The Gratitude Box

Over the years, and without even realizing it, I was creating quite the collection of little boxes. They are all types and colors and shapes and come from different parts of the world, and many of them are displayed on a table in my living room. Now each time my grandson, Michael, comes over, he wants to talk to me about them and what each one means, so we have this ritual where we sit on the sofa, and he brings them over to me, one by one. He wants to know their names and what they mean. At first, I didn’t think they all had a name, but I soon learned that they actually did. What we found out together was that if you open a box carefully, you can experience it in your mind and you might even smell or hear or taste something. It’s easy. You just close your eyes, and rub your finger around the inside; then, touch your finger to your forehead or your nose or your lips or behind your ear. And off we go to a place where only that box can take us.

There’s the Wish Box, which stores all your wishes and keeps them safe, and you can find your favorite one inside. The Springtime Box is filled to the brim with every flower in the world, but mostly lavender. The Faraway Box shows you places where you can travel, and some of the places are not even on a map. But if you want to go somewhere specific, there is also the Hawaii Box, the Japan Box, the Germany Box – so many that have experiences inside of them that I can share with Michael. If we open the Dream Box, we must do it before bedtime and just whisper softly about the dreams we hope to have. He likes the Birthday Box because you can have a birthday party any time you want. You can talk all about the balloons and presents and who is at the party, and of course you can blow out the candles and almost taste that rich chocolate frosting dripping down the side of the cake. The Snowy Box is also a good one because it brings you so much snow you can’t go to work or school (but you can go outside to make a snow angel and build a snowman). The Fireplace Box lets you hear the crackling fire and feel its warmth, and the Rainbow Box shoots out ribbons of colors that you would usually only see in the sky. And then there is the Deep Forest Box filled with towering trees, and you can wander down long, winding paths where all kinds of wild animals and birds peek through lush green leaves. The Mysterious Box is just that – a mystery; that is, until you open it up and discover for yourself what’s inside. No matter what kind of day it is, Michael finds a limitlessly creative joy in those boxes, and he reminds me why I have them.

Like the character of Genevieve in The Truthful Story, I’ve always been a “glass half full” kind of girl. As I got older, I was sometimes challenged with this way of thinking. While with a group of people discussing my book, one woman pointed out that while it is nice to have hope and find a silver lining, it doesn’t always reflect reality—at least, her reality. She said you can’t cover up cold reality by painting over it with pastel colors. And she proceeded to give us examples of her cold reality. I know it wasn’t directed at me or Genevieve exactly, but I felt for just a moment like a fraud—like I was covering up some hard, cold reality by focusing on another side of things. Should the 10-year old Genevieve see all the world as hopeless and finite or one-sided? I don’t think she is capable of that. As a child, she somehow knows instinctively there is another perspective, another story worth hearing, and that hope lives in the balance. But you can’t hear it if you aren’t listening. To Michael and Genevieve...and to me, there is always hope, and sometimes hope hides in the strangest places.

Shortly after that book discussion, while sitting on a hard, vinyl chair outside the Nuclear Medicine unit at Walter Reed National Military Center, I found myself feeling suddenly alone and afraid as I waited for my husband to complete some critical tests. We knew he was sick, but how bad was it going to be? Married for 40 years to the love of my life, the man who was dedicated to his family and had served proudly in the Army was now undergoing tests that shook us to the core. This was my hard, cold reality. I looked around the open floor plan waiting area with its cavernous ceiling - the sounds and voices bouncing off sterile gray walls, and I saw the faces. A worried dual military couple holding their fragile young child sat nearby. A technician called out for the next patient in his most official - and respectful - military voice “Sergeant First Class Morgan!” and waited patiently for the reluctant sergeant to make his way across the room. A military wife paced nervously back and forth in front of the sign-in desk. An elderly retiree went by in a wheelchair, and a young soldier amputee cheerfully greeted him with “Good Morning, Sir!”—here was their harsh, cold reality.

And then, as if I was opening one of my boxes for Michael, I heard cello music. Right there in the Walter Reed Hospital waiting area. A young man, his determined face tilted down, slid his bow gracefully over the strings of his cello, and the notes were beautifully out of place and comforting and magically transforming. I think each one of us there that morning found a slice of hope where we did not expect to find it. Maybe we got it from each other. Maybe we got it from the uplifting classical piece that now filled the air around us. Either way, we got another perspective, another story, and that was important.

I got a new box the other day from someone very special. I’m not sure how she knew it was needed. I’m not sure she was aware of its power. But I knew its name right away, and I’ll share it with Michael when he comes over. The Gratitude Box.