The Mysterious Gift

A couple weeks ago, an Amazon package arrived at our apartment that was intended for someone else. The address on the box was ours, but the addressee was not someone who lives here someone or someone whose name we recognized. Our options were to ignore it, thereby leaving it to sit in our building’s entryway for eternity, or to try returning it to the sender.

Our first course of action was for Ari to bring it to the UPS Store, since they’ve handled Amazon returns for us in the past. But they were not the carrier and thus could not help. So I called Amazon to ask what to do. To my surprise, the representative said I could keep or donate the item.

Really? I should open someone else’s mail? This felt like crossing a line. But the rep assured me: the person who ordered the item, upon realizing they never received it, will contact Amazon for a refund or replacement. So, yes, I could open the box and keep or donate its contents.

Once I resigned myself to committing this transgression (and got over the realization that Amazon is so massive that it doesn’t care about reclaiming lost inventory), I started to wonder, What goodies might the box contain? Would the discovery be something fun? Maybe a new kitchen gadget?

As soon as I opened the box, my curiosity turned to sadness.

I’ve been playing with the drawing apps on my iPad.

Inside was as gift-wrapped parcel, with an attached note:

Merry Christmas B________.
Love C________ xoxo

It was December 31 when I finally opened the box. Christmas had passed. B________ had not received her gift in time. And since the sender was not the recipient, it’s possible that neither would ever know.

When I saw what was in the gift bag (a set of dot art markers marketed to children) I began to construct a story. Maybe C________ is B________’s older sister away at collage and unable to be home for the holidays, wanting to send her love to her younger sibling. Maybe she is a cousin or a friend, sending a funny gift to a peer. Perhaps a mother, wishing her daughter a Merry Christmas from across the country.

B________ would wonder, Why didn’t C________ get my anything this year? C________ would wonder, Why didn’t B________ say thank you? A gift intended to bring two people together would instead pull them a little apart.

Never having celebrated Christmas, I’ve never really understood Santa. But when I opened the box and saw the undelivered gift, I suddenly became Santa. Holding a gift intended for someone else in my hands made me responsible for its delivery.

It reminded me of what the Torah says of finding lost objects:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who they are, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to them. You shall do the same with their ass; you shall do the same with their garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Deuteronomy 22:1–3

There I was, holding a package that had gone astray, and I could not remain indifferent. It had made a claim on me, and I could no longer ignore it.

They do look fun!

Among the other contents of the box was a gift receipt with a way to send a digital thank-you note—but no other means of communicating with the sender. So I scanned the code, and sent a note through Amazon’s reply service:

C________, My name is Sam, and I live at the address the gift you intended for B________ was delivered to. I’m sorry it did not arrive as planned in time for Christmas, but I thought you’d want to know. Happy New Year, Sam

Ari and I will likely never know if B________ got a gift from C________, or if C________ found another way to show her love for B________ this year. There’s no way for us actually to return this lost object, but I hope at least that C________ got the message. As for us, we’ll donate the markers to the upcoming MLK Day toy and clothing drive at The Community Synagogue.


Every year, I keep a notebook/planner/journal of tasks and appointments, interesting notes and things I’m grateful for. Its contents are invaluable to me; despite my love of tech, it’s the only thing that consistently helps me stay organized. And I have fun with it. (For more on the method, check out the Bullet Journal craze from a few years ago.)

My first page of this year’s book. I now have journals for 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020—and yes, I write each page by hand.

If someone stole my bag with the journal inside, or I left it on the train somewhere, I would be sad about losing my expensive iPad but devastated about losing my $20 journal. So I always put my name and contact information in the front.

In The Book of Delights, Ross Gay comments on the peculiar phenomenon of writing our name and phone numbers on our personal items, sparked by his finding of a bag marked “Kayte Young”:

By Kayte’s naming and phone numbering her bag, which truly filled my heart with flamingos, or turned my heart into a flamingo, strikes me as a simple act of faith in the common decency, which is often rewarded but is called faith because not always… I now believe in the common decency, and I believe adamantly in faith in the common decency, which grows, it turns out, with belief, which grows, it turns out, with faith, and on and on, as evidenced by Name: Kayte Young; Phone Number: 555-867-5309.

Pages 217–218
Yes, I see the irony of blurring my address and phone number here…but I don’t yet have faith in the common decency of the internet.

Until I read Ross Gay’s essay, I never considered writing my information in the journal (or on a luggage tag, or on all my clothes back in my summer camp days) to be an act of faith. But it really is: a trust that if someone finds my journal gone astray, they’ll feel obligated to try returning it to me.

When it’s just an item, we can look away. But when it’s someone’s item (or misdelivered gift), it’s much harder to remain indifferent. The item itself becomes a vehicle for connection between two parties who are otherwise unaware of each other’s existence. And thus it becomes a new kind of gift, one that helps knit the social fabric of common decency together.

Today is the first day of 2020. With what I imagine will be a particularly nasty presidential election looming in November, it seems like this is a year when common decency might be in short supply. Perhaps the package wrongly delivered to our apartment, just before the end of 2019, is a sign. The common decency grows when we believe in it, and when we perform acts of faith that support it. I think it’s worth believing in.

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