Cowboy Boot by Hiya Panja

There was nothing that really held the same importance to Aunt Clara than the old cowboy boot she placed atop the fireplace every Christmas Eve. She claimed it as her prized possession, and each year us children waited in anticipation for the day that we could reach into the stuffed boot and find our gifts. It was her contribution to each family Christmas. We didn’t know how old The Boot was, the only history the family knew was that Aunt Clara snatched the old thing from a yard sale during a trip to Oklahoma when she was just five years old.

“Wa’n’t anythin’ special ’bout it,” she’d joke in a mock country accent, “but I knew there was nothing nor no one to hold the same light as this boot did here for me.”

We didn’t come from the country, and as far as we knew, none of our extended family could trace back any heritage expanding beyond the north west. Our family didn’t care, though: Aunt Clara loved The Boot with all her heart, and she brought such joy with her each holiday so it did no harm to start an untraditional tradition.

Aunt Clara never married, never had any kids, but that didn’t matter to her. The Boot was the love of her life. She had The Boot to keep her and everyone around her cheery, her sisters’ children waiting patiently for the chance to open meticulously wrapped candies labeled just for them every Christmas morning. Chocolates, caramels, gummy bears, you name it, filled The Boot to its brim as it stood the test of time.

Until one day, it could no longer hold its form.

I was eleven, my cousins not much older or younger than I, when we sat by the fireplace and watched Aunt Clara fill The Boot once again with treats. This time, the gifts were much larger than we were used to. No one was concerned, The Boot could probably withstand a hurricane and still stay the same. Boy, were we wrong.

Us children all ran down the stairs from our shared bedroom to reach into The Boot and tear open the wrapping enveloping our presents. Unfortunately, we didn’t really see The Boot. At least we didn’t recognize it. Instead, we found Aunt Clara weeping over a lifeless brown heap. The gifts were too large that year for The Boot, and it simply gave out that past night. When she caught a quick glance of us near her, she halted her tears. Wiping away her running mascara to the best of her capability, she told us “There’s gonna be a little change of plans this year.”

For the next few years, there was no Boot to hold our presents. We would wake up to Aunt Clara handing us our presents individually all through our teenage years. She kept a smile plastered across her face, but we all knew that something was missing. It just wasn’t right without The Boot, and we couldn’t do anything to put it back together. The Boot was lost to us forever.

By the time we children were all off to college, we decided that enough was enough. We took a road trip when permitted while on our winter break, and all headed for Oklahoma. Every yard sale and thrift store we could find were perused, but there was nothing really quite like The Boot. We found an old boot that closely resembled our boot, and tried our luck with it. Going back home was a ride filled with anxiety, for none of us knew if Aunt Clara would accept our first gift to her.
Fortunately, she didn’t even need to look at the single boot before we saw her first genuine smile in years.

“Imagine the poor old sucker who’s looking through that store for the other boot!” she burst into a laughing fit. “Oh thank you, children! Thank you.” After that day, our blessed merriment resumed.

And happy we remained for many years forward, until the day that Aunt Clara’s time to pass had come. We wept with our parents over our family member, but not for long as we kept in mind Aunt Clara’s last words: “Keep The Boot for Christmas, keep The Boot with you every day.”

We listened to Aunt Clara, and each Christmas Eve we stuffed The Boot with treats for our nephews and nieces. And after we stuffed The Boot, we would tell our children “Always keep your Boot.”

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