Life is the soil, our choices and actions the sun
and rain, but our dreams are the seeds.
Joseph Jacobson’s Diary
My name is Joseph Jacobson, though most call me by my initials, J.J. For better or worse, I’ve also been called a dreamer. I take this as a compliment. I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. Both kinds: the kind we create with our hearts and the kind that come to us in the night when our mental gates are unlocked and unguarded.
Throughout history, dreams have been a source of wonder to humanity. Some of the world’s greatest authors, musicians, scientists and inventors have credited dreams with revealing ideas that have changed the world.
Some believe that dreams are the very secret to understanding life. Others, like the ancient Toltecs, believed that life itself is a dream.
The story I’m about to share with you begins with a dream. A Winter Dream. One night I dreamt of myself walking through a dark, snow-blanketed forest. I came upon a tree covered with brilliant, colorful lights—like a Christmas tree. Surrounding the tree, in a perfect circle, were eleven other trees.
Then, a great storm arose. Snow whited out all the forest except for the illumination of the one tree. When morning came and the wind stopped, the eleven trees were bent, bowing toward the tree of light.
Whether the dream was prophetic or the cause of all that happened, I’ll never know. But for years I kicked myself for telling the dream to my father, who, for reasons I still can’t understand, chose to share it with my eleven brothers.
T MAY BE THAT I am growing old in this world and have used up more than my share of allotted words and eager audiences. Or maybe I am just growing weary of a skeptical age that pokes and prods at my story much the same as a middle-school biology student pokes and prods through an anesthetized frog to determine what makes it live, leaving the poor creature dead in the end. Whatever the reason, I find that with each passing Christmas the story of the Christmas Box is told less and needed more. So I record it now for all future generations to accept or dismiss as seems them good. As for me, I believe. And it is, after all, my story.
My romantic friends, those who believe in Santa Claus in particular, have speculated that the ornamented brown Christmas Box was fashioned by Saint Nick himself from the trunk of the very first Christmas tree, brought in from the cold December snows so many seasons ago. Others believe that it was skillfully carved and polished from the hard and splintered wood from whose rough surface the Lord of Christmas had demonstrated the ultimate love for mankind. My wife, Keri, maintains that the magic of the box had nothing to do with its physical elements, but all to do with the contents that were hidden beneath its brass, holly-shaped hinges and silver clasps. Whatever the truth about the origin of the box’s magic, it is the emptiness of the box that I will treasure most, and the memory of the Christmas season when the Christmas Box found me.
I was born and raised in the shadow of the snow-clad Wasatch range on the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley. Just two months before my fourteenth birthday my father lost his job, and with promise of employment, we sold our home and migrated to the warmer, and more prosperous, climate of Southern California. There, with great disappointment, I came to expect a green Christmas almost as religiously as the local retailers. With the exception of one fleeting moment of glory as the lead in the school musical, my teenage years were uneventful and significant only to myself. Upon graduation from high school, I enrolled in college to learn the ways of business, and in the process learned the ways of life; met, courted, and married a fully matriculated, brown-eyed design student named Keri, who, not fifteen months from the ceremony, gave birth to a seven-pound-two-ounce daughter whom we named Jenna.
Neither Keri nor I ever cared much for the crowds of the big city, so when a few weeks before graduation we were informed of a business opportunity in my hometown, we jumped at the chance to return to the thin air and white winters of home. We had expended all but a small portion of our savings in the new venture and, as the new business’s initial returns, albeit promising, were far from abundant, we learned the ways of thrift and frugality. In matters financial, Keri became expert at making much from little, so we rarely felt the extent of our deprivation. Except in the realm of lodging. The three of us needed more space than our cramped, one-bedroom apartment afforded. The baby’s crib, which economics necessitated the use of in spite of the fact that our baby was now nearly four, barely fit in our bedroom, leaving less than an inch between it and our bed, which was already pushed up tightly against the far wall. The kitchen was no better, cluttered with Jenna’s toy box, Keri’s sewing hutch, and stacked cardboard boxes containing cases of canned foods. We joked that Keri could make clothing and dinner at the same time without ever leaving her seat. The topic of overcrowding had reached fever pitch in our household just seven weeks before Christmas and such was the frenzied state of our minds when the tale of the Christmas Box really began, at the breakfast table in our little apartment, over eggs over-easy, toast, and orange juice.
