One day early in the autumn of the year I was nine, a padlock appeared on our basement door and we kids were told that until further notice, we couldn’t go down there anymore.
The first reason this was odd was that we only ever went to the basement when we were yelled at repeatedly to go down there and fetch something. There was nothing appealing down there for a child. It was an old farmhouse basement. It was dark and smelly and often featured resident mice and even, on occasion, a rat or two.
The second reason this was odd was that several evenings a week after supper, my father would go into the basement and bolt the door from the inside. And then he’d stay down there until after we went to sleep.
The younger kids were too young and self-absorbed to worry about this new development. I, however, being the eldest and incredibly wise was eaten up with curiosity. First I tried clever ruses to try and trick my mother into telling me what was going on.
“What’s Papa doing in the basement all the time?”
“None of your business.”
“Aw, tell me.”
Drat! She was too clever for me.
So then I tried ever-so-casually to hang around the basement door and listen for clues. My mother, wielding a wooden spoon menacingly, ordered me away from the door.
But, one afternoon my mother told me to go into the basement and get a couple jars of cherries from the cold storage. I was on the verge of peeing my pants with excitement, hopping up and down, waiting for her to unlock the door, when she rememberd I wasn’t allowed down there anymore. So she got the cherries herself. And I had to leave the room so I wouldn’t see where she kept the padlock key. Very frustrating.
But at least I now knew the key was hidden somewhere in the kitchen! Aha!
For a while I was an incredibly helpful child, offering to put away dishes, sweep the floor, organize the pantry. I frisk my mother under cover of pretending to hug her. I never found the key.
Fall turned into winter and then the Christmas madness started and I was distracted from the mysterious goings on in the padlocked basement – at least during waking hours. But when I went to bed, before I went to sleep and again first thing in the morning, before I had to crawl out of my warm duvet, my little brain feverishly imagined all sorts of outlandish possibilities for what could be going on down there.
And then it was Christmas.
And there under the tree, instead of colourfully wrapped gifts were five wooden boxes; each almost two feet long and one foot wide; each sporting padlocks of their own; each with the name of one of us kids painted on the lid.
There were gifts inside the boxes and the little kids dove right in and went mental over their toys, as kids are wont to do. But I was too overwhelmed at the idea that I now owned a little footlocker.
When you’re a young girl of almost ten, in a house full of unruly little kids, everything you own is up for grabs. Nothing is truly yours because at any moment one of the kids and/or their grubby little friends can get hold of it and mess it up or wreck it. Because that’s what kids do.
With these thoughts tumbling through my brain, I burst into tears.
“What’s wrong with her now?”
“How should I know?”
“Hey you!” ( What’s the oldest one’s name again?) “Aren’t you going to open your present?”
Would it be too Hallmark hokey to tell you that somewhere around this point I threw myself into my father and wept mucusy thanks all over his shirt? Because while the other kids thought Santa had brought all this great stuff, I, never having been a Santa believer, suddenly realized that this is what my Dad had been doing in the basement all those weeks – making these boxes.
“Ya, ya,”my dad said and pushed me off him. “Go see what’s in the box.”
I don’t remember what was in the box.
The other kids used their boxes for a few years to store things; or to jump up and down on; or as race cars — pushing each other around their bedrooms; or as footstools to reach high things. Eventually, their boxes were destroyed because, like I told you, that’s what kids do.
But I treasured mine. I locked away all my special things in there; all my private things. And it travelled with me when I moved away from home and has travelled with me ever since – always keeping my special things safe.
Of all the gifts I wished for Christmas as a kid and all the gifts my mother made herself crazy trying to find for us for Christmas – this is the best gift I ever got.
 And by wise, I mean nosey.  It’s triply odd because it’s the first and last time he ever got involved in the whole Christmas thing in any way.  And not even just the box itself, which was and still is amazing, but the weeks of fun puzzling out the mystery of the padlocked basement and the thought that my dad had been down there in that awful place all that time making it.