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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

Once upon a time, a much-loved family moved to northern Canada; far from their relatives but not close enough to the North Pole to celebrate the holidays with Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves.

Miles away, the children’s aunt assembled a package to send via Canada Post; this is what people did when Amazon was a rainforest in Brazil and not an insatiable tech company. A complete inventory of the gifts eludes her, but she does remember that Laura Secord held a special place in this family’s hearts. Buttercream eggs at Easter, Superkid ice cream in the summer, Advent calendars in, well, Advent. And chocolate bars when there was a persistent hankering for something sweet. Imagine this family’s dismay when they discovered that their new community had reminders of a gold rush, front row seats to the aurora borealis, 19 hours of summer daylight but not a single place to buy Laura Secord treats. News of this predicament drifted down to Southern Ontario in a postscript to a letter. Not a complaint. Just a matter of disappointing fact.

“I can fix that,” declared the aunt, as she inched her car around the mall parking, stalking shoppers who looked ready to vacate their spot.

Inside the mall, the aunt paused at the information kiosk where it took longer to find the “You are Here” note on the map than the desired store itself. She followed her nose down the wide corridor until she glimpsed the elegant cursive script of previous centuries: Laura Secord.

The aunt stepped into the store, hesitating in front of the glass case; tiered shelves held pyramids of pleated paper cups displaying orange creams, nut swirls, milk and dark ginger chocolates. Rattled by the options, she headed to the cashier for advice. The young woman, hired to cover evenings and weekends, smiled warmly. “Hmmm. Hard to choose, isn’t it? You can’t go wrong with almond bark.” The iPhones that would eliminate eye contact and weaken customer service were still 15 years away; hence, this cordial banter.

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On the customers’ side of the till, the aunt noticed the array of chocolate bars. Problem solved. “I’ll take five,” she said, reaching for the Frosted Mint. The cashier’s smile sagged a smidgin but any sale, even a modest one, was an escape from combing the shelves looking for the expiry date on unpopular items.

The aunt’s first mistake was to pick her favourite chocolate bar. Had she chosen maple crunch, perhaps there would have been a different outcome altogether. The second mistake? Placing the wrapped gifts and sweet treats in a box, forcing the cardboard flaps under, but neglecting to fasten them shut with packing tape and binder twine. Those items were somewhere in the basement workshop, and she had to take someone somewhere. Swimming? Hockey? She would track them down later – the tape and twine.

Five people in the family, five bars. As the aunt hoisted the parcel to the top shelf of the linen closet, she reconsidered. “Maybe omit the preschooler,” she thought, dredging up vivid memories of the chaos when children had too little sleep, not enough outdoor play and an excess of sugar. Overdrive. “I’ll be doing them a favour,” she thought, reaching for the box and using her teeth to tear open a corner of the Frosted Mint wrapper.

Over subsequent days, the aunt reflected on the remaining bars. “Maybe I’ll just send enough for the three kids.” She repositioned the quilt that hid holiday purchases and uncovered another bar. She tucked it into her bag in case she needed a little something after her step-aerobics class.

The next day, a further decline. “Parents. I’ll make the parents a priority. Just this once.” Surely the children would have candy canes, Life Savers books, a gingerbread house. The aunt peeled back the bar’s wrapper on her way to grocery shopping; a necessary, pre-emptive strike to avoid shopping on an empty stomach. Two bars left.

The sweet, smart preschooler. Was the aunt abandoning her? This niece was the youngest not only in her sister’s family but in that entire generation of cousins. So, the aunt ate the fourth chocolate bar. Out of respect, really, for the little one so that she alone would be the recipient of the sweetness of the esteemed Laura Secord.

Had she not forgotten to plug in the crockpot the next morning, and had there not been a broken watermain which complicated rush-hour, the aunt would have arrived home to beef stroganoff. Instead, hangry before anyone called it that, she took the stairs in twos, seized, then devoured the final Frosted Mint. All five bars. Gone.

The wall-mounted phone rang. She answered it and heard the voice of a telemarketer. “No. No, thank you. No.” She was polite until their tenacity grew. She deposited the receiver on its base beside the calendar where a red circle caught her eye: The deadline set by Canada Post for guaranteed delivery. TOMORROW. She tossed the package, tape and twine into the car, dashed to the mall, bought more chocolate bars and wrapped up the box. Securely. Lickety-split. Think Instagram’s Hyperlapse with 12 X the usual speed. She pulled into the garage and, lest she be tempted, left the box on the back seat overnight. The next day after work, she rushed, hoping to get to the post office before it closed. She did. Whew.

The parcel arrived on time. The family oooh’d and ahhh’d over its contents; they wrote thank you notes and licked a 42-cent stamp.

Forget “they all lived happily ever after.” A delightful ending to this true story would be the ability to deliver Frosted Mint bars to each member of my family. In person. However, these are not delightful times. Whenever we do celebrate Christmas together – mask-less and in the same room – I will arrive with Laura Secord. Not with the 1812 war heroine herself, that would be both creepy and impossible, but with a box of chocolates named in honour of the pioneer and her creative walk-about. A heads up that the box will be filled with maple crunch and dark ginger; this aunt won’t be taking any chances.

Marg Heidebrecht lives in Dundas, Ont.

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