“Look at this,” Keri said, handing me the classifieds:
Elderly lady with large Avenues home seeks live-in couple for meal preparation, light housekeeping, and yard care. Private quarters. Holidays off. Children/infants welcome. 445-3989. Mrs. Parkin
I looked up from the paper.
“What do you think?” she asked. “It’s in the Avenues, so it has to be large. It’s close to the shop and it really wouldn’t be that much extra trouble for me. What’s one extra person to cook and wash for?” she asked rhetorically. She reached over and took a bite of my toast. “You’re usually gone in the evenings anyhow.”
I leaned back in contemplation.
“It sounds all right,” I said cautiously. “Of course, you never know what you might be getting into. My brother Mark lived in this old man’s basement apartment. He used to wake Mark up in the middle of the night screaming at a wife who had been dead for nearly twenty years. Scared Mark to death. In the end he practically fled the place.”
A look of disbelief spread across Keri’s face.
“Well, it does say private quarters,” I conceded.
“Anyway, with winter coming on, our heating bill is going to go through the roof in this drafty place and I don’t know where the extra money will come from. This way we might actually put some money aside,” Keri reasoned.
It was pointless to argue with such logic, not that I cared to. I, like Keri, would gladly welcome any change that would afford us relief from the cramped and cold quarters where we were presently residing. A few moments later Keri called to see if the apartment was still vacant and upon learning that it was, set up an appointment to meet with the owner that evening. I managed to leave work early and, following the directions given to Keri by a man at the house, we made our way through the gaily lit downtown business district and to the tree-lined streets leading up the foothills of the Avenues.
The Parkin home was a resplendent, red-block Victorian mansion with ornate cream-and-raspberry wood trim and dark green shingles. On the west side of the home, a rounded bay window supported a second-story veranda balcony that overlooked the front yard. The balcony, like the main floor porch, ran the length of the exterior upheld by large, ornately lathed beams and a decorative, gold-leafed frieze. The wood was freshly painted and well kept. A sturdy brick chimney rose from the center of the home amid wood and wrought-iron spires that shot up decorously. Intricate latticework gingerbreaded the base of the house, hidden here and there by neatly trimmed evergreen shrubs. A cobblestone driveway wound up the front of the home, encircling a black marble fountain that lay iced over and surrounded by a snow-covered retaining wall.
I parked the car near the front steps, and we climbed the porch to the home’s double door entryway. The doors were beautifully carved and inlaid with panes of glass etched with intricate floral patterns. I rang the bell and a man answered.
“Hello, you must be the Evanses.”
“We are,” I confirmed.
“MaryAnne is expecting you. Please come in.”
We passed in through the entry, then through a second set of doors of equal magnificence leading into the home’s marbled foyer. I have found that old homes usually have an olfactory presence to them, and though not often pleasant, unmistakenly distinct. This home was no exception, though the scent was a tolerably pleasant combination of cinnamon and kerosene. We walked down a wide corridor with frosted walls. Kerosene sconces, now wired for electric lights, dotted the walls and cast dramatic lighting the length of the hall.
“MaryAnne is in the back parlor,” the man said.
The parlor lay at the end of the corridor, entered through an elaborate cherry-wood door casing. As we entered the room, an attractive silver-haired woman greeted us from behind a round marble-topped rosewood table. Her attire mimicked the elaborate, rococo decor that surrounded her.
“Hello,” she said cordially. “I am MaryAnne Parkin. I’m happy that you have come. Please have a seat.” We sat around the table, our attention drawn to the beauty and wealth of the room.
“Would you care for some peppermint tea?” she offered. In front of her sat an embossed, silver-plated tea service. The teapot was pear-shaped, with decorative bird feathers etched into the sterling body. The spout emulated the graceful curves of a crane’s neck and ended in a bird’s beak.
“No, thank you,” I replied.
“I’d like some,” said Keri.
She handed Keri a cup and poured it to the brim. Keri thanked her.
“Are you from the city?” the woman asked. “I was born and raised here,” I replied. “But we’ve just recently moved up from California.”
“My husband was from California,” she said. “The Santa Rosa area.” She studied our eyes for a spark of recognition. “Anyway, he’s gone now. He passed away some fourteen years ago.”
“We’re sorry to hear that,” Keri said politely.
“It’s quite all right,” she said. “Fourteen years is a long time. I’ve grown quite accustomed to being alone.” She set down her cup and straightened herself up in the plush wingback chair.
