With a blast of arctic air, Olivia burst through the front door. “Daddy! I need that box from your new shoes!”
She kicked off her boots, dropped her coat to the floor, and raced into the TV room waving a Dollar Tree bag. “You should see!” she crowed. “I found the best presents, but I need a bigger box.”
Her dad lowered the sound of the game with the remote. “Oh yeah? What did you bring me?”
“Not for you—for my box—for my...” She stopped, frowned, then brightened up. “For the little girl I don’t know yet. In…” Again, she stopped, making a face this time. “Where does she live, Daddy?”
“She could live far away in a place called Nicaragua, in South America.”
“Does not.” Olivia’s big brother Jett drifted into the room with his bag of loot and slumped onto the couch as if his bones could no longer support his rangy body. He clicked off his iPod and pulled out his earbuds, letting them dangle from his shoulders. “They go all over the world. Places in Africa, like Uganda and all over South and Central America, even the Ukraine. You can’t know where yours is going.”
His father lifted his eyebrows at him. “If Olivia thinks—”
“Come and get ‘em! We got a side of wings to go with.” Mom glanced into the TV room on her way to the breakfast bar, balancing two extra-large takeout pizzas and a carton of wings.
Over pizza, the whole family scrutinized the now-ragged paper that listed what they could pack into a Christmas box. Jett had chosen to pack his box for a boy between the ages of 10 and 14; Olivia had chosen a girl between the ages of 5 and 8. After only a few bites of pizza, supper was abandoned, the boxes were brought out, and the shopping bags upended across the dining room table.
Olivia’s eyes sparkled with excitement as she gazed at the mountain of gifts. “My box will be so awesome.”
“Let’s starting packing,” Mom said. “You read out the high-lighted items for us, Honey.”
“But I want to pack too!”
“You will. Just start reading and we’ll make sure everything goes inside.”
“But I can’t read and pack.” Olivia pouted.
Jett took the limp paper from her hands. “I’ll read—you pack.”
Olivia’s face brightened with anticipation. “Okay.”
Silently, Mom mouthed a “thank you” to Jett.
He shrugged. No biggie. He began reading. “School supplies, hygiene items and toys.” He looked up from the list to the pile. “We should maybe start with notebooks, since they’re flat.”
Olivia found the four notebooks she’d chosen, with the Disney Princess covers, and placed them reverently into her box.
“You might as well pack my box at the same time. I have notebooks too,” Jett said.
Olivia found Jett’s two books, much thicker than her books since they were destined for an older boy, and placed them into his box.
Mom rearranged them, so their coiled spines fit together better. “We need all the space we can get, Honey.”
Jett added, “Now the pencil cases. Put the pencils, sharpener, pens and erasers inside first.”
“And glue sticks.” Olivia’s little tongue was out now, concentrating on filling the pencil cases. “And these cool stickers.” She slid in sheets of Disney Princess stickers she’d found.
Jett took a huge bit of pizza and mumbled, “I see you’re rocking the princess theme.”
“The scissors and six-inch ruler will fit in there too,” Mom said, handing them over. “That’s why we picked the shorter ones. Oh, and these mini solar-powered calculators.” Mom pulled them out of their packaging and handed them to Olivia.
Oliva completed the two pencil cases and laid them onto the boxes. “What’s next?”
Jett said, “Put the shower curtain in mine now.”
Finishing off the last of the chicken wings, Dad asked, “A shower curtain? How come?”
“Ground cover.” Jett and his dad exchanged grim glances. Jett made himself look away, saying, “How about the faceclothes next, then hard stuff? We’ll stack ‘em like building blocks.”
Mom and Olivia located the two shampoo bars and two bars of soap, placed them into travel containers, and tucked them into the boxes. Mom said, “The bars will last much longer this way.” They added in flat-packed ponchos, combs, and salt-stick deodorants. There was still a ton of room.
Dad asked, “Where’d you get those? I’ve never seen those before.”
“These are a natural deodorant, and they can last for up to ten years. Totally natural, and no aluminum. Plus, they cost only about a dollar more than regular deodorant.”
Dad stopped stacking their dishes and sat down. “Why aren’t we using them?”
“We are now—check out your drawer in the bathroom. Imagine the plastic containers we’re not using and throwing away by using these.”
Next came the special package Mom had found online. Dad sat forward with interest. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s this for?”
Jett answered, “That tiny box, if you can believe it, holds a year’s supply of tooth brushing tablets. They give you a small glass bottle to keep a month supply inside for daily use. Solves three problems: Number 1—you keep healthy teeth; Number 2—we can’t pack liquids, so no toothpaste allowed, which means it’s these or nothing; and Number 3—no leftover plastic.”
