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       Christmas01 - The Christmas Box, p.1

           Richard Paul Evans
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Christmas01 - The Christmas Box


  THE CHRISTMAS BOX

  Book 1 in the Christmas Box Series

  Richard Paul Evans

  "Whatever The Reason, I Find That With Each Passing Christmas the story of the Christmas Box is told less and needed more. So I record it now for all future generations to accept or dismiss as seems them good. As for me, I believe. And it is, after all, my story."

  So begins The Christmas Box, the touching story of a widow and the young family who moves in with her. Together they discover the first gift of Christmas and learn what Christmas is really all about. The Christmas Box is a Christmas story unlike any other.

  Merry Christmas

  Chapter I THE WIDOW'S MANSION

  It may be that I am growing old in this world and have used up more than my share of allotted words and eager audiences. Or maybe I am just growing weary of a skeptical age that pokes and prods at my story much the same as a middle-school biology student pokes and prods through an anesthetized frog to determine what makes it live, leaving the poor creature dead in the end. Whatever the reason, I find that with each passing Christmas the story of the Christmas Box is told less and needed more. So I record it now for all future generations to accept or dismiss as seems them good. As for me , I believe. And it is, after all, my story.

  My romantic friends, those who b elieve in Santa Claus in particular , have speculated that the ornamente d b rown Christmas Box was fashione d b y Saint Nick himself from the trunk o f t he very first Christmas tree, brough t i n from the cold December snows s o m any seasons ago. Others believ e t hat it was skillfully carved and polished from the hard and splintere d w ood from whose rough surface the Lord of Christmas had demonstrate d t he ultimate love for mankind. My wife , Keri, maintains that the magic of th e b ox had nothing to do with its physica l e lements, but all to do with the contents that were hidden beneath it s b rass, holly-shaped hinges and silve r c lasps. Whatever the truth about th e o rigin of the box's magic, it is th e e mptiness of the box that I will treasure most, and the memory of the Christmas season when the Christmas Box found me.

  I was born and raised in the shadow of the snow-clad Wasatch range on the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley. Just two months before my fourteenth birthday my father lost his job, and with promise of employment, we sold our home and migrated to the warmer, and more prosperous, climate of Southern California. There, with great disappointment, I came to expect a green Christmas almost as religiously as the local retailers. With the exception of one fleeting moment of glory as the lead in the school musical, my teenage years were uneventful and significant only to myself. Upon graduation from hig h s chool, I enrolled in college to lear n t he ways of business, and in the process learned the ways of life; met , courted, and married a fully matriculated, brown-eyed design studen t n amed Keri, who, not fifteen, month s f rom the ceremony, gave birth to a s even-pound-two-ounce daughter whom we named Jenna.

  Neither Keri nor I ever cared much f or the crowds of the big city, so whe n a few weeks before graduation w e w ere informed of a business opportunity in my hometown, we jumped a t t he chance to return to the thin ai r a nd white winters of home. We ha d e xpended all but a small portion o f o ur savings in the new venture and , as the new business's initial returns , albeit promising, were far from abundant, we learned the ways of thrif t a nd frugality. In matters financial, Keri became expert at making much from l ittle, so we rarely felt the extent of our deprivation. Except in the realm of lodging. The three of us needed more space than our cramped, one-bedroom apartment afforded. The baby's crib, which economics necessitated the use of in spite of the fact that our baby was now nearly four, barely fit in our bedroom, leaving less than an inch between it and our bed, which was already pushed up tightly against the far wall. The kitchen was no better, cluttered with Jenna's toy box, Keri's sewing hutch, and stacked cardboard boxes containing cases of canned foods. We joked that Keri could make clothing and dinner at the same time without ever leaving her seat. The topic of overcrowding had reached fever pitch in our household just seven weeks before Christmas and such was the frenzied state of our minds when the tale of the Christmas Box really began, at the breakfast table in our little apartment, ove r e ggs over-easy, toast, and orang e j uice.

