First Person: The return of the white elephant

Our very first wedding present arrived from El Paso, Texas, in an old shoe box. A grocery bag and frayed jute surrounded the package. The return address was that of an old friend of my fiancée's parents. Our excitement was great even though we hardly knew this person.

I shook the mysterious box. "Whatever it is, it feels pretty solid." We pulled off the string, tugged away the wrappings and found inside a carved wooden object.

"What is it?" my fiancée asked. It took us each a moment to recognize a sea horse.

Sea horses suggest grace and beauty. This one suggested neither. Nearly a foot tall on top of its wooden pedestal, the icon was covered in thick shellac. It sported a cartoonish profile like Daffy Duck's. I visualized a stand just over the Mexican border, overflowing with these in all different sizes. The wince on my future wife's face suggested that our tastes — at least in sea horses — would be compatible.

Six months later, we conspired our deliverance. My office's annual holiday party includes a "white elephant" gift exchange. Our sea horse, with its kitschy looks, won eager suitors. We traded for a set of "Love Dice" marked with racy suggestions.

Our story does not end there. My wife and I each felt a bit uneasy, having bartered away our first wedding present. But at the following year's gift exchange, the sea horse made a surprising reappearance. For my wife and me, that trinket now spoke of commitment. I negotiated fiercely that evening, and won back our funny-looking sea horse.