The one box we couldn't wait to open

On Christmas Day, Mother would place the box in the center of the living room floor. We children formed a tight circle around it.

Every family seems to have an eccentric relative. Estelle, Mother's little sister, was our family character. Her world in the industrial metropolis of Detroit was foreign to those of us born and raised in a small town on the West Coast. Aunt Estelle worked as a secretary and lived in the same one-bedroom apartment for 50 years.

Relatives returning from a visit reported that Estelle's tiny rooms were packed with stacks of newspapers and magazines and boxes of knickknacks. Estelle had to move aside paper bags of knitted caps and mufflers on her bed in order to make enough space to lie down at night.

Adults thought her a bit strange. When my two brothers, three sisters, and I were children, though, we thought of her as inventive and generous. To us she was the Christmas Queen. In the middle of December for as long as I can remember, the box arrived from Aunt Estelle in faraway Michigan. Mother placed it in her room, off limits until Dec. 25.

Following Christmas dinner, Mother would place the box in the center of the living room floor. We children formed a tight circle around it, holding our breath as we considered the surprises about to be revealed.

Mother ceremoniously opened the box, revealing dozens of small packages wrapped in giveaway bags from a pharmacy. We waited impatiently as they were handed out. Each present was personally addressed to the recipient along with a whimsical notion as to why the gift was appropriate for that person. The presents were certainly unlike anything we received from our parents.

"Saving money is a good idea" was directed to one of my older brothers. Once the wrapping paper was torn aside, we saw a worn leather coin purse. When held in the palm of the hand and squeezed, it opened like a lotus flower, then closed in pleats as tight as a Chinese puzzle.

"Because you spend so much time in the kitchen," announced one card on a gift intended for my mother. Inside was an orange and chartreuse organdy cocktail apron with tiny gold bells sewn along the pocket.

For me, "Since you are one of my jewels," a pendant with a gaudy, hot-pink piece of glass hanging from a tarnished chain. I was sure the Christmas Queen had just bestowed upon me a precious stone that had once belonged to a real princess.

The box arrived on schedule each holiday as we grew up, but as time went on, the contents changed. We opened rubber coin purses stamped with First Security Bank of Detroit and key rings from Andy's Auto Mart. We pulled off wrappings to find boxes of facial tissue with the UPC code cut out. We received a small, rectangular plastic sleeve from McGinty's Mortuary that held a flowered rain bonnet.

Other items appeared to have come from a rummage sale, or perhaps from the pile on Aunt Estelle's bed. Only occasionally did we find the exotic gifts of the past, such as the purple colander I still use to drain pasta.

As my siblings and I started our own families, Mother tried to pass this special tradition on to our children. She faithfully followed the ritual of opening the box and distributing its contents after Christmas dinner. The little ones sometimes discovered a tiny plastic "pinball" game with a tiny metal ball rolling around inside, or plastic "pearls" that could be popped apart if one wanted a shorter necklace.

When Aunt Estelle died, we moved on with our lives. When I remembered the Christmas Queen at all, it was usually a fleeting thought as I rinsed macaroni in the purple colander.

Then last week my niece called. She asked if I thought we could put together a box like Aunt Estelle's for the upcoming holiday gathering. Her children, she told me, never had the fun of delving into a trove of white elephant treasures. We began laughing over a salt shaker with its stopper missing "to use to hold your hatpins," and a cherub soap dish with a chipped bowl that could be useful only if turned upside down with a candle inserted in the hole in the base. But our throats tightened around the laughter, and our eyes became moist as we reviewed the simple symbols of our aunt's love.

This year Aunt Estelle will be with us again. In my attic is a garish felt holiday banner that will, finally, brighten someone's door other than my own. I wonder if a trip to the Salvation Army Thrift Store might unearth some plastic rain bonnets. I think my mechanic can give me some key rings with his garage's name imprinted on them. And one can always use a box of tissues, even though it has a hole where the UPC code was stamped.

As I contemplate unpacking "Aunt Estelle's Box" at our family Christmas gathering this year, I feel a tingle in the pit of my stomach. I take a deep breath. All of a sudden, I am 7 years old, and the box from Aunt Estelle is carried from Mother's room and placed in the center of our circle. I can't wait.

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