How Much Love Can You Fit in a Shoebox?

How Much Love Can You Fit in a Shoebox?

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

How Much Love Can You Fit in a Shoebox?

The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

On a cold and rainy February morning, my mom, four brothers and I cleaned out Dad’s apartment. There were a thousand places we would have rather been, but we were together and the rest of the world seemed distant. With Dad’s funeral scheduled for the next day, it was all I could do to take my mind off the reality of his heart attack. Everything he owned was in his apartment. He wasn’t materialistic, yet every belonging seemed priceless. His countless drawings filled every room. His notepads of sketches he drew in the hospital had a flavor of who he really was. His deteriorating car and torn furniture didn’t begin to describe what made him successful in my eyes.

He took life one day at a time, never taking anything too seriously. It was his best quality . . . and his worst. I was thirty-seven years old and had grown up much like him, putting tremendous value on the little things in life.

I moped around from room to room, gathering souvenirs and throwing out the garbage he never had the chance to. As I turned the corner and entered his bedroom, I quickly spotted his prized possession. It was a letter from my eight-year-old nephew declaring his unconditional love for his grampa—how much he loved him, loved fishing with him and how he hoped he would never die. Dad’s heart melted and eyes watered whenever he spoke of the letter. It touched him deeply. He proudly displayed it to anyone and everyone. I gathered the cleanup crew to read it one last time. We all seemed to realize where this letter belonged—with Dad, forever.

My mind wandered back to the time I wanted to write a similar message to Dad. It was less than a year ago when I sat down to write. My heart wanted to fill the page with the traits and values I had grown to respect. Before a single word was written, my head took over and I realized Dad could never keep such a letter to himself. Even if he promised never to show it to my brothers, I somehow knew his good intentions would eventually be overtaken by his heartfelt pride. I’d be too embarrassed expressing such feelings at this point in my life. Besides, my actions had always spoken louder than words, so I didn’t write it. Knowing Dad was indestructible, I always figured there’d be time.

As the years rolled on, it bothered me that I never wrote that letter. My mom wasn’t getting any younger, and thoughts of not having thanked her for all the things she had done for me started creeping in. Now, instead of feeling embarrassed, I wanted to include my brothers in this project. Christmas was only a month away, and what a great present this could be for all of us to write about something we’d never thanked her for. We all had to write something because if one of us declined I knew she’d put more weight on why one didn’t write anything.

It would not be an easy task to get my brothers to write. I needed a plan.

I was committed to the point of listing my brothers’ names in order from who I imagined was the easiest to convince to the hardest. I determined Bob would be the easiest. He always got along with Mom. Gary would be second. He usually mailed a Mother’s Day card. Mark was next. He hadn’t spoken to her for six months. Even worse, he had four kids who weren’t seeing their gramma, and I knew Gramma missed the kids. Rick lived in Rochester and, except for the occasional ninety-minute obligatory trips to Buffalo to see her, he had limited contact with Mom.

We all crafted our reasons for not staying in contact with Mom. My brothers and I didn’t intentionally alienate her, but we didn’t seem to go out of our way to stay in touch either. She seemed the perpetual martyr, and her words and tone of voice left us upset to the point where the frustration her words created overpowered our understanding of her hurt.

I sat by the phone, frozen in my thoughts. This would either happen or it would be the most embarrassing idea I ever shared with my brothers.

So there I was . . . nervous . . . shaking . . . feeling all the insecurities that kept me from writing Dad. By now, the “what ifs” were coming faster than my hands were moving toward the phone. But this time, I was determined to succeed or be humiliated.

So I picked up the phone and called Bob. I explained what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it and what my plan was. To me, Bob was a given, no problem, just a matter of explaining the game plan. When I got done with my two-minute speech, there was a pause at the other end. “Well, it would have been a lot easier if we had written one for Dad!” he said with deadpan reasoning.

Yikes! What kind of an answer was that? I thought. This brother was the “for sure.” Under other circumstances, I may have crumbled and agreed with him, but this was not the direction I had committed to take. So I restated, “Putting that aside, can you think of something you’ve never thanked Mom for?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Well, could you write a letter and have it ready to hand me on Christmas Eve when the family gets together at Mom’s house?”