“Before we begin the interview I would like to discuss the nature of the arrangement. There are a few items that you will find I am rather insistent about. I need someone to provide meals. You have a family, I assume you can cook.” Keri nodded. “I don’t eat breakfast, but I expect brunch to be served at eleven and dinner at six. My washing should be done twice a week, preferably Tuesday and Friday, and the beddings should be washed at least once a week. You are welcome to use the laundry facilities to do your own washing any time you find convenient. As for the exterior,” she said, looking at me, “the lawn needs to be cut once a week, except when there is snow, at which time the walks, driveway, and back porch need to be shoveled and salted as the climate dictates. The other landscaping and home maintenance I hire out and would not require your assistance. In exchange for your service you will have the entire east wing in which to reside. I will pay the heating and light bills and any other household expenses. All that is required of you is attention to the matters we have discussed. If this arrangement sounds satisfactory to you, then we may proceed.”
We both nodded in agreement.
“Good. Now if you don’t mind, I have a few questions I’d like to ask.”
“No, not at all,” Keri said.
“Then we’ll begin at the top.” She donned a pair of silver-framed bifocals, lifted from the table a small handwritten list, and began the interrogation.
“Do either of you smoke?”
“No,” said Keri.
“Good. I don’t allow it in the home. It spoils the draperies. Drink to excess?” She glanced over to me.
“No,” I replied.
“Do you have children?”
“Yes, we have one. She’s almost four years old,” said Keri.
“Wonderful. She’s welcome anywhere in the house except this room. I would worry too much about my porcelains,” she said, smiling warmly. Behind her I could see a black walnut étagère with five steps, each supporting a porcelain figurine. She continued. “Have you a fondness for loud music?” Again she looked my way.
“No,” I answered correctly. I took this more as a warning than a prerequisite for cohabitation.
“And what is your current situation in life?”
“I’m a recent college graduate with a degree in business. We moved to Salt Lake City to start a formal-wear rental business.”
“Such as dinner jackets and tuxedos?” she asked.
“That’s right,” I said.
She took mental note of this and nodded approvingly.
“And references.” She glanced up over her bifocals. “Have you references?”
“Yes. You may contact these people,” said Keri, handing her a scrawled-out list of past landlords and employers. She meticulously studied the list, then laid it down on the end table, seemingly impressed with the preparation. She looked up and smiled.
“Very well. If your references are satisfactory, I think we may make an arrangement. I think it is best that we initiate a forty-five-day trial period, at the end of which time we may ascertain if the situation is mutually favorable. Does that sound agreeable?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
“You may call me Mary. My name is MaryAnne, but my friends call me Mary.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
“Now I’ve done all the talking. Have you any questions that I might answer?”
“We’d like to see the apartment,” Keri said.
“Of course. The quarters are upstairs in the east wing. Steve will lead you up. They are unlocked. I think you will find that they have been tastefully furnished.”
“We do have some furniture of our own,” I said. “Is there some extra space where we could store it?”
“The doorway to the attic is at the end of the upstairs hall. Your things will be very convenient there,” she replied.
I helped myself to a cracker from the silver tray. “Was that your son who answered the door?” I asked.
She took another sip of her tea. “No. I have no children. Steve is an old friend of mine from across the street. I hire him to help maintain the home.” She paused thoughtfully for another sip of tea and changed the subject. “When will you be prepared to move in?”
“We need to give our landlord two weeks notice, but we could move in anytime,” I said.
“Very good. It will be nice to have someone in the house for the holidays.”
Today I had my first big break. Funny term that. Only in business and theater is a break a good thing.
Joseph Jacobson’s Diary
I’m twenty-nine years old and the twelfth of thirteen children—twelve boys and one girl. My father was married three times before he married my mother, Rachel. Only my younger brother, Ben, is my full brother. Growing up, he was the only one of my brothers I was close to.
My father was a better businessman than he was a family man. He’s the founder and president of Jacobson Advertising, a successful Denver marketing firm specializing in retail advertising. If you’ve seen the Ski Heaven campaign for Vail, Colorado—the one where all the skiers have glowing halos—that was one of ours.
My father was not only the President and CEO of the agency, but the main creative force as well, garnering enough awards to cover the walls of our agency. Dad had that rare ability to cut right to the heart of consumer desire, divining what people really wanted and were buying. That’s not as simple as most people think. Most people don’t know why they buy the things they buy.