Impressed, Dad glanced again at Mom. “We should be doing this.” She smiled at his expectant expression. “Again—refer to your bathroom drawer.” Grinning, they high-fived one another.
Jett rolled his eyes. It just wasn’t cool when your parents did it. While Olivia added in tooth brushes, Jett frowned at the band-aid boxes. “We should lose the boxes, put them into bags, suck the air out with a straw. They’d use less room.”
Getting into the swing of things, Dad retrieved two sandwich bags and compressed the band-aids inside, stopping to admire Olivia’s choice of Princess bandages. The bags fit perfectly. Standing around the table they surveyed the rest.
“So, here’s where Olivia and Jett part ways,” Mom explained. “Here’s where they get to put in the stuff that really matters, the Wow Factor.”
Dad said, “Okay, wow me with your Wow Factors.”
“Me, first!” Olivia was jumping up and down with excitement. She picked up each of the girlie things she’d selected and explained it before placing it into her box. “A Princess puzzle—fun—hair elastics and barrettes, so her hair will look pretty. And this sewing kit—see all the colours of thread and a thimble so their finger won’t hurt? They can fix their clothes if they have to. And this nail kit. Plus—two embroidery kits—this one’s flowers, this one’s a cat. They even have little frames. This water bottle. Mom and me picked out twenty packs of embroidery thread, all different colours, and needles and some cloth and a bag of beads and a bag of colored buttons.” Patiently she stuffed the tiny skeins of silky embroidery threads inside the bottle, followed by the needles and bag of buttons. Once the bottle was crammed to the neck, she closed it and snugged it into her box along with the rest. “A mini solar flashlight, ‘cause they can’t buy new batteries. Flip-flops. Sunglasses. A game of jacks. This cross-body bag to hold her important stuff. Some hard paints, ‘cause they can’t be wet, and brushes. This nice canvas bag to carry all her stuff in. And last…” She showed her father a little soft doll with woolen hair and a stitched-on face. “A Princess doll!”
Her father laughed. “And I thought you wouldn’t get that all in there, but you did! Good job, Olivia!” He glanced at Jett who was busy arranging his selections across the table, considering their sizes. “How about you, son?”
“Boys are different. Not a lot of boxes get made up for boys, and they need them. Lots of times they don’t have a father and they have to step up and be the man of the house. So…”
His dad looked over the what Jett had assembled. “Basic tools?”
“Yes. A small hammer— not great—but it beats a rock every time. This multi-tool.”
Jett picked each up and fit them snuggly inside his box as he explained.
“This multi-head screwdriver and some pliers. A flashlight, same as Olivia’s, powered by solar, only this one’s bigger. Some strong cord. A measuring tape. I wish I could send something to cut with, but it could be used as a weapon, so… not allowed. I wanted to send a deck of cards, but that’s not allowed either. Gambling. A Go Fish card set would just be insulting, so I skipped it.”
He looked up at his dad.
“You don’t know how many toys out there for boys are weapons and stuff for fighting, for combat, until you try to buy a toy for a boy. It’s crazy! Some of these kids would be afraid of the toy tanks and jeeps and guns we’d send them, ‘cause it would remind them of war, bring up bad memories. We can’t send them, just in case.”
He shook his head, his expression bewildered and sad. His dad prompted, “And your Wow Factor?”
“My Wow Factor is this soccer ball and pump.” Jett stopped. “Just a sec.” He dashed off to his bedroom, returning with a hat, his favourite one, with a Canadian Flag on the front and jammed it in. “Bonus Wow Factor.”
Mom asked, “Got room for your letter and picture?”
Both Jett and Olivia nodded.
She handed them over. Jett and Olivia looked at the family picture they’d chosen, each lost in their own thoughts before adding them and the letters they had written to their boxes.
Dad placed the lids on and snugged thick elastics on either end of both boxes.
Mom taped on the labels they’d had printed off from the charity site. Red for a girl, green for a boy. She’d written the appropriate age on the label.
The boxes suddenly looked so small, but they held so much. Jett wanted to be there when the boy who got Jett’s box opened it for the first time—not so the boy would be grateful to him, but to see the boy’s face, to see him happy.
Jett glanced over at his iPod, at the takeout pizza boxes, the empty wings carton, listened to the sound of the game coming from the TV room. He looked at his family—his not so annoying little sister, his cool dad and his mom, loading the dishwasher now and chatting with Dad about sending the boxes out the next day. He was shocked to find his vision blur.
He—they—were so very lucky. I hope I never forget this.