Heidi Swillinger

It’s the gift-giving season, but as Heidi Swillinger learned, sometimes the best gifts are the smallest.

With the holidays coming, I search my kitchen for the nutmeg kit my sister gave me when I was 15. I have used it every December since for my annual glass of eggnog, which I never drink without thinking of her.

As a teenager, Lisa could not wait to leave home, and she was always on the lookout for things she’d need when that glorious day came. She collected a trove of thrift store dishes, scented bath soaps, classy luggage and clothes she wasn’t allowed to wear in our parents’ home. Clearly, she was planning to take the world by storm.

One day she handed me the nutmeg kit – a small jar filled with whole nutmegs, a booklet of recipes and a miniature grater about the size of my thumb. She’d found the kit on sale for such a low price she’d been compelled to buy several, including one for me.

I had no interest in anything connected to the kitchen and knew nothing about the uses of nutmeg. Still, I was thrilled to have the kit, partly because it was evidence that Lisa had given me a thought and partly because it kick-started me into thinking about my future.

My when-I-leave-home stash ended up being nowhere near as elaborate as Lisa’s, mostly because I couldn’t envision what I’d need, beyond crates loads of books. But I did have a few bargain basement coffee mugs, a box of first-aid supplies and that nutmeg kit, along with the burgeoning awareness of the possibilities of my own life.

Lisa moved out, and two years later, so did I. We ended up on very different paths. In 2006, she died, a victim of the pharmaceutical opioid scam that has since killed thousands.

The nutmeg kit is the only thing that remains of my hope chest. Because I only use it at holiday time, it’s still half full. There are four whole nutmegs left, more than enough, I now realize, to last the rest of my life.

Lisa never imagined that she was giving me a gift that would outlast us both. But you never know what gifts you actually bestow when you give someone a present. A lot of times, it’s more than you think.

With a Perspective, I’m Heidi Swillinger.

Heidi Swillinger is a Bay Area journalist and book editor.