My father’s given name is Israel, but his friends call him Izzy. Or Ace. My father is an American hero. Before he was a successful adman, he was a decorated Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War—the first American conflict where living Medal of Honor winners outnumbered the dead. My father was one of them.
All thirteen of his children, including my sister, Diane, worked at the agency. I suppose the agency was my father’s way of keeping the children from three broken marriages together. I started as a copywriter, working under my stepbrother Simon, a taskmaster who thrived on impossible deadlines. I spent most of my time writing brochures and radio commercials for our smaller accounts. At that time, my father was still president of the agency, but he’d begun spending less and less time at the office to travel with my mother, leaving the company management in the hands of my eldest brother, Rupert—the agency’s general manager.
My stepbrothers were, understandably, loyal to their mothers—Leigh, Billie, and Zee Jacobson (all of them kept my father’s name)—and resented all the time my father spent with my mother. My mother was younger than my father by more than twenty years, beautiful and, as he often said, “the love of his life,” which pleased Ben and me, but grated on my stepbrothers’ feelings. On more than one occasion I had heard my stepbrothers refer to my mother as “the trophy,” when I was too young to know that it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
My stepbrothers’ jealousy extended deeper than their feelings toward my mother. My father had spent the early years of my stepbrothers’ lives working, building the agency at the expense of their childhoods. Only later in life, with his agency established, did my father begin to enjoy the fruits of his labors, which included spending more time with those still at home—my younger brother, Ben, and me. I really did understand their resentment, but it still didn’t make my life easier.
If I had to pick a day to start my story, I’d peg it at three years earlier on the Friday morning we pitched the Dick Murdock Travel Agency—a Denver-based travel company and one of the top-twenty travel agencies in America. Perhaps it was a test, but for the first time since he’d started the agency, my father sat on the sideline, leaving the pitch totally in his boys’ hands.
Sitting in on the pitch meeting were my brothers, Rupert, Simon, Judd, Dan, Gage, my father and me. On the opposite side of the table from us were three executives from Murdock: the tour coordinator, Bob; the marketing director, Marcia; and the president and company namesake, Dick Murdock, a barrel-chested man who wore ostrich-skin boots and a Bolle tie.
Our conference room had a table large enough to seat sixteen and the walls were decorated with the scores of awards we’d won, nearly all of them bearing my father’s name. We dimmed the lights, and on a pull-down screen we projected our proposed slogan.
Dick Murdock Travel
We’ll get you there
Murdock’s silence screamed. Finally, Marcia, a tall, thin woman with spiky black hair, said, “I don’t get it.”
Simon raised the lights. “We’ll get you there,” he said, taking on the tone of a radio announcer. “It’s a powerful phrase. Travel is a matter of trust. Your clients want to know that their families, their employees and they, themselves, are in good hands. No matter where they’re going, Dick Murdock Travel will get them there, safely, on time, on budget.”
His explanation was met with more silence. I glanced over at my father. He sat expressionless. This was a man who could maneuver a jet while surface-to-air missiles were shot at him—a crash-and-burn pitch was nothing.
“Where are you getting the ‘safely, on time, on budget’ part?” Bob asked.
Simon squirmed a little. “It’s implied.”
Bob nodded slowly, the way people do when they have no idea what you’re talking about but really don’t care to hear an explanation.
Rupert stepped in. “Let’s face it, for the business person, travel is exhausting, a necessary evil, a means to an end. Our end is getting them there so they can do what they really went to do.”
Murdock glanced at his two employees, then sat up in his seat. “There’s no zing,” he said bluntly.
After a moment Rupert said, “That’s just our first concept.” He nodded to Judd.
Judd stood. “Like Rupert said, travel is a necessary evil, getting from A to B. So I created a play on that principle.”
Dick Murdock Travel
From A to Z
Judd continued, “From Arizona to Zimbabwe, from Alaskan Cruises to the San Diego Zoo, from the Amazon to Zambia.”
“Where’s Zambia?” Bob asked Marcia facetiously.
Murdock said nothing. Worse. He looked annoyed.
“Too much like the amazon.com logo,” Marcia said. “From A to Z. It’s been done.”
Judd looked blindsided. “We’ve created a television spot,” he said meekly.
