive, absolutely classic video game (with a legendary soundtrack), and it would have been an instant top-five present of all time — had I not already owned it. I felt bad explaining how I’d already bought the game a few months prior, but they seemed unphased by the revelation. Without hesitation, they walked back out the door, promising to exchange the game and come back with something “even better.”
A few hours passed before they returned, beaming with pride. “Okay,” Emma, the elder of the pair, started. “We had trouble finding another game, but we think you’re going to like this more.” Tessa reached into the bag, and pulled out this:
“This must be the joke gift before the real gift,” I thought. After all, it didn’t look like a painting a store would actually sell, right? It’s just a wooden plank with 2D dolphins that appear to either be jumping from the sea or laying dead on a frozen lake. Unsure where this was going, I simultaneously laughed and feigned appreciation. Then came the only item left in the bag — my second replacement gift:
I froze, confounded by the sheer absurdity of the two dolphin figurines before me. If I had to guess, the combined cost was a total of $6, nowhere near the amount they got in return for the original gift.
“I remember having literally no idea what to get you,” Emma tells me now. “We must have tried for a little bit but gave up and ended up in the ‘random section’ of our local Value City, which was always lined with, like, weird wicker lamps, plastic plants, 1980s kitchen gadgets, bad art (foreshadowing!) and so many figurines.”
“We decided to switch gears and get you something you would hate,” Tessa elaborates. “The real gift would be creating a new identity for you as someone who loves dolphins and thereby ruining all future gift-givings as well.”
I remember they both seemed very proud of themselves, so I laughed it off as best I could and figured that was it. But the dolphins kept coming — from dolphin keychains, to dolphin puzzles, to majestic dolphins leaping from the ocean.
By the time it was my turn to move out of the house, a box of dolphin posters, glittery dolphin-adorned folders, dolphin-shaped lamps and dolphin tree ornaments came with me. “I’d have to say of all the dolphin stuff I’ve sent you,” my oldest sister Saskia tells me, “my favorites were probably the nursery lamp, the rainbow foil engraving art kit or the dolphin keychains that lit up and squeaked when you pressed a button on them.” (To her credit, that dolphin nursery lamp has served as a Christmas tree star for multiple years at my house.)
“My sisters think it’s funny to pretend I love dolphins, so it’s kind of an ongoing gag gift,” I’d try explaining to anyone who asked about all the stuff with dolphins on it in my college dorm room. In hindsight, I guess I could’ve not put them out on display, but I felt a certain obligation to keep them out. They were gifts, after all.
Soon, dolphins didn’t just enter my life through bejeweled sweatshirts on Christmas morning — I started to receive weekly dolphin-related news stories and pictures of dolphins my sisters saw on vacation or at the zoo. The idea that I loved dolphins became so ingrained in our family that, eventually, they forgot it started as a joke. “Wait, we just bought you dolphin stuff for no reason?” Emma, one of the two original masterminds who started it all, asked as I opened a dolphin-themed birthday card this past November. “And it’s been going on this long?”
Seeing an opportunity to force a confession from my sisters, I asked each of them what they get out of bombarding me with dolphin gifts every year. “More than anything else, I remember that afternoon buying the first dolphin stuff being a really fun experience with Tessa, which when you’re 19- and 21-year-old sisters, doesn’t always happen,” Emma recalls. “So I’d say it was a bonding experience for us, and you too, if you count the fact that you were our common goal and got roped into the madness.”
“There’s a closeness that comes with having such a long-running inside joke,” Tessa says, adding her favorite part of the entire charade is my “awkward reaction to more dolphin trash from someone who is already pretty dang awkward about gifts in general.”
“I guess that’s basically laughing at someone else’s expense,” she continues, “but what could be better than that for siblings?”
Or as my third-oldest sister Monica puts it, “I was recently in San Francisco and walked by a porcelain figurine of two dolphins swimming together through a rainbow and it made me laugh thinking of you. It reminds us of the more carefree times in our lives when we could all just be a kid again and joke around — it keeps that older sister-younger brother connection alive. For some reason the dolphin thing stuck, although I still have you in my phone as Booger Butt!”
I can’t help but agree. The wooden dolphin painting and sparkly dolphin figurine displayed in my apartment today look objectively stupid. But every time I see them, I’m similarly reminded of the oddball relationship I have with my four older sisters. That’s a connection I’ll always cherish, no matter how many dolphins I’m swimming in.