On the day after Christmas, a package arrived at our front door. It was wrapped in brown shipping paper, secured with frayed tine. It looked like it had been through a few mishaps with the post office, but written on the top, under all the stamps and shipping info, was our name and address.
Mom staggered back like it was a bomb. I only stared at our names, the handwritten address. It was Millie who finally brushed past us and picked it up. She shook it hard enough that I figured it wasn’t a set of jars or vases, then shrugged and brought it inside.
Uncle Gary and Aunt Claire were on their feet in the living room. Mom asked Millie if she had an admirer or a new boyfriend, her joke falling flat. Millie rolled her eyes. Lately that was the only way Mom and Millie spoke. Mom with a question in the form of an accusation, Millie with an answer in the form of an eye roll.
Even trying to joke, Mom wouldn’t go near the box. She asked if anyone wanted coffee, more bacon, more anything besides sitting in that room staring at the mysterious package that might be, could be, a gift from my father.
Aunt Claire said she was fine. No one looked fine. We’d performed fine all Christmas, as though it were an Off Broadway show, the holiday filled with small smiles and private moments. Sneaking off to the bathroom to get a good cry in, sobs buried by the hum of the exhaust fan. Aunts and Uncles and Mom—mostly Mom—walking back in the room with a tissue, blaming the tree or allergies or all those onions cooking in the kitchen.
There were no onions cooking in the kitchen.
What we didn’t say was “Dad would have loved that.” Or, “Always was Dad’s favorite Christmas carol.”
And now with the box in the room, our name, The Stuarts, scrawled in his shaky handwriting—perhaps some arrangement he’d made to surprise us like he always did when he was on the road–we were forced to address what was addressed to us. And boy were we surprised. Shocked, really.
Millie went to work on the edges—ever since she’d scored that gift-wrapping job at the community market she’d become meticulous when it came to all things wrapping. Every bow was untied, every ribbon inspected. I sat there peeking around the edges, trying to get a good look at the contents.
By the time she was done, the room was quiet. We’d cleaned up since yesterday, so now it was just this box, the twine, the hum of Christmas music leaking in from the kitchen. Millie peeled back the tape, then the flaps of the box. She reached in, her eyes wide, breaths drawn.
“How did he?”
I hadn’t seen my sister cry since I was in middle school. She pulled out a leather satchel, his, the one she’d been after him about since she was a little girl. She set it in her lap, her face balled up in this terrible cry. Mom curled in close to her. I guess being a mom kicked in and she overcame the grief for a moment. Millie collapsed into her and sort of pushed the box to me.
I reached inside, found something soft. The Army jacket–the one I’d begged him for at the surplus store over the summer. I took it, breathing in the musty smell of his truck, where it must have sat for months until he set it in the box. Where it had been when he died, during his funeral. The whole time we’d been… like this.
Everyone was a mess after that, Aunts and Uncles too. By then it was like the bathroom didn’t exist, we were crying without caring, thinking how he should have been there, pretending to be surprised at the box arriving at the door. “What in the world could this be?” he’d say, doing his best not to crack a smile. Another one of his gags.
I set my arms in the sleeves of the jacket and found it was sort of like a hug from him with the smell and all. It made me dizzy, the thought of him driving out there to buy it for me. I wished I could have thanked him. Thanked him for so much.
By the time Mom took out her gift, an invitation to remarry him in Key West next summer, we were still bawling, but smiling, too. It was kind of okay to remember him now.
And that was it, an empty box in an empty house full of people. All of us crying, looking for more in the neatly peeled wreckage. Uncle Gary started telling stories, ones we’d heard before but not in a long time. And we started laughing through our tears, like rain on a sunny day and all. I wore my jacket, Millie had her satchel. And Mom finally with an invitation to cry, said Dad pulled a good one this time.
A real good one.
*In response to the Writer’s Digest weekly prompt, The Gift