Wedding gift for the adult sister I'm just getting to know
January 17, 2014 5:31 PM   Subscribe

At age 43, I found my birth family. (Original post. MeTa.) In addition to my birth mother and many other relatives, I've gained an adult sister. I'm now 44 and she's 29. We're slowly getting to know each other. My birth mother informed me the day we met last June that I'd be going to my sister's (up until then her only daughter, as far as the world knew) wedding in Key West in March. I was so thrilled by the whirlwind of everything, and I wanted to keep the hoopla surrounding my integration into the family as minimally disruptive to her planning the big event, that I've kind of forgotten something important until now: What on earth should I get her as a wedding present?

They are not registering anywhere and are discouraging gifts altogether since it's a destination wedding. But I'm her sister! I've never had a sister before, and neither has she. The "no gifts" rule does not apply to me!

She and her fiancee live in a fairly well stocked house and have lived together for years. He supports them while she's finishing school to be a science teacher. She loves to cook and bake so much, though, that she has been baking things for money here and there and flirts with the idea of doing that full-time.

We are still getting to know one another. Out of the entire family, she's the one I know the least and will take the longest to develop a relationship with. She suffered from her mom's questionable relationship decisions from adolescence until a few years ago, she's the one most conflicted about her grandparents' pressure on her mom to give me up in 1969, and she's having to now watch as her mom reunites with her long-lost secret daughter--me. While they plan her wedding together.

I feel very protective of her, and would love to be closer and a reliable safe harbor for her as she goes through life. But she's also very stoic and private and introverted, and expressing anything like that carries huge risk and may not be welcome anyway. The progress we've made: my inclusion in all family events, including on Christmas when we cooked brunch for everyone, plus one couples' outing with my husband and her fiance. However, I hear, thirdhand, about her discomfort with certain aspects of my speaking in public (see MeTa link above) about the reunion. But she will not speak to me directly about it, even when I bring it up as a topic on which I'd like her input. She seems uncomfortable talking about emotions or anything emotional. I get that, so I back off from talking about it but continue doing what I'm doing without using her name or characterizing her reactions or emotions in any way.

Should I go the obvious baking supplies route? Or something slightly sentimental? Or a symbolic thing with a letter attached? I don't want to exclusively focus the gift on her, as I love her fiance and would like the gift to be appropriate for both of them. What else: They have cats. She loves dogs. She doesn't have a ton of friends. She's very close to one of her brothers, but not the other one. (Ironically, he's been the easiest for me to get to know.) I don't know much about her day to day existence, hearing most of what I do know from her (our) mother. Who is very different from my sister, and much more similar to me in personality.

Hivemind: What is a good gift in this unusual situation? I'm looking for the perfect gift that says "I want to get to know you" and "I'll always be here for you both" and for a bonus "Only a sister could give you this" and also "I know you've been through a lot." Does that exist?
posted by ImproviseOrDie to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Before the wedding, it'd be very traditional and personal to get her something from one of the classic four "somethings" - something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. A gift would be good for the "new" or "blue" categories. If you want to include the groom, maybe getting her something blue and getting him a nice pair of cuff links would be good.
posted by graymouser at 5:38 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think it's sweet that you're overthinking this to this degree, but a wedding gift is supposed to say "Congratulations on your wedding, I hope you will be very happy together forever" and not so much all of those other things.

Focus on them as a couple and what they would like, rather than on your relationship with the sister. The perfect gift for them will be about them, and not about you so much.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:39 PM on January 17, 2014 [17 favorites]

You could write her a letter and tell her all of those very kind and well-intentioned things you told us in your intro, about how you would like your relationship with her to be. If you do this, however, give or send it to her after the wedding. If she's introverted and struggles with expressions of emotion, she can read and process it at her own pace.

Weddings are stressful under the best of circumstances, so inserting yourself into the kind of sisterly role you are fantasizing about could easily end in your disappointment and her discomfort.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:47 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

They are not registering anywhere and are discouraging gifts altogether since it's a destination wedding. But I'm her sister! I've never had a sister before, and neither has she. The "no gifts" rule does not apply to me!