“All right, I’ll do it!” he stated without further hesitation. I hung up the phone, and my first thought was, Good, I have one in the bank. I could use that to enroll brothers number two, three and four. It was a plan. I hadn’t expected Bob to give me any resistance, so I knew the job wasn’t going to get any easier.

Gary was next. He replied in the sensitive, caring fashion I had anticipated. “How long does it have to be, and what do we have to say?”

Mark was next. I was nervous before I called him. Not only hadn’t he spoken to Mom in months, I knew he was mad at her. I started my conversation by explaining the idea and that Bob and Gary had already agreed. I was expecting my hardest time with Mark.

I’ll never forget what happened next.

As I finished, he started right into a story. “I remember when I was in junior high school and got suspended for something I didn’t do. I got sent home, and Mom asked me, ‘Did you do it?’ I said, ‘No!’ She took me back to school to face Mr. Schaefer, the most feared disciplinary teacher any student ever encountered. We marched into his office, and before I knew it, Mom was screaming at him, saying, ‘If my son said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.’ When she was done with him, he was somewhere under the desk apologizing for his obvious mistake.”

Mark’s story rolled off his lips as if it happened yesterday. I was shocked because not only had I never heard that story, but he recalled it so vividly.

Rick was next. He had a similar story to Mark’s from back in high school. Besides Bob, Gary and Mark had already agreed, and my work actually seemed to get easier. It was like my brothers’ stroll down memory lane rekindled a different message and memory they had of Mom. I hopefully put them back to a time when she was always there, as if she had never left. Four in the bank, at least verbally.

Two days before Christmas Eve, I called all four brothers, and each had finished his letter. My final instructions to them were to bring the letters to Mom’s, and I was going to put all five into a shoebox I had wrapped to give to her.

Christmas Eve arrived. I handed the box to Mom and said, “This present is from all of us. Do not open it until tomorrow.” She looked puzzled, wondering what we were up to, but agreed and said, “Thank you.”

Christmas Eve was always fun at Mom’s, but this year it was special for me. I knew I pulled off something I couldn’t have imagined. As my brothers and their families gathered to open presents, this year was different. Closer . . . nicer . . . warmer.

I drove home that night with the greatest feeling of accomplishment. I recalled Mom talking to the grandkids and laughing all night long. Maybe the night was special for everyone. We all seemed a lot closer to her that night, or maybe it was just me hoping it was all this way again.

Christmas morning the phone rang. It was Mom. She told me how she couldn’t wait until morning to open the shoebox. She read all the letters three times and cried herself to sleep. She said, “I knew you were the one responsible for doing this, and it was wonderful.” I told her we were all responsible for doing this, and it was long overdue.

I never knew what my brothers wrote in their letters, not completely. As for me, I included a story of when I was ten years old and wanted to go to a sports competition. I can’t remember the exact words, but it went something like this: “No one seemed to feel it was a big deal, but you saw the disappointment in my face and said, ‘I’ll take you.’ You sat in the rain for over an hour as I tried my best to win a prize. I don’t think I ever thanked you, but it meant a lot to me.”

I also told her how hard it must have been for her to raise five boys with all of us being a little closer to Dad. “We knew he got the easy job of playing good guy while you were forced to be the one who disciplined us when we were bad. You were the one who taught us right from wrong, fair and unfair, and to apologize when we were wrong. You did that, and I thank you.”

Mom had longed to hear such words for years. It was always in our hearts but never got translated to her. I always saw her cry after cooking Thanksgiving dinner. She would prepare all day, while Dad, my brothers and I gobbled it up and proceeded to the living room to tend to our own priorities.

I see a lot of Mom and Dad in me, and I couldn’t be happier. I started out wanting to do something for Mom to show her how we felt. We got to revisit our appreciation for her and how she had always been there for us.

In hindsight, I really did it for Bob, Gary, Mark, Rick and me.

I hung up the phone that snowy Christmas morning, reclined on the couch and looked up to imagine Dad wiping a tear from his eye.

Seems everyone got something special out of this Christmas.

Jim Schneegold

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