The smell was instantly familiar, though long forgotten. The carton should have been discarded years ago, but such is the magic of the attic - a wonderful place where things can be stored until such time as their true value becomes apparent.
The sturdy carton had connected my parents during World War II. My father had used it to send home his dirty laundry. My mother would send clean laundry back with some goody - a candy bar, perhaps, and maybe a letter - tucked among the socks.
I loosened the rusty buckles on the heavy fabric straps that had held the top and bottom snugly together through its many journeys between home and barracks. Its innards had not seen the light of day since I was a teenager. On the surface there were still remnants of stamps from the last time it had been mailed. In the address box was a card with the word "train" scrawled in black crayon.
That label dispelled any mystery about what was inside. And the slightly disgusting smell that greeted me as I opened the carton was the same one that had first puzzled me on the Christmas morning when I was 4.
Until that year I had been secure in a cozy household consisting of my mother, my grandmother, and me. It was a comfortable world, and even though my mother and grandmother both had jobs to make ends meet during those difficult times, I was too young to ponder the implications of the new world of working women.
Like most little girls growing up then, I received the requisite little-girl presents - a toy ironing board and iron, a doll and crib, and a sweeper - so I could play house.
But the Christmas when I was 4 was different. By then my father had come home to live, and I was aware that my world had changed dramatically.
After he was in residence for a few days, I asked my mother, in my direct way, "Who is that guy coming in and giving all the orders?" My parents responded with amusement, repeating my impertinent question over and over in the accounts of my father's return.
I realized much later, when I had my own children, that his early absence had caused a certain tension between us, a kind of sparring, a contest of wills. There was also the fact that my father had always wanted a son.
On that Christmas morning when I was 4, my father and I still had much to learn about each other. In his absence I had established a Christmas ritual of sorts and was completely indulged in this by my grandmother. From her I had acquired my penchant for delayed gratification - surely an alien concept to most 4-year-olds.
Widowed during the Depression, my grandmother raised five children who all graduated from high school and went on to some form of higher education.
She was one of those "Eat your dinner. There are children starving in China!" grandmothers, and she taught me to appreciate not only the possessions and opportunities that I had, but also the sweet anticipation of acquiring such things.
I was the last one out of bed. I lay under the covers until I was sure everyone else was up and about. True to form, I descended the stairs, never looking over the railing to my right where the tree now sheltered precious surprises.
I steeled myself, and at the bottom of the stairs I turned left and entered the kitchen. There sat my parents eating breakfast while my grandmother moved around the room in a purposeful way.
To prolong the delicious excitement of what lay just around the corner, I slowly ate my breakfast, chewing deliberately and cutting my food into ridiculously small bites. I was savoring the meal, but even more I was savoring the moment.
My father grew impatient and tried to hurry me along. Naturally, this caused my slow-motion meal to come nearly to a halt. I would sigh between bites or give him a stubborn smile. I would show him who was in charge here!
Exasperated, he left the table and went into the dining room where the tree held court over its pile of gifts.
Presently a strange noise drifted out to the kitchen. My mother and grandmother were the picture of nonchalance. My father returned, and the noise continued.
He watched as I pondered my breakfast, sure that I wouldn't be able to resist for long. On principle, I held out for a few more minutes. Then I left the table and peeked around the corner. I could almost feel three pairs of eyes on my back.
Under the tree, something was moving, and it certainly didn't smell like Christmas. It smelled like something burning and made me wrinkle my nose. I had never even seen an electric train before and I certainly hadn't asked for one, but I was mesmerized.
My father was delighted to show me how to work the controls, and only a little irritated when I made the train go too fast and jump the tracks. It was my first connection with my father, who gave lots of orders, but was full of surprises as well.
And now, here in the open carton was my precious train with its heavy black engine and not-so-shiny red caboose.
It hasn't rolled far on its tracks for many years, but it has traveled with me wherever I've gone. This year I think it's time to let my train travel to Christmas again.