  "Look at this," Keri said, handing m e the classifieds: Elderly lady with large Avenues home seeks live-in couple for meal preparation, light housekeeping, and yard care. Private quarters. Holidays off. Children/ infants welcome. 445-3989. Mrs. Parkin I looked up from the paper.

  "What do you think?" she asked. "It's in the Avenues, so it has to be large. It's close to the shop and it really wouldn't be that much extra trouble for me. What's one extra person to cook and wash for?" she asked rhetorically. She reached over and took a bite of my toast. "You're usually gone in the evenings anyhow."

  I leaned back in contemplation.

  "It sounds all right," I said cautiously. "Of course, you never know what you might be getting into. My brother Mark lived in this old man's basement apartment. He used to wake Mark up in the middle of the night screaming at a wife who had been dead for nearly twenty years. Scared Mark to death. In the end he practically fled the place."

  A look of disbelief spread across Keri's face.

  "Well, it does say private quarters," I conceded.

  "Anyway, with winter coming on, our heating bill is going to go through the roof in this drafty place and I don't know where the extra money will come from. This way we might actually put some money aside," Keri reasoned.

  It was pointless to argue with such logic, not that I cared to. I, like Keri , would gladly welcome any chang e t hat would afford us relief from th e c ramped and cold quarters wher e w e were presently residing. A fe w m oments later Keri called to see if th e a partment was still vacant and upo n l earning that it was, set up an appointment to meet with the owner tha t e vening. I managed to leave wor k e arly and, following the direction s g iven to Keri by a man at the house , we made our way through the gaily li t d owntown business district and to th e t ree-lined streets leading up th e f oothills of the Avenues.

  The Parkin home was a resplendent, red-block Victorian mansion wit h o rnate cream-and-raspberry woo d t rim and dark green shingles. On th e w est side of the home, a rounded ba y w indow supported a second-stor y v eranda balcony that overlooked th e f ront yard. The balcony, like the main floor porch, ran the length of the exterior upheld by large, ornately lathed beams and a decorative, gold-leafed frieze. The wood was freshly painted and well kept. A sturdy brick chimney rose from the center of the home amid wood and wrought-iron spires that shot up decorously. Intricate latticework gingerbreaded the base of the house, hidden here and there by neatly trimmed evergreen shrubs. A cobblestone driveway wound up the front of the home, encircling a black marble fountain that lay iced over and surrounded by a snow-covered retaining wall.

  I parked the car near the front steps, and we climbed the porch to the home's double door entryway. The doors were beautifully carved and inlaid with panes of glass etched with intricate floral patterns. I rang the bell and a man answered.

  "Hello, you must be the Evanses."

  "We are," I confirmed.

  "MaryAnne is expecting you.

  Please come in."

  We passed in through the entry, then through a second set of doors o f e qual magnificence leading into th e h ome's marbled foyer. I have foun d t hat old homes usually have an olfactory presence to them, and though no t o ften pleasant, unmistakenly distinct.

  This home was no exception, though t he scent was a tolerably pleasan t c ombination of cinnamon and kerosene. We walked down a wide corrido r w ith frosted walls. Kerosene sconces , now wired for electric lights, dotted th e w al
ls and cast dramatic lighting th e l ength of the hall.

  "MaryAnne is in the back parlor,"

  the man said.

  The parlor lay at the end of the c orridor, entered through an elaborate cherry-wood door casing. As we entered the room, an attractive silver-haired woman greeted us from behind a round marble-topped rosewood table. Her attire mimicked the elaborate, rococo decor that surrounded her.

  "Hello," she said cordially. "I am MaryAnne Parkin. I'm happy that you have come. Please have a seat." We sat around the table, our attention drawn to the beauty and wealth of the room.

  "Would you care for some peppermint tea?" she offered. In front of her sat an embossed, silver-plated tea service. The teapot was pear-shaped, with decorative bird feathers etched into the sterling body. The spout emulated the graceful curves of a crane's neck and ended in a bird's beak.

  "No, thank you," I replied.

  "I'd like some," said Keri.

  She handed Keri a cup and poured i t to the brim. Keri thanked her.

