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The

Lost

christmas

Gift Andrew Beckham

P rincet o n A rchitectural P ress 路 N ew Y o rk


I ntr o ducti o n

Emerson Johansson has been a family friend for as long as I can remember. Older than me by nearly four decades (I was a boy when I first met him), Emerson was a warm and thoughtful man who always took the time to ask about the current boyhood project or adventure I was engaged in. It was many years later when he asked me a very different question, to help him tell about a boyhood adventure of his own. The Lost Christmas Gift is a family heirloom Emerson received unexpectedly, and one that he wanted to share with the whole world. We sat down over a series of autumn afternoons and he talked about the experience of recovering the artifact, unpacking and examining it for the first time. As the history of this object revealed itself, so did Emerson’s recollections of his own childhood, and the extraordinary experience he had with his father one Christmas long ago. I recorded and transcribed those conversations, for they have become a critical part of the completed manuscript. You will find Emerson’s voice in the first person throughout the book, providing commentary and reflection on this genuinely miraculous story that I am delighted to present in published form for the first time. —Andrew Beckham

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n december 23rd, a package arrived in the mail. It was addressed to me, written in the unmistakable script of my father’s hand. Now I know this does not sound out of the ordinary; it was Christmas time, after all, when packages arrive in the mail with some regularity. But this was no ordinary package. You see, my father had lived a long and beautiful life, and a few years ago he finally passed away peacefully at the age of one hundred and three. What made this package extraordinary was that it was many decades old itself, as evidenced by the antiquated postmarks on its brittle surface. My father was called away to war when I was eleven years old. This package, as I reckon it, should have reached me that Christmas, while Father was overseas. Lost all those years, and now it arrives! He never said anything about it to me, even after he returned home. Maybe when he realized it was lost in the mail, he didn’t want to disappoint me, and so kept silent. I live in the family house now, having moved from Denver back into the mountains where I grew up. On the same kitchen table where I sat as a youngster the package now sits, waiting to be opened. Memories flood back, and I almost tremble with excitement to open this lost parcel that was meant for me as a boy . . .

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My camera, closed and open! That my father rendered it in such exacting detail from memory is testament to just how keen an observer of the world he really was. An early “compact� field camera, it took glass plate negatives that we had to mail down to Denver to get developed. I wonder. The story my father begins to tell here most assuredly involves this camera, for I made some pictures that, at the time of their taking, seemed miraculous. But as I recall, they didn’t turn out well, or at least I thought so as a boy. And years later I have been unable to find them, which has always upset me.

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As he said in his letter, Father was a cartographer by trade. Back in those days, that meant handdrawing the maps, sometimes from direct observation in the field. I think Father was really an artist, though he never talked about his work that way.

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My memory was not of holding onto his coat. Father’s free hand was wrapped so tightly around my wrist, I could feel the rhythm of his heartbeat pulsing through his fingers. I think he must have believed that if he let go, he would never have found me again . . .

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The Lost Christmas Gift