The Value of a Shoebox (A Christmas Story)

The naked bulb that dangled in the center of the square closet shuddered with every hot breath Penelope Williams exhaled. Her hands felt along the edge of the highest shelf. Her fingers felt the feather-softness of the thick dust and snagged in a small and hopefully abandoned web.

“Dad, where is it?” She felt frantic, talking to herself as she always did when stress levels rose.

Penelope didn’t expect an answer. He hadn’t been answering for a while now. A bad decision took care of that, and now she stood in his house—the one he occupied in seclusion since her mother’s death three years ago. Like a typical bachelor, her father let the dust collect on the shelves, his movies, electronics, and some dust hung off fan blades like moss.

Her fingers slid further along the shelf and encountered cardboard—a box! A shoebox! Penelope strained her arms above her head and stood on tiptoes until her hands grasped one end of it and pulled it down. She walked into the bedroom and sat down on the unmade bed. In forty-years, he had never made his bed. In the last three years, he rarely left it preferring Bill O’Reilly and the Packer’s to his neighbors. Penelope set the shoebox on her lap and her stomach flipped. He had spoken about the shoe box during his last days, struggling to breathe as the lung cancer took away his energy. Her father had stored his world in a non-brand name shoe box whose lettering had faded now.

Penelope lifted the lid and set it on the bed. The house smelled musty of old memories both pleasant and unpleasant. The box held only papers and photos. Her brothers would be disappointed, she thought. This box contained no safety deposit key to hidden riches or old silver. No money to pay the funeral expenses or to ready dad’s house to put on the market. Worthless paper he deemed too valuable to throw away. Too bad he didn’t prepare financially for his death. Penelope and her brothers contributed from their meager incomes to pay down the debt her father left in the wake of cancer. Her brothers were married. Penelope had a long line of ex-boyfriends and was sadly still single. She was an aunt this year. Her eldest brother, Fred and his wife had their first just two months ago. The historical novels she consumed would have deemed her a spinster at age 30. While deep in regret, her cell phone buzzed.

“No—Nothing like that. I wish.” Penelope answered Fred’s inquiry about the box, clutching the phone to her ear. “No, I’ll be joining Jared and his wife for Christmas in Colorado this year. I’ve always wanted Christmas with snow.”

Penelope tilted her head and stared at the dirty glass face of her mother’s picture. It hung crooked near daddy’s dresser. “Yeah, I’ll miss her ham. I know. That’s the advantage of being single. I can go anywhere on Christmas. Okay…love you, too.” She pressed ‘end’ and put the phone back into her pocket.

Penelope began to go through the yellowed papers and photos, laying them on the bedspread. One by one the memories came back. There were two tickets to her mother’s favorite ballet still attached to the program. Dad surprised her on her birthday one year. Then, there’s the hand drawn Christmas cards Penelope created and the hand prints in plaster her brothers did in class. Dad had kept even the wrinkled napkin from a Thanksgiving dinner where Penelope slipped a note to him beneath the table cloth to make him laugh. That was the year he lost his job. He kept pictures of her mother being silly, stirring the soil with her gardening gloves, and working her first job after all of Penelope’s brothers had moved out of the house. Dad even kept a photo of himself smoking a cigarette. Mom had written on the back, “Please quit. I don’t like kissing an ash tray.” Penelope took out the wrinkled obituary of her mother and saw how grease-stained fingerprints made it almost see-through. The last thing in the box was a white envelope, tattered and creased. It was addressed to Penelope and her brothers.

As if the envelope contained riches beyond her imagination, Penelope carefully opened the flap and slid out a single index card. It began with John 3:16. In her father’s quirky script, it said, “I discovered Jesus. I just wanted you to know that all your prayers and your mother’s prayers were answered. Tonight I pack to be in hospice and that television preacher talked about Jesus and I felt like that preacher spoke to me, like God was speaking to me. I know that if you are reading this I am gone, but I am someplace more splendid than earth. One day we’ll reunite. I am with your mother as you read this. I love you. I love Jesus.”

Penelope cried. She buried her face in the dirty bedspread and soaked the blanket that still held her father’s scent—old nicotine. Outside, a Harley-Davidson roared past the house. Mr. Adams yelled at the neighbor’s cat who was in his flower bed again. A breeze tickled the old wind chimes in the backyard. Life went forward. The most valuable items in her father’s life was in this shoebox. In a life fraught with hardships, job losses, sorrow and disappointment, her father maintained a joy that was nearly divine only losing some of it after her mother’s passing.

Penelope packed everything back into the shoe box and walked into the living room. A pile of bills sat on the counter—all past due. An old Bible was underneath her father’s favorite magazines. She slipped his Bible on top of the shoebox. The binder had softened and creased as if he had opened the Bible often. Penelope left the bills and stepped outside. The clouds hovered dark gray in the sky and dusk muted the sunlight. All ready Christmas lights shined on the houses. Penelope held her shoebox and dad’s Bible tighter against her waist. She thought of her favorite verse in the Bible as she got into the car and headed home:

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. – Luke 2:36-38 (NIV)

“Merry Christmas, Dad.” Penelope whispered as she left the neighborhood. “Thank you, Jesus.” If one day she would ever marry and have children, Penelope decided to teach her children the value of a shoebox.

Hope you enjoyed the story! Merry Christmas!

(copyright 2011 Nikole Hahn)