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Empty boxes

PD Staff Published on 07 December 2012

1812pd_empty_1

Christmas had always been different for Christina and Albert Ross. They had no aunts, no uncles and no cousins to come and bring them gifts. All they had was their mother.

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Yet Albert and Christina did have a grandmother.

She lived on a ranch out in Oregon, thousands of miles away. They never expected to see her. However, they knew she loved and cared for them.

Every Christmas, she sent big boxes filled with cookies and exactly the kinds of toys they wanted.

The Christmas Albert was almost 9 and Christina was 5 and a half, their grandmother wrote: “This year I am not sending packages; I am coming to see you.”

“She might bring the presents with her,” Christina said hopefully to Albert.

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Albert, who got A’s in Math and could count money said, “Don’t plan on it, kid. It costs so much to come so far she probably won’t be able to buy presents.”

Christina, who wanted a doll, began to cry. “Hush,” said her mother, “You children should learn presents are not what Christmas is all about.”

“Yeah, we know,” said Albert, who liked to talk back to his mother. “Everybody says that.” Albert wanted an airplane with a real motor, an airplane that could really fly.

Christmas morning, Albert and Christina had to wait to open their presents until Grandmother came. They were allowed to shake their packages, but there wasn’t one that felt like a doll or an airplane with a motor. They were all soft packages, like clothes.

They left for the railroad station right after breakfast. Albert spotted a tiny, smiling woman with twinkly blue eyes and wavy grey hair. “That’s her, that’s her,” he cried. When their mother rushed forward to greet Grandmother, Albert, who remembered his father, whispered to Christina, “Her eyes are just like Dad’s. I would have known her anywhere.” Christina, who had been born after her father died, eagerly searched her grandmother’s face.

Christina noticed Grandmother carried only a little handbag, far too small to contain a big doll. Albert was right. Grandmother had spent all her Christmas money to come see them. But then Grandmother opened her handbag and took out small pieces of cardboard with numbers on them. These she exchanged at a window marked ‘baggage’ for a suitcase and a wooden box with metal corners and leather straps.

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“This is my mother’s old quilt chest,” she said. “I thought you might want it.” Christina looked at the chest. Albert looked at the chest. It was big enough to hold a very large doll and an airplane, too.

The taxi driver could hardly get the chest in the trunk. It stuck out the back.

Home, at the apartment, Grandmother asked Albert to open the chest. In it was box after box with everything he and Christina had wanted for Christmas. There were even some things they had not thought of wanting. All the boxes were wrapped with pretty paper and tied with ribbons.

After all the packages were opened, the floor of the little living room was covered with boxes and papers. “Children,” said their mother, “while I set the table, you pick up all the papers and boxes and take them out to the garbage.”

“No!” Grandmother looked shocked. “No! No! No! The paper is too pretty to throw away. Tomorrow I will iron it out. You can always use the boxes.”

Christina heard her mother say, “Nobody saves used Christmas paper anymore. And we have so little room.”

Grandmother answered firmly, “But I save it! I always have! And I always will! It isn’t just the money the paper and the boxes cost. It is something else ... like the memory of the best Christmas I ever had.”

Albert handed his grandmother the holly paper that had held his skateboard box. She smoothed it carefully over her knee. “When I was a child, paper was precious. This is like the wallpaper I had on my first doll house. I was just Christina’s age then – 5.”

Grandmother’s hands were shaking ever so slightly. There were tears in the corners of her eyes. Albert said, quickly, “Tell us about the best Christmas you ever had. What did you get?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“No presents at all?” Albert could hardly believe it.

“Not any.” Grandmother wiped her eyes. “We were to have had many of them. But as it turned out we didn’t. Yet it was the happiest Christmas I ever had. Later, when I grew older and heard the story of The Other Wise Man, I knew my father was like him.”

“I know about The Other Wise Man,” Albert said eagerly. “He stopped so many times to do good for people, he never got where he was going on time.”

