Monday, January 26, 2009

haunted heart

Valentine’s heart box displays abound, filled with delights and memories of my father. If that sounds a bit odd, just read on.

When I was a girl of about 9 or 10, my dad used to take me to work with him. The joy of the day for me began with the commute into Brooklyn from Long Island. Imagine, a whole hour alone with my dad, no little brother. And I could sit in the front seat usually reserved for my mom.

My father managed Miro Container Co., a family owned box factory (today, it would be called a “packaging plant”) in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section. Even then, some 50-odd years ago, it was far from the most hospitable of neighborhoods. But my dad was at home there and I felt perfectly safe.

My “job” was to make up the time cards. I remember sitting in the dingy office at what seemed to me a huge old metal desk. I would laboriously copy the intricate ethnic names on to the top of each Manila card in my best block printing.

When I tired of that, I hung around the switchboard operator, fascinated by the old plug-in-style board straight out of a Lily Tomlin sketch. Looking back, I must have really worn on her nerves, pleading until she let me answer or transfer a telephone call.

My absolute favorite part, though, was when my dad would take me onto the freight elevator, with its metal gate. It was a kick to see the floors arrive and then fade away.

Along the way, he would stop to explain to me about paper, glues, hand vs. machine-made boxes, problems with gold stamping, blistering or the ubiquitous “sloppy corners.” No box in our house ever escaped his ripping apart each corner to reveal to us the “sloppy corners” in other manufacturers’ work.

But to me, the factory was a magical place, with intricate machines slurping up fragrant glues and huge roles of paper spitting out an infinite variety of boxes. Naturally, I felt like the crown princess of this magical kingdom, with my dad the all-powerful king. It was heady stuff.

However, there was one major frustration at my father’s place of business (which we always referred to as “the place,” as in: “Where’s dad?” “He’s still at the place”).

You see, my dad didn’t make just any boxes, he made toy boxes for dolls like Shirley Temple; game boxes, including Scrabble; book boxes and candy heart boxes, like the kind given on Valentine’s Day.

I can almost hear you pondering: “Sounds great, what could possibly have been her problem?” Well, since you asked….

His office was filled, from floor to rafters with the most intriguing collection of games, toys, books and candies a child could possibly imagine – at least at first glance. But as I sadly discovered each time I visited – the boxes were empty, the books blank, not a chocolate was to be found.

And I looked. In all the years, I never really accepted the fact that these were nonfunctional samples. Somewhere in my mind, I believed someday I would find a treasure in that big pile of tease.

Of course, I never did. And if there was a life lesson in that experience, it got past me. But the experience of seeing my dad at work and being permitted to take even a tiny part in an adult workplace has stayed with me.

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