Useful? Not as much. Sentimental? Very, very much.
When my mom, Cindy Tate, received a package from California delivered to her Eau Claire home a few days ago, she didn’t know what to make of it at first.
She was curious about the package’s contents, curious what might be in this box sent from halfway across the country. Little did she know she was about to be visited by the spirit of Christmas past—long past.
The package contained a shiny red-and-gold child’s toy, a top-music box, still in its original box inscribed with writing in German (the word “Lieder” means “song” and “Kriesel” means “spinning top” or “moving in a continuous, round manner”) and manufactured in Switzerland. The top not only spins when a lever is pushed down, but plays music as well.
Why would my mom, 69, be receiving a children’s toy for Christmas, she wondered. Why wouldn’t it instead be a gift to one of her seven grandchildren under the age of 10?
A handwritten note also in the box provided the answer.
The note, presumably written by my mom’s uncle Oliver Nagel, is dated Nov. 15, 1953, when my mom was 2 years old, and is addressed to my mom’s father, Art Nagel. In the note, the man affectionately known as “Uncle Ollie” writes of buying this toy and giving it to my mom and her older sister, Cathy, as a Christmas present.
Only, the gift was never given.
Why that present never made its way to join a mountain of other gifts under the Christmas tree at my grandparents’ home in Dubuque, Iowa, the family holiday gathering spot, that year remains a mystery. We can’t get answers from Ollie. He died at age 88, back in 2013.
The fact this toy wasn’t gifted to my mom and her older sister seems surprising, given the fact it merited a note from Ollie to my Grandpa Art. Judging by the tone of his letter to his brother, Ollie was excited to have discovered the top, which had ties to his parents’ homeland, and to give it as a present.
“I thought this would be nice for Cindy and Cathy,” Ollie wrote. “Who knows though, I may be playing it the most,” he joked.
Ollie and his three brothers and one sister were first generation German Americans. The brothers were collectors of many items, German artifacts among them. Ollie and his younger brother, Jack, both enjoyed finding European music boxes.
In fact, that fondness for collecting may be the best explanation for why this Christmas present took so long to find its new owner. Ollie loved to obtain items of many sorts, especially his beloved stamp collection that numbered in the thousands.
It would be fair to call Ollie a packrat, maybe even a hoarder. It is a trait common to some Nagels and is often the source of good-natured joking at family gatherings.
Through the years, Ollie’s apartment in Dubuque became home to more and more collectibles. We relatives surmise the top was tucked away in some corner surrounded by many other items, forgotten for decades.
Lost and found
When Ollie went to a nursing home, Jack, his wife Rita, and other relatives spent months cleaning out his apartment. Then, in 2015, Jack and Rita, who lived in Morrison, Illinois, moved to a nursing home themselves, and their children sorted through family heirlooms and other items that held fond memories.
Among the objects they discovered as they sifted through their parents’ belongings was the toy top. Jack and Rita presumably found it while emptying Ollie’s apartment. The toy was among the items one of their children, Bill Nagel, took possession of.
“I selected it, having never seen it,” Bill told me. “But I thought it was cool, realizing it was a music box, something my dad had a collection of from Europe.”
Bill, who is publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, transported the top, still in its box, to his California home, where it wound up in a closet along with the other items of his parents he had selected. His family subsequently moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and the top and other items were put into storage for several years.
A few weeks ago, Bill had the objects in storage delivered to his home. As he sorted through them he came across the top, and when he opened the box to examine it, he discovered the note presumably written by Ollie.
The handwriting wasn’t that of his dad, Bill said, nor was it Art’s. Their other brother, Fred, likely wouldn’t have purchased the item, and the note wasn’t in his handwriting either.
“Had to be Ollie writing it,” Bill said of the letter. “This has Ollie written all over it.”
After reading the note, Bill decided to send the top to my mom.
“I knew your mom was the rightful owner and it would be a great gift for her,” Bill told me Wednesday. “She has such a sentimental heart and loves the family history. I hope it brings a lot of joy and memories for years to come.”
The best gift
The top has certainly conjured joy for my mom. When she showed it to me a few days ago, pushing the thin rod capped by a wooden handle down as the top spun round and round, eliciting musical notes, her face lit up with a smile.
It was as if the wear and tear of her 69 years melted away, as if the arthritic pain and fatigue that wrack her body disappeared, as if past tribulations and doubts were gone as well, replaced with a happy, child-like glow.
“Look at this thing go!” she exclaimed before breaking out into a laugh. “And listen to that beautiful music.”
I listened to the tune, its notes taking me back in time to past Christmases at my grandparents’ house, to past gatherings with relatives, many of whom are no longer with us. As I watched the top spin, I thought of family and friends, wishing I could see them this Christmas, and longing for a time when the coronavirus pandemic is past and we all can gather again.
The top continued to rotate, and as Mom and I watched the glittering object whirl I imagined her as a 2-year-old eagerly opening Christmas presents. I marveled at how this toy sent from afar after so many years had once again injected her with youthful vigor, the best Christmas gift I could have hoped for.