“That is exactly what happened to my father. He started out to buy presents for us, but ...”

“Tell us! Tell us, Grandma!” Christina jumped up and down. “Tell us!”

The children’s mother had been listening as she set the table. She said, “What does that have to do with saving used Christmas paper and used Christmas boxes?”

“Everything,” Grandmother chuckled. “Everything. We lived back in the Blue Mountains. It was a long way even to Henryville, the nearest settlement. There is nothing there now. But then, there was a general store, a post office and a railroad. The train stopped once a day, late in the afternoon.

A stagecoach went through Henryville, too. It was one of the last of the old horse-drawn rock-a-byes that operated in the U.S. The roads in the Blue Mountains then were rocky and steep, and in the winter especially, autos couldn’t get through.

“The year I was 5, going on 6, it began to snow early in December. A few days before Christmas, we could only see the top rail on the fences. We were snowbound. Then it turned cold and a crust formed on the snow that was so hard it could hold up a team. Father said he would take the big bobsled and go to Henryville to get our Christmas things.

“Mr. Henry, the man the town was named after, owned the general store. He always laid in lots of things for Christmas – dolls from Germany for the little girls, BB guns for the smaller boys and .22 rifles for the bigger ones, ice skates, sleds, little rocking chairs and story books with bright-colored pictures. There were peppermint sticks, lemon sticks and wooden buckets of rock candy with roses in the center.

“When father started early the morning before Christmas for Henryville, he had two shiny $20 gold pieces in his pocket. Back in November, our Grandmother Curtis had sent them – one for me and one for my brother, Joel. She said she wanted us to have a wonderful Christmas but also to learn to share and show the love of Christ.

“In those days, $20 was a fortune. Joel and I talked about what we would give others and what we would get for ourselves. We finally decided we would each give $2 to the Circuit Rider and get presents for Mother and Father. The rest we would have for ourselves.

Father claimed he wanted a pair of mittens and a cap. Mother said she was tired of venison and wanted a turkey, two pounds of cranberries and five pounds of powdered sugar. Joel wanted a .22 rifle. I had my heart set on a blue-eyed doll, a cart for her and some candy hearts with writing on them.

“The last thing I heard Father say to Mother as he left was, ‘It should be a good Christmas with all this money to spend. I just have to get to Henryville.’

‘Don’t forget the turkey,’ Mother cautioned. Father grinned and snapped the lines. ‘It will be late before I get back, but don’t worry.’

“All that day, we dreamed about Christmas, the turkey dinner, the toys. We strung popcorn for our Christmas tree and made paper dolls out of old newspapers. We tied on red apples, and Mother let us have one sheet of her white writing paper to make an angel for the top.

“She let us stay up past our eight o’clock bedtime, but at 10, Father still had not come, so we had to go to bed. ‘God will take care of Father,’ Mother said. ‘He will be here in the morning.’

“It was just barely light when Joel woke me up. ‘Get up, sleepyhead, it’s Christmas.’ Then he ran downstairs in his nightshirt. I followed close behind. There was our Christmas tree with its paper dolls and popcorn strings – but no presents under it. ‘Father hasn’t come yet,’ Mother said. ‘I can’t imagine what is keeping him, but go upstairs and dress. He will be along by and by.’ Mother made her special six-egg hotcakes for our breakfast and spread them with huckleberry syrup. ‘Father will be here soon,’ she kept saying.

1812pd_empty_2 “We were almost through eating when we heard the sleigh bells. We ran to the window and in a few minutes saw the team coming around the hill and through the trees. The crusty snow was sparkling and the old bobsled was loaded with every kind of box you could imagine. They were piled higher than Father’s head, and some were stacked on the seat beside him.

“‘Thank you, God,’ I heard Mother say right out loud. ‘Thank you for bringing him home safe.’ Father pulled up by the door and jumped out of the sled.

