In nursery school, I learned how to turn a cardboard box into a car. My teacher cut off the flaps and helped me glue rainbows of ribbon from the front to the back so that I could strap it onto my shoulders. I glued on more decorations by myself: sparkling blue glitter; scraps of multicolored construction paper that became bright collages on the side of my car; and, most beautiful of all, big, round silver wheels. The wheels might not have been much more than tin foil, but they were magical. I could see myself in them, I could watch the classroom in them, I could bend them and distort the world. I would run around my house wearing my cardboard box-car, admiring the shiny wheels and colorful ribbon as I beeped with my pretend horn. I made that cardboard box shine.
When I was a little older, I used to wait on my birthday to see a big, brown, cardboard box at the door. I would race home from the bus stop after school every birthday, flying through the door full of excitement and cupcakes, and fling my backpack down. Without fail, I would find the box there, just for me, with my grandparents' name written in blue ballpoint pen in the corner. Of course, more importantly, my name was written in the middle. I would tear open using all the energy that little girls miraculously get on their birthdays -- plus a little help from my mother -- and swim through the sea of packing peanuts to find all of the gifts inside. There might be games, or books, or puzzles. There might be chocolate. There might be an art kit. There might be a mobile for my room. Whatever it was, I knew that I would love it. I also knew that some of the things in the box would soon be eaten up or used once and then put away and forgotten about, perhaps only to be discovered in a closet years later and thrown out during a major room-cleanup; but it didn’t matter. I loved those cardboard boxes nonetheless, just for the explosion of anticipation they held, for the joy of tearing through everything outside to get to the treasures within, for the satisfaction of having a whole pile of birthday presents just for myself. Those were the happy cardboard boxes.
Some cardboard boxes only hold memories and some sadness. When my great-grandmother died several years ago, another cardboard box came to my house in the mail. It did not have shining wheels or an ocean of packing peanuts. That box was tattered and stained, as if it had been going through the mail for years. It held the remnants of an old woman's life, just the little details, the things that had not already been given away to other family members. There was an ancient, yellowed bottle of perfume; a little metal jewelry box which played a song when it was opened; a necklace from an important bridge tournament. She had been so proud of that necklace; now it was not even hers anymore. It was up for grabs at the bottom of a cardboard box sent for her family to sort through. We threw that box out when we were done with it.
The biggest pile of cardboard boxes I have ever seen was in front of my house this past summer. They were my father's boxes. They held a little bit of everything because when a person lives in a house for thirteen years, he ends up amassing a little bit of most things. All of my father's clothing went into cardboard boxes. Half the books from the bookshelf went into cardboard boxes. Framed pictures, collections of old plastic toys, all of the most important pieces of my father's life went into cardboard boxes that day; I sat on the porch for hours and watched it all pile up and get taken away to the other side of the city. It's strange to see a person going away in a box. You wouldn't think there were enough boxes in the world to hold everything he owns, all of the collections, all of the necessities, all of the memories. But there are. And eventually, my father packed up all of the little parts of his life into boxes and piled them up and took them away while I sat on the porch, watching. My mother and my brother were out of the house for most of the time, but I sat there. I wanted to take a picture, but I didn't really have the heart. I just stared as my father packed himself up into a cardboard box and left.