The best gift you can give to a stoic, introverted person whom you have just met, even and especially if she is your sister, is to respect her wishes. The rules apply to you.
posted by telegraph at 5:50 PM on January 17, 2014 [22 favorites]

You sound so lovely - I'm sure that in time you two will become close.

But a gift will not do that for you. I would, gently, encourage you to let go of finding the "perfect" gift that will say congratulations--i'll always be here for you--only a sister could give you this. Even if you found something that felt like it would do those things, it might be too much, or she might feel like you were pushing her too hard or expecting to suddenly take on a role in her life that she's not prepared for you to take on.

Get her something nice and thoughtful - maybe ask your birth mom what baking supplies she'd really like. Or get her an experience on her honeymoon - a gift certificate to a really nice restaurant or another experience she wouldn't otherwise have. Essentially, aim for the type of nice gift you'd like to receive from a friend.

I'd save your lovely sentiments for an occasion that is a little less loaded. Weddings are stressful - everyone has so many expectations of what the bride should do, how she should act, what the wedding should look like, how people should be involved - you really don't want to add to her stress by placing more expectations on her. Just be there, be helpful and kind, but give her enough space so that she can get to know you over time.

Really, you're lovely - she will see that. Just give her time.
posted by leitmotif at 5:55 PM on January 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

What about a gift that is for an experience not a thing? So, a gift certificate for a couples cooking class or couples massage somewhere near where she lives, so you're giving her the chance to do something new/special/different with her husband.
posted by the twistinside at 5:55 PM on January 17, 2014

I do think you should get her something; I don't think she will be unhappy that you bought her something, considering your relationship and the circumstances thereof.

I agree that you should get them an experience, either for their honeymoon, if they're taking one, or for when they get home. I can't think of a gift that could say all that to my own sister, and I've known her since she was born! That's a lot to lay on one present. It takes time to express all those things. Especially since you know she likes to cook, maybe you can get them the gift of eating at the chef's table in a really nice restaurant in her home town?
posted by Countess Sandwich at 6:00 PM on January 17, 2014

The best wedding gift is always cash. Works for strangers and long-lost sisters alike.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:00 PM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

The greatest gift you can give this woman is time and space and freedom from your goals for your mutual relationship so she can just meet you where she is. There is no wedding gift that will communicate what you want to communicate because a wedding gift is supposed to communicate your best wishes for their mutual future. I am not trying to be harsh -- we've been almost exactly this weird position in our house, too -- but you are genuinely trying too hard here.

Something like this would an idea though; they will think of you on each anniversary and although that's a side effect and not a goal, it speaks to your intention to be present for the long haul :) If you want to spend more and get something personalised for them, these are absolutely lovely.

PS: To relieve the pressure, I don't think my sisters gifted me with anything except their presence when I got married, and if they did I honestly have no idea what it was. There is no special sister expectation or tradition you need to meet here. Go easy on yourself.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:17 PM on January 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have never gone wrong with the gift of champagne. It's special enough to be, well, special, but ubiquitous enough to not be too over the top. I think that with a nice card would be fine.

I have two brothers, as does my husband, and none of them gave us a wedding present. I still allow them to attend family functions :)
posted by lyssabee at 6:17 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Something small and thoughtful. Hate to break this to you but she doesn't sound as enthusiastic about this as you do. And that's ok - you shouldn't be upset by that because that can freak people out (I first met my big brother, whom I love with all my heart and soul, when I was 29). Go easy. This isn't about you buying a gift for her to make you feel good. Think gift card to a restaurant where they will go on their honeymoon, or even $50 in an envelope. Don't push this. Let it develop.
posted by brownrd at 6:38 PM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about a bottle of wine with a note?
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:53 PM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

First, I love how eponysterical this question is.

I've been to a few destination weddings, most if not all of which also requested no gifts. "Gifts" in this context tends to mean something precisely unusual or extravagant, so as much as you want to wrap your feelings up into the perfect thing, that is a bad way to go.

But, my experience is that there are many gifts that aren't "gifts". Flowers or a bottle of wine, something you might bring over to their house if they invited you for dinner, aren't really wedding gifts. A bottle of wine that you know all three of you like makes for an excellent, quiet pre- or post-wedding private toast: "hey, I know this whole thing has been pretty weird, but I love that you are in my life and I hope that you know how much I already care for you and your husband. Cheers."

