They say the process is unique. A machine, directed by a computer, changes molds on the fly so that each Snow Crystal Baby is one in a million. Random heads meet random bodies and clothes which are packaged boxed and shipped in limited quantities. They’re the hottest new toy this Christmas season. Twenty of them landed in our store yesterday, just in time for the opening of our Toyland. Oh, joy (that was sarcasm in case you missed it.)
The Snow Crystal Babies became so popular in recent weeks that families are going on adopting trips until they find just the right combination of features. Did I mention that they were expensive? So much so that the corporate brass had us lock them up behind glass doors.
From 4:00 in the morning until around noon, my job is to restock shelves and help customers in the Toyland department. That includes opening the glass case if anyone wants to examine one of the Snow Crystal Babies.
Around 8:30 the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, I’m restocking some Lego building sets when I feel a tug on my smock. “Hey mister.” I look down at a little waif of a girl with curly brown locks and big brown eyes in a smudged pink coat.
“Yes, can I help you?” I ask.
“Can you open the jail so I can say hi to Chelsea?” she asks.
Jail? “Why don’t you show me what you mean.” She grabs my hand and pulls me over to the Snow Crystal Babies. “Oh, you mean these. Is your mommy or daddy around?”
“Are you here by yourself?” I ask, getting down on one knee.
“What’s your name?”
“And your last name?”
“Conrad. Can I visit Chelsea now? She’s lonely.”
“Sure, Hunny, in a minute,” I say, keying my radio and asking for a page. While I’m unlocking the case, I hear “We have a lost parent, would the parents of Bella Conrad please meet her at Toyland aisle three.”
“Which one is Chelsea?” I ask Bella once the doors were pushed back.
“That one,” she said, pointing out a doll with green eyes and a blue dress.
“Yes, that one is quite special,” I say.
“She likes being out of jail, can I keep her?”
“Bella Samatha Conrad, there you are. I’ve been looking all over.” Says a harried thirtyish woman pushing a sparsely loaded cart with a few groceries.
“It’s okay, ma’am…” I started.
“Mommy, can I keep Chelsea. She doesn’t like being in jail,” Bella said.
Emotions of curiosity, understanding, shame, and then anger fly across her face. “How dare you tempt my daughter with something so expensive. Now I have to break her heart again, and I hate doing that. You have no right. You see this?” she said pointing at the contents of her cart. “That’s a week’s worth of groceries, and I can barely afford that and you, you… No Bella,” she said quickly pulling the doll away and shoving it to me. She turned and hurried off, squeezing Bella’s hand. As she hurried off, I saw Bella turn and wave. I’m not sure if she was waving at me or the doll in my arms.
With a sigh, I place the doll back on the shelf and lock the glass doors. Looking at the doll I wonder why Bella saw this as a jail and why she named the doll Chelsea. But the one thing I do know is that Bella will not be the only broken-hearted kid in Toyland this year.
The next day a charity set up an Angel Tree near the front of the store by the service desk. The simple Christmas tree is hung with paper ornaments in the shape of an angel. Each one has the name, age, and wishes of a child of someone in prison. Folks can then “adopt” one and provide them a gift to unwrap Christmas morning.
As part of my normal routine, I retrieve the returns from the service desk to be restocked. While waiting for my turn I read the names of the angels. I wondered why the mom or dad is in jail and what the kids are really like. Did they really write down their wishes, or what did someone write what they need? Then I see a name, and age, and a wish that wrings my heart to tears. “Bella, age 7, a new pair of shoes (size 1)” It says. But as I look closer, I can tell that something else was written and erased on the wish line. Holding it up to the light I make out the word “Chelsea” indented in the paper underneath “Shoes (size 1).”
Taking Bella’s angel, I wander back over to Toyland, totally forgetting the restock I was supposed to pick up. I’ve seen Angel Trees for several years, but this was the first time I saw the child. The first time I knew who they were, what they looked like. I wonder who Bella visits behind the glass that separates prisoners from guests. I would love to buy Bella the Snow Crystal Doll she calls Chelsea, but that is practically impossible given their cost. I instead settle on finding her a good pair of size one shoes.
For weeks I cringe every time someone wants a Snow Crystal Baby. Even though I can’t afford to buy it for Bella, I want it here for her to visit. And every Tuesday morning, that is what she does. By the third week Joyce, that’s Bella’s mom, drops her off in Toyland to visit Chelsea while she does her shopping. In the meantime, I find out that Bella’s father is in Statesville. According to Joyce, he was desperate to put food on the table, so he joined a gang that was robbing jewelry stores. They got caught, and the judge gave them the maximum to set an example.
Every day I watch as the Angels are taken from the tree and replaced with wrapped gifts beneath the tree. Bella’s gift of shoes, a coloring book, and some new markers is already there. I also keep an eye on Chelsea. One of the first things I do is see if she is still there ready for Bella to visit. Then one morning, about a week before Christmas, Chelsea is gone. I had hoped that somehow, I could make Bella’s dream come true. It was a depressing start to a Tuesday.
Like clockwork, I felt a tug on my smock. “Hi mister,” Bella chimed.
“Hi Bella, how are you today?”
“Cold, but I like the snow. Mom and I made a snowman yesterday.”
“I’ll bet it’s the best one in the neighborhood,” I reply. “I’ve got some bad news Bella, Chelsea’s not in the case. Someone took her home.”
Bella ran to the case ahead of me. I was expecting some sad tears as I turned into the aisle a few steps behind her. Instead, she turned away from the glass with a broad toothy smile on her face.
“I thought you would be sad,” I said.
“Oh no, I’ve very happy. Chelsea’s not in jail anymore. If Chelsea can get out, then one day Daddy will get out, that will be the happiest day ever,” Bella explained.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked. Bella nodded. “Why did you name her Chelsea? These dolls don’t come with names.”
“I don’t know, she kind of looked like Chelsea,” Bella replied as if that was her complete answer.
Joyce pushed her cart up while Bella and I were talking. “Chelsea was one of Bella’s friends at her old school. We moved here to be closer to her daddy. Chelsea has green eyes like the doll. Hey, um, thanks for all you’ve done,” Joyce said to me. “Bella needed a friend.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” I began. “Um, say, we just got our Christmas bonuses would you mind if I bought you a few things for Christmas dinner?”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Joyce replied.
“You’re not asking, I’m offering. What do you say?” With her soft nod, we were off for a quick trip through the grocery section.
That Christmas season, I learned something. The best gifts are not the most expensive gifts, but the ones given with a heart of love. Gifts of freedom, friendship, and caring are more valuable than anything purchased from the shelves of any store. That was Bella’s gift for me. A gift wrapped with a simple “Hey mister.”