Hatbox Holiday

Elizabeth Bluemle - December 1, 2014

hatbox 4

The weekend after Thanksgiving is bustling and festive at the bookstore. We can feel the holiday shift into high gear in earnest, people coming in with long lists, poring over our newsletter searching for the perfect book for each of their seven grandchildren, spending 20 minutes at the spinner that holds quirky stocking stuffers. We trade book and gift recommendations and funny Thanksgiving anecdotes with our customers.

>On Friday, one of our favorite longtime regulars, Gail F., came in to get a couple of books for her grandchildren. I couldn’t resist showing her some new handsome wooden postcards that had just come in. One at the top of the rack caught her eye, a card with two crossed keys and the legend, “Home is where the story begins.” She reached up. “That one,” she said, tapping the card. “I should send that to my grandson in California.” She tapped it again softly. “That’s perfect for our family.”

home is where the story begins postcard

“You see,” she said, “we have a tradition in our family that started years ago. We gave each of our children a hatbox, and we each had one, too. Over the years, all of the little things —notes, special items, written memories we jotted down, funny things that were said — went into the hatboxes. Our children are grown now, of course, and every year, the evening after Thanksgiving —THIS evening, in fact — we gather in the living room with the hatboxes in front of us. The rule is, you can’t open your own hatbox. Then we go around the circle and take turns pulling out something to share. The little ones are fascinated by their parents’ hatboxes.” She paused, got a funny gleam in her eye, clearly remembering some past hatbox incident, and added, “The other rule is, if you pull out something REALLY personal, you don’t share it.”

I wondered what kinds of personal tidbits would be both innocent enough to qualify for inclusion in the hatbox and yet be off limits for sharing. Love letters from old boyfriends, perhaps? Failing report cards? (The latter is unlikely; Gail’s children are a true passel of achievers.) It was a question for another day, however, because I didn’t want to interrupt the tale. Gail is a wonderful storyteller — her face is so lively, bright and expressive, and her voice is hushed and thoughtful and full of humor and wisdom.

At this point in her story, she lowered her voice further and grew serious. “Last year, my son pulled out his German grandfather’s journal for the first time. He found a list of family members’ names.” Gail and her family are Jewish. Her finger traced down an imaginary list. “The name, and then the word ‘Gone.’ Name. Gone. Name. Gone. Name. Gone. Gone, all of them, in the war.”

We stood there quietly for a moment, absorbing and acknowledging the momentousness of that loss. She went on, “It led to a big discussion with the grandchildren that went on for a long time. We weren’t expecting it, that evening. But it was good. You just never know where the hatbox will take you.”

Of all the family traditions we get to hear about on the floor of the bookstore, this was one of the loveliest and most creative. I asked Gail if I could share it with ShelfTalker readers, and she graciously agreed. Later that afternoon, I shared the bare bones of the tradition giving each child a hatbox for those special memory items – with another customer, who exclaimed, “That is SO MUCH BETTER than a scrapbook! It’s like a surprise barrel where you can keep all of those refrigerator drawings and Mother’s Day breakfast tray notes that you might not put in a scrapbook.” 

Gail did say that the hatboxes are finally starting to get full. Might be time to get hatboxes for the next generation, now, and time to find out where those hatboxes will take them.

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