The Simple Magic of a Gift Box
A bond beyond blood
Grandma Jo was one of those mysterious people that you didn't know why your lives became so deeply intertwined–they just did. She wasn't related to us or even had a family of her own. My parents didn't share a long history of friendship with her or have connections beyond pure circumstance. It was simple and natural, our pieces fitting together as if our blood did align.
Mom said it all started at a work barbeque. Jo was a temporary replacement at dad's office, while the secretary took a stress leave drinking rum out of a pineapple on a beach somewhere. Hawaii maybe. During those few weeks, the annual summer office party came around and Jo arrived early to help set up, talking with everyone as if she had faxed their paperwork for years. She always did that–gave even the newest acquaintance the feeling they were kindred spirits from another life.
Mom carried me around in the picket-caged grass–burgers sizzling in tune with the telephone wires–exchanging small talk with the wives of weekday suits, letting them smell my head and comment on the softness of my skin. When Jo offered to hold me while mom concocted the punch, I wrapped my newborn hand around her leather finger and never let go–as if I chose her myself.
She started to babysit me. Mom said Jo forced date night on them. Once a week turned into two. Two turned into weekends. Soon Grandma Jo held a key to our house–no longer a favor, but family. I believed she was my own grandmother until I was old enough to only pretend she was. I liked her more than my real grandparents. You see, she had a special quality about her. She made the simplest things seem so unique–everything she did, sealing up her magic with a perfect bow.
She wore dresses in winter. She'd say, "I just can't go that long without twirling." She could tell the difference between Paul and John, even through the tangled mess of incorrect lyrics she'd yell into the wind. She still used paper, wrote in cursive, sent letters–we'd walk down to the box, hand in hand, kissing the address before closing the tin door. She remembered which ice cream topping you liked with each weather and which shoes matched your different moods. She knew the intricacies of your different vocal tones, and when to ask what was the matter and when to just hold you in the curve of her smile. She drove with the windows down, even though she had air conditioning and no matter how much her back would hurt, she'd sleepover in a sleeping bag on the ground beside your bed.
But mostly, more than anything, Grandma Jo loved birthdays. So much so, that it wasn't only a 24-hour event. She would call on the eve of your birthday to wish you a 'happy last day' of your current age. And birthday boxing day was strictly for eating stale cake for breakfast and watching cartoons all afternoon while your stomach would blissfully ache.
On the day, she'd fill rooms with ballons and hang a homemade pinata made from paper mache. She planned morning scavenger hunts and surprise lunches for school. She had multiple recipes for a similar birthday cake because each one was from someone special, and she could never taste objectively since friendship was between the bylines of every butter-stained recipe card. In her indecision, she often made two or three cakes, never caring about the surplus of battered spoons. I can hear her now. "Come on! Birthdays are for eating. And presents of course."
The gifts she would give–sealing the package in crinkle-less paper with tight ringleted bows. Always in a box–smooth, brown, plain–fitting the gift perfectly inside without much room to shake in question. A box. Always a box. Never a bag with tissue paper. Never wrapping paper pinched around the corners of an asymmetrical gift. Always a box. Maybe it was just my memory, but they seemed custom-made to fit what's inside. The wrapping, so perfect, with the paper measured with a ruler to make identical edges to fold over.
I never knew how she did it–how she found the perfect-sized box for everything. I often wondered if half the time was spent shopping for a gift, and the other, to find a box that fits perfectly. One year, a doll in a shoe box. Another, a collection of marbles in a dominoe box. One, a collection of 'dress up' clothes in a orange box.
The years and presents piled up. I grew up and away. Grandma Jo turned into a phone call from college on Sunday nights. Life got busy. I got a boyfriend. I got a degree. I got a job. We called when we could, and embraced at holidays. Every year, she would still call on my birthday, sending priority mail so a box would arrive exactly on the day of my birthday. Perfectly wrapped and fitted as always.
Then she left as quickly as she came–overnight.
We cleaned her house and put it up for sale. We collected the pictures and put clothes in suitcases. We painted the walls white and fixed the leaking taps. We gave away what we could, and kept what we couldn't part with. We filled a storage locker with boxes and boxes and boxes. It didn't feel right. Some boxes were too big, some where so full that duct tape kept them from bursting.
But one box I kept for myself, under my bed. A mysterious box found collecting dust in the furthest and darkest corner under the stairs. Inside–a lace wedding dress and photos of it being worn. She never told me she once was married, but I guess I never asked. It was something Jo kept deep inside herself–a box a child never thought to ask to open.
We searched records and scoured the internet. They met in university. Both English majors. His name was William, but his friends called him Bill. Brain cancer. Thirty one. She never remarried.
I used to pull out her wedding dress at night and rub the threading against my fingertips, crying about the loss Jo carried. I would mourn the family she never had and the birthday's she didn't celebrate. All the gifts boxes that were never wrapped. All the cake that went untasted.
But now I can pull out the box, stretch out a white gown that held a woman who loved beyond blood and smile into the wind.
She had a family.