  "Are you from the city?" the woman a sked. "I was born and raised here," I replied. "But we've just recentl y m oved up from California."

  "My husband was from California,"

  she said. "The Santa Rosa area." She s tudied our eyes for a spark of recognition. "Anyway, he's gone now. He p assed away some fourteen year s a go."

  "We're sorry to hear that," Keri said p olitely.

  "It's quite all right," she said. "Fourteen years is a long time. I've grow n q uite accustomed to being alone."

  She set down her cup and straightened herself up in the plush wingbac k c hair.

  "Before we begin the interview I would like to discuss the nature of th e a rrangement. There are a few item s t hat you will find I am rather insistent about. I need someone to provide meals. You have a family, I assume you can cook." Keri nodded. "I don't eat breakfast, but I expect brunch to be served at eleven and dinner at six. My washing should be done twice a week, preferably Tuesday and Friday, and the beddings should be washed at least once a week. You are welcome to use the laundry facilities to do your own washing any time you find convenient. As for the exterior," she said, looking at me, "the lawn needs to be cut once a week, except when there is snow, at which time the walks, driveway, and back porch need to be shoveled and salted as the climate dictates. The other landscaping and home maintenance I hire out and would not require your assistance. In exchange for your service you will have the entire east wing in which t o r eside. I will pay the heating and ligh t b ills and any other household expenses. All that is required of you i s a ttention to the matters we have discussed. If this arrangement sound s s atisfactory to you, then we may proceed."

  We both nodded in agreement.

  "Good. Now if you don't mind, I have a few questions I'd like to ask."

  "No, not at all," Keri said.

  "Then we'll begin at the top." She d onned a pair of silver-framed bifocals, lifted from the table a smal l h andwritten list, and began the interrogation.

  "Do either of you smoke?"

  "No," said Keri.

  "Good. I don't allow it in the home.

  It spoils the draperies. Drink to e xcess?" She glanced over to me.

  "No," I replied.

  "Do you have children?"

  "Yes, we have one. She's almost four years old," said Keri.

  "Wonderful. She's welcome anywhere in the house except this room. I would worry too much about my porcelains," she said, smiling warmly. Behind her I could see a black walnut etagere with five steps, each supporting a porcelain figurine. She continued. "Have you a fondness for loud music?" Again she looked my way.

  "No," I answered correctly. I took this more as a warning than a prerequisite for cohabitation.

  "And what is your current situation in life?"

  "I'm a recent college graduate with a degree in business. We moved to Salt Lake City to start a formal-wear rental business."

  "Such as dinner jackets and tuxedos?" she asked.

  "That's right," I said.

  She took mental note of this and n odded approvingly.

  "And references." She glanced up o ver her bifocals. "Have you references?"

  "Yes. You may contact these people,"

  said Keri, handing her a scrawled-out l ist of past landlords and employers.

  She meticulously studied the list, the n l aid it down on the end table, seemingly impressed with the preparation.

  She looked up and smiled.

  "Very well. If your references are s atisfactory, I think we may make a n a rrangement. I think it is best that w e i nitiate a forty-five-day trial period, a t t he end of which time we may ascertain if the situation is mutually favorable. Does that sound agreeable?"

  "Yes, ma'am," I replied.

  "You may call me Mary. My name is MaryAnne, but my friends call me Mary."

  "Thank you, Mary."

  "Now I've done all the talking. Have you any questions that I might answer?"

  "We'd like to see the apartment," Keri said.

  "Of course. The quarters are upstairs in the east wing. Steve will lead you up. They are unlocked. I think you will find that they have been tastefully furnished."

  "We do have some furniture of our own," I said. "Is there some extra space where we could store it?"

  "The doorway to the attic is at the end of the upstairs hall. Your things will be very convenient there," she replied.

  I helped myself to a cracker from the silver tray. "Was that your son who answered the door?" I asked.

  She took another sip of her tea. "No. I have no children. Steve is a n o ld friend of mine from across th e s treet. I hire him to help maintain th e h ome." She paused thoughtfully fo r a nother sip of tea and changed th e s ubject. "When will you be prepare d t o move in?"