“‘Whatever kept you so long?’ Mother asked, and gave him a big kiss before he had time to answer.

“‘Merry Christmas,’ my brother and I shouted. ‘Merry Christmas.’

‘I’ll unhitch here,’ Father said, ‘so it will be easier to unload. Joel, you take the horses to the barn. Alice, help him and measure out the grain.’

“I ran to the house for mittens and stocking cap. When I came out, Joel was already at the barn with Babe and Sis. Neither Father nor Mother seemed to notice me. I heard Mother say, ‘What did you buy with $40 to fill so many boxes?’

“Then Father said, ‘I didn’t buy nothing. Nothing. When I got to the store, it was closed and locked. The boxes are all empty.’

“In all my life since, I have never been so stunned. We weren’t going to get anything for Christmas.

“Joel was struggling to lift the heavy harness up on the pegs as I trudged into the barn. ‘We aren’t going to get any Christmas presents,’ I said. ‘All the boxes are empty. I heard Father tell Mother so.’

“Joel laughed. ‘Cheer up, kid,’ he said. ‘That was just fooling. You know how folks joke about Santa Claus.’

“‘No, it is real. The boxes are empty. They were talking. They didn’t know I heard.’

“‘You’re crazy.’ That was all Joel could think of to say. ‘You’re crazy.’

“We hurried back to the house. Father was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of hot milk. Mother was stirring up what was left of the six-egg hotcake batter and warming the syrup. Mother said, ‘You’ll have to explain to the children. I hope you can make them understand.’

“Then she turned to us. ‘Your Father is very tired. He has had a hard time. He has come home without any presents, without the $20 gold pieces or my turkey. But I am sure he did the right thing. Now he wants to tell you what happened.’

“Father took a big gulp of milk. Then he wiped his mouth with a napkin. Then I heard Joel’s voice waver. ‘I wanted a .22. Where is my .22?’

“‘Calm down, son,’ Father said sternly, ‘so I can tell you.’

“‘I wanted a blue-eyed doll!’ I screamed. ‘A blue-eyed doll.’

“‘Be quiet,’ Mother warned, ‘or I’ll send you both upstairs to bed, even if it is Christmas. Things don’t always go as planned, even if it is Christmas.’

“Mother wiped my eyes on her apron and took me up on her lap. Joel settled sullenly into a straight chair. All the joys of Christmas seemed to have departed.

“‘As you know, I left early,’ Father began. ‘I had been on the road about an hour when I came to Dr. Turner’s cutter. He was trying to get up Copper Canyon to deliver Mrs. Stevens’ baby. One of the tugs was broken and he had no way to fix it.

I spent two hours helping him get going. So that gave me a slow start, but I figured I still had plenty of time to get to Henryville. Dr. Turner asked me to be on the lookout for a new family that had just moved into the Wilson Mine. He had told them they must get their twin sons to a hospital in Portland. He thought I might pass them on the way.

‘When I came to the main road in the valley,’ Father continued, ‘the snow wasn’t nearly so deep and the road had been packed down by travel. There was a stagecoach with a wheel off. The driver was just a young fellow and wasn’t sure of himself, so I fixed the wheel and lost some more time.

‘He gave me $2 for my trouble. I didn’t want to take it, but he said it was a Christmas present for my children. I figured I would get a bucket of hard candy with it. The stage went on ahead of me while I picked up my tools.

‘It wasn’t long before I overtook the folks from the Wilson Mine. They had a balky old horse and wagon and were having trouble. The horse wouldn’t go. The man hailed me down and asked if I would take him and his wife and three children to the train. I saw only one child, a girl about two years old, so I asked where the other two were.

The woman was crying. She led me to the back of the wagon, and there were two little twin boys in a box covered with a quilt. Both boys were wrapped up so tight all I could see was their heads. I reckon they were about Alice’s age, fair-haired little tykes and terribly sick. It looked to me like they wouldn’t make it unless something was done. They both had high fevers, but it seemed like one was much worse than the other.