“Don’t bother,” Murdock said. “I’m not sure we’re broadcasting on the same frequency.” He turned to Rupert. “Unlike you, we don’t think of our business as a ‘necessary evil.’ From what I’ve heard so far, you’d think we were torturing our clients for a price.”
“That’s certainly not the message we intended to convey,” Simon said.
“Intent is irrelevant, it’s what’s perceived that matters. And that’s what I heard,” Murdock said. “Travel is evil.” He turned to my dad. “Is that the best you’ve got?”
I could only imagine what was going through my father’s mind. Mayday, Mayday, we’re going down. Pulling the eject cord. My dad looked at Simon, who looked more angry than dejected. Then he turned to Rupert. “Is that our best?”
Rupert glanced at my father, then said, “Actually, we have one more concept we want to show you. It’s a bit unconventional.”
“Unconventional?” Murdock said.
For Rupert, “unconventional” was a polite way of saying “out there.” Three days earlier I had had a dream of a suitcase bouncing around with excitement. The words came to me, Pack your bags!
Rupert turned to me. “J.J., show Mr. Murdock your idea.”
Truthfully, I hadn’t planned on sharing my idea. When I had shared my dream with Simon, he gave me that “nice try, kid, now get me some coffee” look. Every eye in the room fell on me. I lifted my portfolio and walked to the front of the conference room. I cleared my throat.
“I’m kind of new at this, so bear with me.”
“Nowhere to go but up,” Murdock said.
Simon’s jaw tightened.
“When I think of travel, I think of having fun—seeing exciting places, seeing people I care about. I think of the excitement and anticipation of getting ready. When I went to Italy a few months ago, I spent six months preparing for just ten days. So, to me, travel is more than just the time away from home, it’s the anticipation leading up to it . . . like Christmas. The fun of Christmas is the preparation, the secrets and wrapping and decorating. So I came up with this.”
Dick Murdock Travel
Pack Your Bags!
The slogan was inset over a cartoon drawing of a travel trunk plastered with colorful stickers from different countries.
Marcia nodded encouragingly. “Pack your bags.”
Bob also nodded. “I like that. I like the trunk. It’s iconic. We could use it on brochures, TV commercials, tour signage, Facebook, even luggage tags.” He looked at me. “What about electronic media?”
“Like Rupert said, my idea is a bit unconventional,” I said. “But when the competition zigs, you should zag. Since almost all travel commercials are really just video travel brochures, in order to stand out, I think we should create a campaign with a decidedly unique look—something different than what your competition is doing or has ever done. I envisioned our Pack Your Bags travel trunk reproduced in clay animation excitedly bouncing around. Then it falls open and something representative of one of your destination pops out, like the Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben . . .”
“. . . a pyramid for our Egypt tours,” Bob said, catching the vision.
“Or a gong for China,” said Marcia. “Or a panda.”
“No one’s done it before,” Bob said to Murdock.
“Isn’t that clay animation really expensive?” Murdock asked.
“It can be, but the bouncing effect is extremely simple and we’re producing doughnuts: the opening and closing of the spots will always be the same, just the middle needs to be changed, so for one spot it’s more expensive, but for three or four spots it will actually cost less than what you’re currently spending on production.”
Murdock looked pleased. “I like the sound of that. I like the idea. All of it.” He turned to my dad. “Holding out on us, Ace? Or just setting us up with the bad stuff first?”
“It was all good,” my dad said. “It just wasn’t right for you. But I agree, I like the Pack Your Bags concept.” He looked at me and nodded approvingly.
“All right,” Murdock said. “What’s next? Where do we start?”
Rupert clapped his hands together and leaned forward. “If you’re ready to sign on, we’ll sit down with Marcia and Bob and go over your promotional schedule and then we’ll get to work.”
“Make it so,” Murdock said. He stood, followed by the other two. “Keep me in the loop.” He turned and looked at me. “What’s your name?”
“Good work, Joseph.” We shook hands. Then he turned to my father. “How’s that pretty little wife of yours?”
“Rachel’s doing great.”
“She’s a beautiful woman. For the life of me I don’t know what she sees in a dusty old codger like you.”
“That makes two of us,” my dad said.
Murdock smiled. “See you on the course, Ace.”
On her way out Marcia said to Rupert, “Give me a call this afternoon and we’ll work out our scheduling.”
“Happy to. Thank you.”
They walked out of the room, escorted by Simon and Rupert. As I gathered up my things, I looked over at my father. His smile was lit with pride.