  "We need to give our landlord two w eeks notice, but we could move i n a nytime," I said.

  "Very good. It will be nice to have s omeone in the house for the holidays."

  Chapter II THE CHRISTMAS BOX

  It is not my intent to launch upon a lengthy or sanctimonious dissertation on the social significance and impact of the lowly box, well deserved as it may be. But as a box plays a significant role in our story, please allow me the indulgence of digression. From the inlaid jade -and-coral jewelry boxes of the Orient to the utilitarian salt boxes of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the allure of the box has transcended all cultural and geographical boundaries of the world. The cigar box, the snuff box, the cash box, jewelry boxes more ornate than the treasure they hold, the ice box, and the candle box. Trunks, long rectangular boxes covered with cowhide , stretched taut, and pounded wit h b rass studs to a wooden frame. Oa k b oxes, sterling boxes; to the deligh t o f the women, hat boxes and sho e b oxes; and to the delight of all enslaved by a sweet tooth, candy boxes.

  The human life cycle no less than e volves around the box; from th e o pen-topped box called a bassinet, t o t he pine box we call a coffin, the box i s o ur past and, just as assuredly, ou r f uture. It should not surprise us the n t hat the lowly box plays such a significant role in the first Christmas story.

  For Christmas began in a humble, hay-filled box of splintered wood. The Magi, wise men who had traveled fa r t o see the infant king, laid treasure -filled boxes at the feet of that hol y c hild. And in the end, when He ha d r ansomed our sins with His blood, the Lord of Christmas was laid down in a b ox of stone. How fitting that each Christmas season brightly wrapped boxes skirt the pine boughs of Christmas trees around the world. And more fitting that I learned of Christmas through a Christmas Box.

  We determined to settle into the home as soon as possible, so the following Saturday I borrowed a truck from work and my brother-in-law, Barry, the only relative living within two hundred miles, came to help us move. The two of us hauled things out to the truck, while Keri wrapped dishes in newspaper and packed them in boxes, and Jenna played contentedly in the front room, oblivious to the gradual disappearance of our belongings. We managed to load most of o
ur things, which were no t g reat in number, into the truck. Th e r est of the boxes were piled into our Plymouth--a large pink-and-chrom e c oupe with graceful curves, majestic tail fins, and a grill resembling th e w ide, toothy grin of a Cheshir e c at. When we had finished clearin g o ut the apartment the four of u s s queezed into the cargo-laden vehicles and together drove off to our ne w r esidence in the Avenues. I parke d t he car out front and met Barry in th e d riveway.

  "Just pull it around back," I shouted , guiding the truck with hand gestures.

  He backed around to the rear of the h ouse, pulled the parking brake, an d h opped out.

  "You're moving into a mansion?" he a sked enviously.

  "Your blue-blooded sister found it," I replied.

  I released the tailgate while Barry untied the straps securing the canvas tarpaulin we had used to cover the load.

  "Here, give me a hand with this wicker chest. We'll take it straight up to the attic." Barry grabbed hold of the handle at one end of the chest and we lifted it down from the truck's bed.

  "Only one person lives in this house?" he asked.

  "Four now, counting the three of us," I replied.

  "With all this room why doesn't her family just move in with her?"

  "She doesn't have any family. Her husband died and she doesn't have any children."

  Barry surveyed the ornate Victorian facade. "There's bound to be a lot of history in a place like this," he said thoughtfully.

  We made our way up the stairs, through the kitchen, down the hall , then up the attic steps. We set th e c hest down at the top of the landin g t o catch our breath.

  "We'd better make some room up h ere before we bring the rest of th e t hings up," Barry suggested.

  I agreed. "Let's clear a space a gainst that wall so we can keep ou r t hings all in one place." We began th e c hore of rearranging the attic.

  "I thought you said she didn't have a ny children," Barry said.

  "She doesn't," I replied.

  "Why is there a cradle up here t hen?" Barry stood near a dust y d raped sheet revealing the form of a s hrouded cradle.

 
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