‘It was about the saddest thing I have ever seen. The mother was worn out, being up night and day. The father was sick with worry, straining to catch the train. The boys were dying and the old horse wouldn’t go.

‘I told them to pull off the road, unhitch and let the horse go back home. Then we put the box with the boys in it in the bobsled. The mother and father got in. The little girl was crying with the cold. I whopped up Old Babe and Sis. It seemed like they knew we needed to make good time. I have never known them to go faster, and we made it to the train almost half an hour early.

‘The conductor didn’t want to take the boys on account of what they had might be catching. But he gave in when he read the letter the folks had from Dr. Turner. He said there wouldn’t be anyone in the caboose, and they could all ride in there.

Then it turned out they didn’t have enough money for fares for all of them. The father could go, or the mother, but not both. The sick boys needed their mother, but I didn’t see how she could manage without their father. So I gave them the two $20 gold pieces and the $2 I got for fixing the stagecoach wheel.’

“Then Joel interrupted Father. ‘But weren’t that more than they needed? They already had enough to pay for one fare. You said so.’

‘Yes, son,’ Father nodded. ‘But I knew they would need some place to stay and something to eat. I knew they would need money for medicine and for the hospital.’

‘So you gave them the grocery money, too,’ Mother said.

“Father looked miserable. ‘You would have done the same thing,’ he said, ‘if you had seen those two little boys. One of them looked at me like that last deer I shot. I couldn’t stand it.’ He paused. I saw Mother squeeze his hand. ‘Old man Henry is always asking me if I want credit. I have always said I didn’t, but I figured this time I would take him up on it so we could have a Christmas and help the folks, too.’

‘What about the little girl?’ Mother asked.

‘They wanted me to take her to the postmistress. So I did. I figured I could still get to the store before closing. But when I got there, the store was locked up. I knocked on the window, figuring somebody would come and open up, but there was nobody there. Job Betts came along and told me Mr. Henry had about sold all the holiday things out, so he had closed up early and gone on the stage to Mayville to be with his children for Christmas.’

‘That was the stage you fixed the wheel for,’ Joel said. ‘If you hadn’t done that, we would’ve at least had some Christmas. Now I won’t ever get my .22.’

“I could tell Joel was terribly upset about his gun. ‘It wasn’t your money to give away,’ he blurted out. ‘One of those $20 gold pieces was mine.’

‘Yes, son,’ Father said. ‘I thought of that. But you know those two $20 gold pieces were wrapped up in your grandmother’s letter. I got it out and read it over before I gave them away. The letter said the money was to be used for your Christmas and to teach you the real meaning of giving and the joy of Christ. I figured saving the lives of two helpless children might do just that.’

“I could see Joel was moved, but he was still thinking about the rifle he wouldn’t have. ‘I guess I can get a gun anytime,’ he muttered. Mother put her hand on his shoulder. He turned his head quickly. Joel didn’t want me to see his tears.

‘When I took the little girl to the postmistress,’ Father said, ‘she told me she didn’t have a thing for a child for Christmas. I told her I’d get a little something at the store, but I didn’t know then the store was closed. I had to go back and tell her I couldn’t get anything. She said it didn’t seem like Mr. Henry to close early on Christmas Eve. So I went back and rattled the lock again. After that I went around back and rapped, but nobody answered.

‘Then I saw all the packing boxes they had thrown out. I guess I was just desperate. I didn’t want to come home without something, so I loaded them up. It seemed like I just had to have something to fetch. When I was putting them on the sled, a broken doll fell out of one of them. Both its arms were off and one leg was damaged, but I thought it could be fixed. The head was good.’

‘My baby doll,’ I shrieked. ‘My blue-eyed doll. Where is it?’