Or, if that doesn't work, if other people are leaving the destination in waves, stay an extra night and take them out to dinner. Or present them with a "coupon" for you buying them dinner when you're all back home.

The rules about gifts do apply to you, especially if your sister is already ambivalent about your role as family instead of another guest. It's wonderful that this is coming together for you. But it's their thing. They make the rules. Don't let your very understandable excitement and enthusiasm overwhelm your adherence to her plan for her ceremony. That's really the best gift you can give her, the evidence that if you're in line with the rest of the family and not overstepping, then maybe she can trust you to actually be part of the family and not just a stranger who is somehow always invited anyway. If you must give her something, make it very small, something you might give anyone relatively close to you, and give it to her in private so that you're not suddenly THE BEST SISTER who makes other people feel weird for not having brought a gift themselves.

You can't make this happen. But if you stay open, honest, receptive, and patient, it will happen, and it will feel so much more wonderful for both of your enthusiasms, not just one of you. Best wishes.
posted by Errant at 7:09 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

What if you offered to help wrangle part of the wedding? I got married under similar circumstances (in that we just didn't need more stuff, and I knew plane tickets for our respective families weren't cheap) so I was very appreciative of the family members who helped out by doing things like making sure the cake got where it was supposed to go, far more so than I would have been of a wrapped whatever. Ask the fiance if there's anything like that you can help out with. That way you can respect her wishes about gifts while potentially decreasing the wedding stress level.

If that falls through, depending on their honeymoon plans, either give them an experience for the honeymoon as suggested above, or a bottle of champagne. Keep it simple and your expectations gentle, as I think you might be hanging a little too much on one gift. Even my comparatively *very* small wedding was stressful to plan and wrangle, and you admit you don't know her very well. Be supportive of her, her love, and her celebration and that's probably all you need to do.
posted by tautological at 7:16 PM on January 17, 2014

Given that you really, really want to be kind and loving toward her and given that she seems somewhat uncomfortable with (though open to) the changes going on in her family, I suggest you rethink your plan. Instead of seeking one gift to communicate everything, break it up:

For the wedding gift--a lovely card with a short, heartfelt message of well-wishes all about the couple (not about the family situation, just about wishing the couple the best) and either something for the couple to consume/experience on the trip (champagne, massage, snorkeling tour?), or something very small sent to their home after the honeymoon (some beautiful flowers, something baking-related but along the lines of ingredients rather than tools).

Gift that says "I want to get to know you" and "I'll always be here for you both" and for a bonus "Only a sister could give you this" and also "I know you've been through a lot."--do this with a letter and time. After the wedding, send a short email or card that succinctly says, "I'm so glad to have you in my life, and I know you've been through a lot. I hope we can get to know each other, and I know that may take time, so for now I want to express that I'll always be here for you."
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:35 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

But I'm her sister! I've never had a sister before, and neither has she. The "no gifts" rule does not apply to me!

I've gotta tell you. I've been on the receiving end of an immense quantity of "I'm your ___, the rules don't apply to me!" in my life and it drives me bananas. In fact, I had a decade of little to no contact with several people because it was causing me so much distress to have them stampede over my wishes and the respect I wanted them to show me.

I am only telling you this because I want this to go well for you and you sound very, very thoughtful and concerned about her feelings, and I am certain you don't want to inadvertently cause her distress.

You can absolutely be a safe harbor for her. But it sounds like, for her, a safe harbor is one where her wishes are heeded, her space and privacy are respected, she is allowed to keep her private thoughts and feelings to herself, and she will not be forced into something directly emotional. I absolutely get wanting to shower someone with warmth and love and bring them into your arms, but, that may not be something that makes this particular person feel safe at this particular point in time. It may be the opposite.

So, I think the gift that says "I want to get to know you" and "I'll always be here for you both," may not be, in this instance, the gift that says I AM YOUR SEESTOR AND ONLY I COULD GET YOU THIS!!

