Their lives intersected at football games, choir concerts and PTA meetings. Their children were the common thread that held them together, sometimes with ties that reach back to elementary days.
But after the pomp and circumstance, when the kids left home to attend universities that span the country, some neighborhood moms found themselves wondering what happened to their children’s classmates – and missing the other mothers who had been at their sides for folder stuffing, fund raising and mum making.
So they decided to come together again, rallying around the common purpose that had united them from the beginning. Under the guise of creating care packages for their cash-strapped college students, these Lake Highlands moms found the perfect excuse to foster their relationships during the post-Wildcat years.
“We wouldn’t see each other otherwise,” says Rhonda Svedeman of the roughly 20 women in her club whose sons are college juniors.
The twice-a-semester gatherings have come to be known as “box club,” named for the cardboard containers loaded with goodies and shipped to campuses near and far. The premise is simple: Each club is broken down into smaller groups of roughly four moms, who each bring four identical gifts worth $10 a piece. That way each student receives a package with four different gifts from four different moms – who invariably have four different personalities. One Valentine’s Day box sent to 19- and 20-year-old boys, for example, contained books with reflections from the late Pope John Paul II alongside $10 bills tucked inside heart-shaped cards signed “Love, Jessica Alba.”
No one seems to know the origin of box club. A few calls to tips on possible box club godmothers yielded the same explanation that every neighborhood box club organizer gives: A friend with an older child was in a box club, and passed along the format.
Though they can’t trace its roots, box club is most certainly a Lake Highlands phenomenon, the mothers say, with one mother even making a point to add that she knows of no box clubs in “that other part of town” (referring, of course, to Highland Park).
Pretty much every Lake Highlands box club operates the same way, with get-togethers four or five times a year (usually right before major holidays and final exams), sign-ups to bring snacks and libations, and a rotating list of hostesses. Most clubs are for either sons or daughters, but a couple include both, such as the roughly 34 mothers who formed a University of Texas co-ed box club last year.
Some groups consist of mothers whose children were friends in high school, but others are open invitation. To become part of one, a mother either initiates the group or responds to a phone call or e-mail asking: Do you want to be in a box club?
The most common reaction, especially for first-timers, is “What’s a box club?” The next are usually, “What should I buy?” and “Do you really only spend $10?”
Yes, the mothers insist, and shopping isn’t even required. Box clubbers agree that money is the gift most appreciated by their college students.
Gesturing toward $10 bills affixed with ribbon to bags of microwave popcorn, Myrna Rainer says, “This is cold, hard cash, and they love that.”
That doesn’t mean the mothers stick to cash or gift cards, however. Some of them like to become more creative, but “it all depends on how your week was,” Linda Goad says. And then there are the more parental gifts, such as Angela Robertson’s packaged 3-by-5-inch index cards.
“I’m the practical one. I did vitamins one time,” Robertson says. “That’s the fun of it – not everybody is buying Starbucks gift cards. Some give healthy food, and some give not-so-healthy food.”
Gifts for the girls tend to exhibit a little more forethought – “The Devil Wears Prada” DVDs, La Madeleine’s strawberry rhubarb preserves, Mediterranean bergamot wheat germ and basil body wash, the latest issue of Marie Claire. Cash is usually in their boxes, too, but often in dressed-up versions, like NorthPark Center gold. The best gift, though, is receiving the box in the mail, says Connie Baird, part of a box club for senior daughters.
“Sarah doesn’t care what’s in the box; she just likes the box,” Baird says. “It’s the surprise factor.”
Still, Beverly Marr, who is in the same group, admits it was a bit simpler when she was in a box club for her son, a ’98 Lake Highlands grad. The boys’ favorite gift was El Fenix chips and salsa, since most of them grew up on it and no longer had easy access, she says.
But chips and salsa may be one of the more complex gifts that boys request. One mother in a box club for sons (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of insulting her neighborhood friends) called the girls’ groups “high-maintenance” because of the pressure to come up with ingenious ideas and posh packaging. Another mother, Janet Reed, had to admit that being part of a sons’ group as opposed to a daughters’ is “a dream.”
“I buy a Kit-Kat bar; I scotch-tape a $10 bill around it; and there you go,” Reed says.
Really, though, the gifts are secondary to the main event – the inevitable gabfest. Overheard at a recent boys’ box club get-together:
“He called me to tell me about a girl. It was weird.”
That’s about the extent of the juicy gossip at the male-related gatherings, until the sons call their mothers to announce their engagements. The daughters, however, tend to share a little more of their lives’ drama with their mothers. Overheard at a recent girls’ box club get-together:
Mother: “She was dating a boy from a wealthy family, and his parents weren’t happy about it, so they broke up.”
(Expressions of indignation and “glad she escaped those monsters-in-law” from around the circle)
Mother (dejectedly): “So she went to the south of France and met a boy there.”
Second mother: “That could be worse.”
Distance, in box club circles, is the heaviest burden to bear. Since these are the years of letting go, the box clubbers spend a good portion of their conversations checking on the newfound empty nesters, consoling mothers whose children’s studies took them far away from home, and pitying women whose children’s spouses and career pursuits took them even farther from home – and more permanently.
After all, though box clubs are indeed a pretext for social interaction, they are just as much a way for mothers to remain connected to their children – both their own, and the children whom they watched grow up, way too quickly, into young men and women.
As Gayla Engel says: “We’ll probably do box club through their weddings.”