“Father took me on his knee. ‘Honey child,’ he said, ‘I took it to the little girl. The postmistress said she could fix it. I told her my Alice wanted a blue-eyed doll like it, but she was a big girl now, 5 years old, almost 6. And she would be with her mother and father at Christmas, so she would like little Mary to have it.’

‘Her name is Mary?’

“Father nodded. ‘Yes, Mary, like the Christmas baby’s mother.’

‘It is better to give than to get,’ Mother said, and I felt her hand on my head. ‘My little girl must learn that. It is what Christmas is about. The Christmas baby gave his life for us.’

“Suddenly Father sat me on the floor. ‘I have an idea. Let’s unload the sled. Four of those boxes nailed together would make a wonderful doll house.’

‘I can find stuff in the rag bag for rugs and curtains,’ Mother said. ‘We could make furniture out of shoe boxes.’

‘There is an oak box out there,’ Father announced, ‘that looked to me like with some beeswax and a little fixing would make a good Flyer.’

“Joel ran out and started taking things off the bobsled. The boxes were not all entirely empty. Some had crumpled-up wrapping paper in them, and there were even a few pieces of rumpled tissue and bits of excelsior that Mother said would be good for doll bed mattresses. One box had three magazines with the covers torn off, and another had some pieces of Christmas wrapping paper with holly berries on it. We carried the boxes into the house.

“Father had nested some of them, so there were boxes inside of boxes. Shoe boxes. Hat boxes. Soap boxes. Cardboard boxes. But mostly they were wooden boxes. Cigar boxes, round cheese boxes with lids. There were even candy buckets with tiny, tiny pieces of hard candy sticking to them inside. There were a couple of nail kegs, a good barrel and a broken barrel. There was about every kind of container you could think of. Joel claimed one for a tool box and Mother found one for a quilt chest. I stacked up four for a doll house.

“Father hid in one of the biggest wooden packing boxes, and when Mother lifted the lid, he jumped up like a Jack-in-the-Box. Suddenly we were all laughing and planning what we would do with our boxes.

“Mother seemed to have forgotten about her turkey and cranberries. ‘How would you like potato pancakes for dinner?’

‘Great,’ Father answered, ‘with dried peaches and cheese dumplings afterwards.’

“We spent all day Christmas playing with the boxes. One box had a piece of pink tissue paper left in it, and Mother showed us how to make a peep show. We made a little hole in one end of a shoe box. On the inside at the other end, we pasted pictures of mountains cut from the old magazines. Then we mounted pictures of people and animals on light cardboard and set them up inside. Then the pink tissue paper was pasted over the top of the box, and when we peeked in, there was an enchanted world we had created ourselves.

“Father showed me how to play I was a rocking horse by putting one foot on each end of a stave from the broken barrel. Joel got inside the good barrel and rolled down the hill a dozen times. Mother helped me make tables and chairs for my doll house, and she got out her needles and embroidery thread and began to make the head of a blue-eyed doll. It had pigtails of yellow yarn.

“It was fun playing with Mother and Father and the boxes ... the most fun we ever had. But every once in a while I could see Mother was near tears. She could not forget those little sick boys in the box on the train. She kept saying to Father, ‘I’m glad you did what you did.’

“And that,” finished Grandmother, folding a piece of gold foil Christmas wrap, “was the best Christmas we ever had. Some other Christmases I can’t even remember. The next year, Joel got his .22, and I got my blue-eyed doll. It had real hair and would go to sleep when I laid it down, but somehow I never loved it quite as much as the one Mother made for me.”

“Tell us,” said Christine, “what happened to the two little boys in the box. Did they live?”

Grandmother’s eyes lowered. “One of them died on the train before they got to Portland. But the doctors managed to save the other one.”

“What happened to him?” Albert asked, as he stroked the wings of his new airplane.

Grandmother smiled. “Lots of things. When I grew up, I married him. He was your grandfather. If it hadn’t been for that empty box Christmas, you wouldn’t be here.” PD

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