I was 16 the year I went to a church boarding school and spent my first Christmas away from home. There was no question of coming home before school ended in June. I was on scholarship, and there simply wasn't enough money for train or bus rides between Philadelphia and Chicago during the school year. Dorothy, one of my sisters, lived nearby, but we could not be together.
Dorothy's Christmas would be spent with the family whose children she cared for in order to earn enough money for nursing school.
Christmas away from home wouldn't be too bad, I supposed. After all, my older brothers and sisters had survived it. As Christmas drew near I immersed myself in festivities that were similar to, yet achingly different from the celebrations at home. Some of them were wonderful, such as the Glencairn Sing.
Nothing had prepared me for the experience of gathering with the community at this magnificent home.
I sat with the high school and college students in the balcony that surrounded Glencairn's Great Hall and watched as the resident family's granddaughters, dressed in long velvet dresses, held out slender-stemmed tapers to light myriads of candles in giant candelabras.
The scene in the tapestried stone hall below seemed a cross between a Hollywood spectacular and some medieval celebration. As the Gothic chamber rang with hundreds of voices singing ancient carols, I thought perhaps this was recompense for being away from home at Christmas time.
But the sing was only one evening of the Christmas season. My homesickness intruded at odd moments, like when I trudged the snowy path between my dormitory and the school and happened to think of Christmas Eve, the time our family decorated the tree. How could I face Christmas Eve?
And I didn't even want to imagine what Christmas morning would be like, that awful blank space I'd face between breakfast and church, when at home my family would line up, youngest to oldest, and sing ''Merry Christmas Bells Are Ringing'' as they entered the living room. There the tree would stand, sparkling with lights, presents heaped beneath.
But, I comforted myself, at least I'd have my present to open Christmas morning. That was something to look forward to.
Each day I scanned the boxes the mailman brought to the dormitory, looking for my Christmas package.
I knew it would be filled not only with presents for Dorothy and me, but with homemade treats and goodies like the ones I'd once helped Mother prepare for my older siblings.
But the days passed, and no package came.
I called Dorothy. Mother had written that she'd mailed the package to my dormitory, but perhaps the post office had made a mistake. Had it been delivered to her?
No, Dorothy said, but I shouldn't worry. It would come; it always did.
Christmas Eve Day arrived, and with it the last mail from the station. There was no package for me.
That night I went Christmas carolling, plodding miserably from house to house as I proclaimed joy to the world.
I was close to tears when curfew finally arrived and I could at last return to the dormitory and wallow in my woe. Reaching the dorm's double doors, I blinked back tears that were about to fall in earnest and said a glum good night to my unfortunate date.
As I climbed the stairs to the second floor a face appeared over the banister. ''Naomi, there's a package for you!''
I froze, my hand on the railing. Was someone playing an awful joke?
''Really. It's come.''
I bolted the rest of the stairs to the housemother's office. There it was beside the desk, satisfyingly large and bulky.
''Yes, it's here,'' the housemother said. ''Some kind soul realized it must be a Christmas package and brought it from the station after hours.''
I examined the box, touching brown paper wrapping, the flowing ''To the Misses Dorothy and Naomi Gladish'' in Mother's beautiful script across the top. It had come. I called Dorothy (who accepted the good news with what I thought was an astonishing nonchalance) and then lugged the heavy box to my room and placed it in the corner where I'd see it when I awoke the next morning.
I went to sleep that night comforted and happy, and the next morning opened a galaxy of presents and the expected assortment of homemade goodies. But it wasn't the presents and treats that warmed my spirit as I went to church and then to a classmate's for Christmas dinner. It was the evidence of my family's love and caring inside that box; the wrapped presents were symbols of something as essential to my soul on that Christmas morning as food to my body.
I never found out who brought the bulky cardboard box to the dormitory after the post office closed, but by making sure it arrived in time for Christmas, that unknown good Samaritan gave me one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received.