One brisk December morning as my five-year-old son Taylor and I skittered across the local mall’s icy parking lot in search of gifts for his two older sisters, Taylor turned to me and asked, “What was your bestest and most favorite Christmas present ever?” I have contemplated the answer to that question over the years since. Despite the fact that as a child I had perched over the toy section of the Sears catalogue (much like a monk musing over a sacred manuscript), my favorite gift never made it into Mr. Sears’ marvelous book. In fact, it was never sold in any store. More curious still, it sat in a box, unopened for almost fifty years. To appreciate this magical gift, you have to know a little bit about how the human mind works.
Although nobody completely understands how anything as complicated as the brain actually functions, I like to think of it as thousands of tiny shelves that sit in long rows inside our head. On these shelves sit millions of even tinier boxes. And inside these boxes you find memories. Some of the boxes remain unopened and unattended for years and the thoughts left inside evaporate like dry ice on a hot summer day. Other memories remain active and vital because we pull a box off the shelf, open it, and relive the experience.
Of course, every time we crack open a memory box we change the contents ever so slightly. That’s because when we visit a memory, we add a little here and snip a little there. With each new peek into the box we make subtle alterations until one day, all that is left is the memory of a memory of a memory; little more than a faint and blurred copy. The original is gone forever.
But not always. Every once in a while the most amazing thing happens. A mysterious force knocks a box off one of our memory shelves—a box that has sat untouched for years suddenly bursts open. And when it does, you relive a precious moment—unchanged and straight from your childhood. That’s what happened to me one December morning a few years ago. I was preparing for my granddaughter who would soon be making a Christmas visit. As I fussed and fidgeted and tried to make the house safe for a curious child, I spotted a small shiny object on the floor, just under our living room couch. As I drew closer I could see that it was a dime.
“We can’t have that lying around!” I muttered to myself, as I dropped to my hands and knees.
At that very moment, a song that I had learned in the first grade started playing on the radio: “Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat. . . .” The image of the shiny dime coupled with the haunting melody of a childhood song pushed an untouched package off my memory shelf.
As the lid from this tiny box popped open and the contents tumbled out, I was suddenly six years old. The dime I had been staring at under the couch magically transformed into a dime lying under my grandfather’s candy counter.
When I was a boy my grandpa owned a corner grocery store and every day on the way home from elementary school I’d stop by to see him. Grandpa was always as interested in the characters portrayed in my childhood primer as I was. “Spot ran away, and Sally and Puff are looking for him,” I’d explain. “Really?” he would ask with genuine interest. “Do you think they’ll find him?”
Grandpa always wore a lime green apron that looked clean and stiff and official. As the sole proprietor of our only neighborhood store, I thought he was about as important as any person alive—maybe as important as a brain surgeon, a judge, or even a fireman. I loved my Grandpa as much as I loved anyone or anything. Grandpa loved me in return. He was proud of everything I did. When I earned a gold star at school, he acted as if I had invented penicillin. Even when I didn’t do very well he’d smile warmly and tell me not to worry.
Sometimes Grandpa would use me as a prop. On rainy days (which was most of the time in Bellingham, Washington), I’d stop by the store and he would go through the same routine. Grandpa would be chatting with a grownup customer and as soon as I’d walk up next to him he’d mention how miserable the weather was. Then he’d look out at the drizzle and say, “You know, I wish the sun would come out. Not so much for myself but for my grandson.” Then he’d pat me on the head and explain, “I’ve seen the sun before, but my grandson never has!” Everyone would laugh.
On this day—that is, the day that fell down from my memory shelf—I was on my hands and knees doing what little boys do when they’re at their grandfather’s grocery store, next to the candy counter. I was looking for coins. Sometimes grownups would drop a penny, and if you were lucky, you’d end up with a tasty treat. Only this time, I spotted a shiny new dime. Ten whole cents!
I can still remember what I bought—one licorice whip, one red-hot jawbreaker, two sour cherries, one raspberry vine, and ten Whoppers—Whoppers were two for a penny. Grandpa smiled wide as I scampered out of his store. You would have thought that he was the one with the pocketful of candy.
Since I was still a child when this took place—and still believed in miracles—the next day I ran out the back door of school, raced down the hill, burst into Grandpa’s store, and dropped to my knees in search of treasure. Then I crawled around and looked and sniffed, and probed, and hunted until—guess what? I found another dime. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! This time I bought my older brother an Oh Henry! candy bar and myself five pieces of penny candy.
And so it went. Every day I’d drop to my hands and knees, find a dime, and marvel at my good luck. Sometimes I’d only spend five cents, and the next day I’d buy a fifteen-cent kite. All through that spring and well into the summer I bought Fudgesicles on hot days, kites on windy days, and candy bars when I was thinking of my brother. And every single day Grandpa would smile wide as I ran from the store with my treasures in hand.
This was the box that fell from my memory shelf when I knelt to pick up a dime the day my granddaughter was coming for Christmas. The entire rush of thought—complete with Whoppers, kites, and licorice whips—passed in a flash.
As I arose from my hands and knees nearly fifty years after finding that first dime, the adult inside me returned. “Why Grandpa!” I thought to myself, “You put those dimes there didn’t you!” Sure enough, at age seventy-two, he had gingerly lowered himself to the floor and secretly hidden a dime in a different spot each morning. He didn’t do it for the thanks. He never told me what he had done. He did it because he loved me.
I had a friend growing up who was given some of the most amazing gifts for Christmas. The year he turned sixteen his parents gave him an entire automobile. Not just a leather steering-wheel cover, or one of those smelly cardboard pine trees you hang on the rearview mirror—but an entire car. If his five-year-old son were to ask him about his “bestest and most favorite” Christmas present ever, I bet he would talk about that shiny red Chevy. But for me, my favorite gift fell off a shelf after it sat untouched for nearly fifty years. It was wrapped in childhood innocence and when the lid popped off and the contents tumbled out, it bathed me in the warm glow of my grandfather’s love.
Sometimes when I’m feeling blue, I open that glorious box and look at the kites and penny candy and relive the joy. Sometimes the box falls down all by itself. I’ll be walking down the street when a person wearing lime green clothing passes by me and bumps the box. Plunk. And you know what—I think sometimes my Grandpa from somewhere far away whispers, “Happy Christmas!” and the breeze from his sweet voice gently nudges the box.
Whatever causes the package to tumble, the result is always the same. I taste the sweet Fudgesicles, feel the tug of a kite, and imagine my Grandpa on his hands and knees—hiding a dime for his beloved grandson. And even though my “bestest and most favorite” present was never listed in any department store catalog, that extraordinary box—that memory box filled with Grandpa’s love—is far more precious to me than anything ever shaped by human hands.
I shall cherish it forever.