I think the baking supplies idea is a great one, especially if you could get them a nice upgrade to something you know they would use.

I think it would be fine to give something sentimental, as long as it wasn't so sentimental it would make her uncomfortable. I think a simple note telling her how honored you are to be a part of this day would be well-received.

One idea that also comes to mind is, you could pay for a friend of theirs who would otherwise not be able to afford it to come to the destination wedding. Given she's 29, odds are they may have quite a few friends who wouldn't be able to come.
posted by cairdeas at 7:56 PM on January 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

The thing about manners and customs and etiquette is that it can be boiled down to one simple sentence: make things easier for the other guy.

Your sister has given you a couple of major clues as to what would make this experience easier for her: don't give her a physical gift, try not to push the relationship thing too hard, etc. This is good! You know what will make her happy! You can make things easier without even breaking a sweat!

Also, weddings are typically a ridiculous hassle, so it's an even better time than normal to be scrupulous in doing exactly as your host requests. Dance to her tune now, and she'll probably be a lot more open to amazingly awesome sisterly tokens later on.

If you insist upon a physical gift, make it highly transportable, highly exchangeable, or both. The nice thing about giving people sealed bottles of alcohol, for example, is that you can re-gift or re-purpose them quite efficiently.
posted by SMPA at 7:58 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you should respect her wishes. But perhaps you could get a really nice card and enclose a card and a note that says, "Dear Sister and Brother-in-Law, I am so touched to be invited to your wedding, especially given the whirlwind of the past year. You seem a perfect match for one another, given _____, _____ and _____. The best advice I can pass along is to keep loving one another and remember that love every day. I wanted to get you a gift, but I respect your wishes. As a result, I've opened an account under your name at and put <> on credit. I hope you'll see this as a gift to the children of the public school system and a recognition of your dream as well as 's support of that dream. I hope you'll both have fun figuring out how to spend it together in support of your life together and in supporting future learners."

Maybe that's too focused on her, but it is the sort of thing I might do. If there's another charity or interest they support, maybe you could do that.

posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:49 PM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is probably obvious, but assuming you were planning to give the gift at the actual destination wedding, be conscious of how much space it takes up. Even if it's no trouble for you to bring in your luggage, if you take into account gifts other folks may bring your nice sentiment might become a big hassle for your sister to bring home!
posted by kylej at 9:14 PM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

They are not registering anywhere and are discouraging gifts altogether since it's a destination wedding. But I'm her sister! I've never had a sister before, and neither has she. The "no gifts" rule does not apply to me!

Well, of course it applies to you. Besides, you're a previously-unknown sister. What's a better gift than that?

Oh, actually, there is a better gift than that, and you've already been giving it: a previously-unknown sister who is thoughtfully working to minimize the drama associated with her arrival into the family. On her wedding day, she and her partner deserve all the attention, so if you're attending, the best thing you can do is deflect attention from you back onto the happy couple, and keep a low profile (i.e. save the omg sisters stuff for another time.) If you and she had known each other since the birth of the younger, that's what you'd be doing, right?

Be there to support her, fulfill the letter of her no-gifts request to minimize drama and calling attention to yourself, enjoy the wedding and go ahead and cry during the vows if you want.
posted by davejay at 10:26 PM on January 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh oh oh...

However, I hear, thirdhand, about her discomfort with certain aspects of my speaking in public (see MeTa link above) about the reunion. But she will not speak to me directly about it, even when I bring it up as a topic on which I'd like her input.

Have you ever tried to ask questions of a little kid, and the little kid hides behind his mom, and will only whisper his replies to his mom, for her to repeat them to you?

There are some people who are comfortable communicating with anyone, and then there are people who are only comfortable communicating with/through people who they really really know and trust, who "get them." They may feel like they don't know the right thing to say so it's easier to talk to someone who gets them and can help fill in the blanks. Or they just may feel anxious about communicating with someone whose reactions they aren't familiar with and can't predict.

So I totally don't think this is something to take personally, you may be doing all the "right" things to open lines of communication with her, but she just may not feel like direct communication on certain issues is something she's good at/capable of/comfortable with, until she gets to know you better.

