The Same Gift Twice

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I can almost remember what I used to keep in the little painted box. Seeing it now pulls at eight-year-old me, still there, deep in my memory under every day that has piled layers over that little girl out there in some quantum eternity, stashing her treasures in an empty candy tin her father sent her.

There was a beaded bracelet, I remember. And a pretty rock I kept inside a stiff-hinged velvet ring box that a friend of my mother’s said I could keep when I fell fascinated with it, snapping it open and closed after finding it abandoned on a side table at her house.

I remember folded paper. I know I had written things down and creased the messages closed against casual discovery. But I can only wonder now what words I tried to save for later. I didn’t manage to save them. A failure of custodial reverence to be sure.

I don’t know if I ate the candy that came in the box. Sweets were his go-to gift for his daughters, and my father had terrible taste in candy. That I do remember.

He is a ghost. My father died the year after he sent those gilded treasure boxes filled with probably not-good candy, one for me and one for my sister. But he’d already been apart from us for years by the time those gifts arrived.

The last time I saw him I was five, with a brain not yet tuned to record the way things were. I have sparks of images, impressions of my youngest life that feel like my own. But in truth, I can’t really untangle what is my own knowledge from what are simply stories other people tell. Of things that happened. Of my father. He’s a ghost that haunts all the tales of him, which are what I have instead of memories.

They say he was brilliant. Witty. Hilarious. Charming. Very tall. He was devout, fiery and eloquent in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. And Sunday nights. And Wednesday Bible studies. He was sought after for his conversation and his counsel. Those are the good stories.

But he was also tipped into hypocrisy by a mental illness that wouldn’t let him keep the commandments of his convictions. His fickle chemistry betrayed his best intentions and dropped him, again and again, into a darker version of himself.

The well of his illness was deep and the climb out was slippery. He’d emerge back into the light that was warm and hopeful, but also cruelly clear to reveal what had been neglected and broken in the fall. He’d walk out into the sun only to have to survey the rubble of his own life, until the last time, at age 44, when he didn’t.

By that time, I hadn’t seen him in over four years, nearly half my life.

Shortly after, the treasure boxes were lost in a hasty move. My bracelet. My rock in the plush ring case. Other things I can’t recall. My little slips of paper.

I remember being hugely upset by the loss of it. But it was the kind of pain that faded in the way most insults do—for me, anyway. Less so, for my sister. We all have teeth marks from some small life-bite that never stops stinging, even though it can be a little embarrassing to confess them.

One of mine is a snow cone, dropped and smashed on a summer sidewalk when I was in the first grade. One of my sister’s is missing, to this day, that damned trinket box.

Forty-some years out and she’s mentioned it often enough, and in sufficient detail, that for Mother’s Day, her daughter, a talented artist, drew her a picture of what she imagined it looked like.

The gesture touched me. And it made me wonder about that box. Maybe I could find a photograph of the real thing for my sister, and to show Erika how she’d captured the essence of it.

I searched the internet for “1970s metal candy boxes” and in mere moments, my mouth fell open and I gasped. Before looking, all I remembered was green and gold and very clearly the shape of the thing. But I recognized it as soon as I saw it.

I’m now a minor expert in vintage candy tins. And in the Blue Bird Confectionery Company. And in the knowledge that there are collections out there of probably everything that’s ever been. And that everything is for sale on Etsy and eBay.

I bought one for each of us and they arrived yesterday. They’re around forty-five years old, but look almost brand new. It’s amazing how well, if kept safe, painted tin weathers. Who would have thought?

They are not the boxes that were once in our father’s hands. But they are little time machines, nonetheless, though the experience is less transporting than it is catapulting. A little dizzying. I didn’t expect it. But my sister reminded me that it was the best actual memory we have of our father. He gave them to us and we remember it. No story required. No ghost.

It’s very strange seeing it now on the shelf here next to me, zapping me back into the past when this thing had the special anchor’s weight that only a prized possession can, strong enough to hold a place in time.

We’re often prompted to invent what we’d say to our younger selves if given the chance, what advice we’d offer to make things better.

And what would I tell eight-year-old me?

Out of fear of the time traveler’s risk—of unmaking what’s good about today by burning all of yesterday’s uncertainty in the crucible of a space-time paradox—I wouldn’t tell her a thing.

But I would ask her what she’s writing on those little slips of paper.

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(An aside: I had no idea how poignant the position of the box in the photo would be, between the two titles I wedged it. I just placed it in an aesthetically pleasing spot, as I have all my knickknacks on my bookshelves. That was a strange and lovely accident.)

 

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The Mother’s Day drawing, posted with permission from my wonderful niece, Erika Brown.

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Author: jamiemason

Wrote THE HIDDEN THINGS, MONDAY'S LIE, and also THREE GRAVES FULL (Simon & Schuster's Gallery Books.) Might write something else if I'm not careful.

3 thoughts on “The Same Gift Twice”

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