The man who runs the mail room in the office must love our publishing group.
His name is Bill.
He also drives the shuttle that picks me up from the train station every morning; he wears a jaunty cabbie's cap and revs the engine menacingly as he waits for the stragglers to pile in. He can be gruff, but on other days, he'll offer to make a pit stop at Starbucks before returning to the office.
We all love Bill. He makes the smallest small talk about the weather and says, "Here's your lunch" every time I get a personal delivery. (Which is often. Online retailers love me.)
And Bill must love our group, because we get a lot of deliveries.
Because we work with so many plant companies, we receive huge shipments of flowers every spring and poinsettias during the holiday season. Today was poinsettia day; two boxes half as tall as me, emblazoned with urgent instructions — UNPACK IMMEDIATELY. UNSLEEVE PROMPTLY. WATER. — arrived from California with the UPS man, exploding with a fresh scent somewhere between spring and winter, fresh soil and the arctic chill of a long journey.
We pulled each plant from the box, crumbles of cold dirt falling as we unraveled the brown paper sleeves and trimmed away the plastic coverings. We divvied them up in my boss' office and delivered them to the receptionist's desk and other members of our group. Everyone loves plants in the office. Almost as much as we all love Bill.
Then I came back to sit down and, you know, actually work.
But there was another box in my way, unmarked but for its address label, delivered from Kansas City: Christmas presents from my mother.
I shimmied around the box to my chair and grabbed a pair of scissors to spring the box flaps open. I couldn't help myself. I needed a little pick-me-up; on the bus this morning, I finally burned out on holly-jolly carols and had to turn on Led Zeppelin to get the j-i-n-g-l-e bells out of my ear. But I knew just a look at the gifts would help me revert back to my 5-year-old self.
Still wrapped. No peeking. Promise.
The box was brimming with snow-white packing peanuts, but an ornate chiffon bow peeked out from the pile, and I dug excitedly through the stuffing to pull out the contents. Bright paper packages tied up with string, a little smashed from shipping but beautiful nonetheless. This year's wrapping paper is a shiny off white covered with partridges in potted pear trees. No box looked alike; one had a bright red stick-on bow and another was knotted with a bright blue luggage tag, a small clue to its contents.
But my giddiness suddenly began to fade.
Because I was unpacking a cardboard box full of presents that, any other year, would live, toasty warm and unscathed, under the seven-foot, artificial pre-lit tree in the corner of my family's living room, between the piano and the china cabinet that holds the silver platters that get trotted out when company comes.
My heart leaped into my throat as I dug blindly through to the bottom of the box. I felt the familiar curve of my stocking, overflowing with trial-size toiletries and stuffed with little trinkets my mother likely collected throughout the entire year. My sister and I would always save them for last and open them by the fire before rushing upstairs to get ready for brunch. My name is at the top of mine in big blue letters, with a little teddy bear in front of a fire, all hand cross stitched by my grandmother.
I can pile presents wrapped in brand-new paper under my tabletop tree. Unfazed.
I can make the same casserole my mother makes every Christmas morning to enjoy in my own apartment this year. And that will be fine.
But seeing that stocking anywhere but hanging from the gold knob that anchors the screen by the marble fireplace? That stocking came to me in a cold cardboard box, already filled with things I'm not supposed to see until Christmas morning. And no one will get to see me see them when it's time. There will be a phone call, a thank-you note, a belated hug.
It broke my heart.
I chose not to go back to Kansas for Christmas this year for a lot of reasons. Some of them were emotional, but most of them were practical. Logistical. I'll see my mother, stepfather and sister on January 2, when we fly together from Chicago then set sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico, for nine days of family fun in the sun. On a boat.
I knew it would be different being away from my family for Christmas — though the Knight will be a perfectly lovely holiday companion — but as the day creeps closer? I'm realizing how just how difficult it could be, too.
That's growing up for you, I guess, but the last vestiges of little girl in me aren't ready to abandon childhood totally. This bright-eyed child, wearing a velvet dress with shiny patent-leather shoes to match, misses her mother: the best stocking stuffer, casserole maker and hug giver she'll ever know.
I'll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.