Because of this, if you wanted to send out some feelers in the family to find out the present for her that she would like the best, I think the best person to ask may be the one who told you this thirdhand info, since that is the person she seems comfortable communicating with.
posted by cairdeas at 10:59 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

PS: If you do decide a physical gift is in order, the polite and lowest-stress for her way is to mail or have it delivered before the wedding. Do not make her open it in front of you.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:21 AM on January 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think it's right to go the traditional, kind-of-distant friend route and the baking supplies thing sounds perfect for that. Honestly, though, your meeting is kind of momentous, and it's happening at a momentous time in her life, and it's a family thing, and a looking-to-the-future thing, so ...

In addition to sticking with her rules, maybe you could offer a small gift, just to her, just from you, that kind of "seals" your new relationship? Maybe a small photo album of highlights of your life, with some captions/dates? Your awkward 4th grade class photo, your first car, pets, etc -- keep it light and sincere, and short!

It opens the getting-to-know-you door a little wider.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:00 AM on January 18, 2014

Make it about her and her new husband. I thought the idea of paying for a meal out on their honeymoon was a fabulous one. A gift card for a nice place where the wedding/honeymoon is located and a heartfelt card that does not contain the word "me" or "I" seems like the best way to go. I think anything else (aside from just no strings attached cash) would not be appropriate given her request for no gifts.

Congrats on the wedding and on finding your sister!
posted by sockermom at 6:18 AM on January 18, 2014

Yeah, I would go with the no gift thing. If you know where they are staying on their honeymoon, maybe a bottle of champagne delivered to the room would be sweet.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:14 AM on January 18, 2014

As an introvert, she's going to have limited resources of emotional and social energy. And a wedding is VERY draining on precisely those reserves. So like everyone above, I'd emphasize that the best present you can give her on that day is one that is NOT going to focus on your personal relationship, or drag her into an emotional encounter of any kind. No matter how sweet your intentions, throwing PERSONAL! EMOTIONS! at her, blaring I RELATE TO YOU!! with the expectation that she'll EMOTE and RELATE right back (or even without that expectation) is like the most unkind thing you can do to a naturally reserved introvert on the cusp of a socially intense life event.

Get a nice restaurant gift certificate (or his-and-hers massages when they get back?), be cheerfully helpful with wedding logistics, and otherwise, give the gift of warm, loving, undemanding space.
posted by Bardolph at 12:06 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Please, please respect what she said in her note.

It sounds like she's having trouble with all of this, particularly your decision to talk about it publicly. I strongly recommend you attend the wedding as her wedding and not as a chance to move your relationship forward. If she's having trouble figuring out how she feels about all of this, anything that you do to make her wedding about your relationship with her and not about her wedding will be damaging to the bonds you're trying to build.

I know that you are excited about all of this and you meant the 'the rules don't apply to me, I'm her sister!' as a joke, but if she's processing this more slowly than you are she may not see your relationship in that light. Going slowly and not attempting to force her feelings will be much better for both of you in the long run.
posted by winna at 6:10 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

The people who very rightly told me not to try to load a gift with so much OMG MEANING were right on. Thank you for that sanity check.

There was one thing in my question which wasn't precisely worded: It wasn't that the bride and groom are discouraging gifts; I hadn't heard from them either way. The bride's mother (my birth mother) has been saying no one should buy them gifts because it's a destination wedding that everyone's already shelling out for (her most of all) and the couple has already been living together a long time. I morphed that into an assumption the couple didn't want to ask for people to buy gifts because they felt a bit guilty about it being a destination wedding. And it's true they've been towing her party line with wedding attendees, who are mostly family.

However, I found out after posing this question that the couple has in fact registered for a metric assload of household stuff at Macy's. Including rather a lot of nice bakeware. So I'll get them some mix of baking and serving stuff that has to do with the hobby-for-hire baking I mentioned in my question. Before I discovered the registry, I was all set to order DarlingBri's suggested 3-bottle wine box (with wine I would have chosen myself according to what I know they like).

And the card will be about them, not about my relationship with my sister.

And lawd have mercy, I would NEVER BRING a wedding gift TO a wedding, destination wedding or no.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:44 AM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

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