I took the shiny red scissors and stuck the blades into the tape that mummified the brown package. I love getting packages in the mail. I love the smell of tape and cardboard, the promise within the shadowy depths of packing peanuts and something to pull out and unwrap.
As I worked at the tape, I remembered one time that I had gotten a package just like this. I had been seven years old.
* * *
“Eliza, come here!”
I ran to the kitchen on my seven-year-old legs. My mom thunked a brown package onto the table. “The UPS man just brought this for you,” she said.
My fingers scrabbled at the tape, with no success. My mother brought out a big pair of red scissors, and deftly slit the tape.
I reached into the warm packing peanuts. I pulled out a soft, floppy something wrapped in gray tissue paper. I shook the peanuts off— it reminded me of our shaggy old dog, Clancey, shaking off snow.
“Open the envelope first,” Mom reminded patiently, handing me a blue envelope.
“Happy Hanukkah,” said the card. “Love, Grandma and Grandpa.”
I impatiently tore open the tissue paper. A faultless hat rolled out, hand-made by Grandma. It had blue and white alternating stripes, knitted with soft, bright yarn.
“My Hanukkah hat!” I shrieked. I remembered when my sister Becky had gotten her Hanukkah hat a few years ago. My younger sister who we called Puff could hardly wait for hers. She came skidding into the room to admire my hat.
The next day my mom proudly pulled it on over my straight light-brown hair. I was wearing my Hanukkah mittens that I got last year in honor of the occasion.
In school I enthusiastically showed off my hat. “Look at this!” I shouted, strutting down the center of the classroom. I noticed that the class was silent but not with admiration.
Three girls watched me from the front of the room, my old friends from last year. Annie, June and Brenna. June was the head of them.
“Eliza,” she said, her hand on her hip. She giggled. Annie and Brenna obediently giggled too.
June waited for them to stop, and then said, “What exactly is that on your head?”
“A Hanukkah hat!” I said uncertainly.
She giggled again, even more smugly. From her backpack she pulled out four hats. And not normal hats either, but glowing, white-trimmed, crimson elf hats. She pulled hers on.
“This,” she said, “is a hat.”
She passed one to Brenna and one to Annie. Faced with the three of them, sinisterly identical, like Santa’s sweet little helpers gone bad, I stepped backwards. I put my mitten in my mouth, an old habit.
June smiled at me. “Would you like one?” she asked, smiling. She was missing her two front teeth.
“Yeah!” I said. Who needed a Hanukkah hat anyway? They weren’t all that special. Plus, they were handmade. Not at all like the beautiful, identical elf hats.
She held it out in front of me. I could smell the tantalizing store-new scent. I reached for it with a mittened hand.
She danced backwards, smiling. I reached for it again. She stepped back again, twitching it in front of me by the furry ball on the tip of the hat.
“Sorry,” she said. “People with Hanukkah hats can’t have pretty hats like mine.”
She tossed it in the trash can, stinky with yesterday’s food. Immediately Annie and Brenna buried it beneath half-empty milk cartons and sandwich crusts. I watched the glowing crimson and the snowy white disappear. Tears burned in my eyes, at the injustice of it all. I hardly noticed, and didn’t fight back, when June snatched my Hanukkah hat from my head.
* * *
June had moved from town last year, to somewhere in Texas or something. Now I am in eighth grade, and wiser than at age seven. But I still remember . . .
I finished, finally, opening the package. It came from an address I didn’t know. Maybe someone had ordered me a present.
I reached into the packing peanuts. “Card first,” I said. Clancey came bounding into the kitchen. “Hello, you monster,” I said, pulling him into my lap, where he sat, tongue hanging out. His wagging tail almost knocked the letter out of my hand.
It was in a green envelope.
“Dear Eliza,” it said in round, fat letters. “You probably don’t remember this, but I’ve remembered ever since. I hope that this makes you feel a bit better about . . .” (here something was heavily crossed out) “what happened.”
It wasn’t signed.
I pulled open the packing peanuts and grabbed something wrapped in white tissue paper. I unrolled it.
Out fell a pristine, ruby-red elf hat. The white trim was enormously fluffy, right up to the downy ball on top. But that wasn’t all.
I unrolled a second white-tissue-paper object. Out came my original Hanukkah hat. It was so small by now, the indigo fading to a lighter shade, the sharp lines losing their clearness.
Clancey settled warmly into my lap. I laid them both out on the table. One so crimson and factory-made, the other lovingly completed over many hours. One I scorned, one I loved. But which was which? My heritage, or my need to fit in?
Clancey’s wagging tail swept the blue one into my lap. The elf hat lay silently on the table. That was someone else’s story, someone else’s belief. I stroked his shaggy fur fondly. “I think,” I said to him, “that you made the right choice.”