Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nail Polish Remover, Kit Kat Bars and this month’s Glamour magazine: The evolution of a modern CARE Package

I can’t imagine that the first French recipients, back in 1946, could get themselves too excited over what was in those packages. Opening them up with anticipation, only to find SPAM and liver loaf? ("Ou se trouve le baguette et le vin rouge?") But they were probably hungry enough not to notice. After the first shipment of 10,000, the bundles from the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), were sent all over the world for the next twenty years.

“Care package” is one of those phrases that has ceased to be associated with its original acronym, perhaps because use the verb the acronym depicted is so much nicer than a mouthful like Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere. It’ easier to understand this:  I care, so I send you a package.

I’ve been gaining some personal experience in this world of needs, wants and postal scales, since I have a daughter who will be living in Beijing for the next six months. Her first couple weeks there were, from what I understand, a heady mix of new world, new life and a fair amount of shaking the dust of Minneapolis off her virtual sandals. It was all looking forward, with no energy for looking back.

Then, as the days passed and the mind-blowing new began to assume some aspects of routine, she began to think about peanut butter. And Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And Kit Kat bars. And she began to assemble The List. Soon, I was participating in a 6,000-mile scavenger hunt, tracking down nail polish remover (“There is not one bottle of it in the entire country.”) and lip balm (“It has to be vanilla; the raspberry kind makes me puke.”)

When the 57 kids in her program returned from the Autumn Holiday, three weeks into the program, it became apparent that all of them had voiced similar longings for the small, tangible items they’d forgotten on their mid-August packing lists. When they returned to school that Monday, after the baffling-but-required visits to the country to pick fruit with their host families, there was a pile of brown-paper-wrapped shoeboxes, sent from Atlanta, Sheboygan, Brooklyn … and one, thank God, from Minneapolis, which arrived in time.

That was the first, but of course there have been many more. The “Operation: St. Nicholas Day” mission included Christmas socks, tiny candy canes and homemade candied walnuts that so baffled the inspectors who opened the package that school’s principal got a phone call from Comrade Postal Inspector. “Is this candy?” he asked, and Comrade Becker assured him that it was.

At about $50 for a well-packed shoebox and $15 for a crammed-to-the-gills envelope (funny, didn’t know envelopes had gills), I’ve been spending more lately on care package postage then the contents of the packages themselves. But I’ve been learning that the value of what’s inside is not really important. Of much more value is the package’s backstory:  someone found me these things I have been missing, or that I might like, assembled them and drove to the post office to stand in line – all so that I’d feel better ten days later, when I opened it.

The stream of packages has slowed these days, as the students’ families are preparing for holiday visits. In 18 days, I’ll be kissing the top of my daughter’s head, and that, I hope, will be more valuable to her than all the nail polish remover in the world.

But just in case, I’m bringing along an extra bag of those candied walnuts, Chinese inspectors be damned.

See you soon, Emma.

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