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December 08, 2010

Only a Box

Margaret Maron

It was nothing more than a homemade wooden box with a flat hinged lid.  Pegged together of unpainted oak that had darkened over the years, it would have been big enough for a large child to hide in, not that any child ever did.  With a cushion, it could have served as a window seatfor the bedroom window it sat beneath, but no cushion ever graced its top.  It was just a rough wooden chest, approximately three feet wide, two feet tall and perhaps eighteen or twenty inches deep and I would trade every piece of furniture in my house for it if I could.

The only time I ever saw the chest open,  my grandfather sat in a chair beside it with a packet of letters balanced on his knee.   I had not yet learned to read cursive, so those lines of ink on that page  meant nothing to me as I leaned against his shoulder and saw tears in his eyes.  He had always been sweetly sentimental and the stroke had left him even more so.  He patted my face, then tucked the letter back into its envelope.  In those days, my hair was so light that itturned silver in the summer sun.  He brushed a strand of it away from my eyes and said, “I’ll show you something precious.”

His large workworn hands sorted through the packets and bundles in the chest and came up with another envelope.  Inside was a lock of pale blond hair tied with a pink ribbon.  “One of your mother’s baby curls,” he said.

Images More rummaging and he brought out some pictures.  “Here’s what my sweetheart looked like when we first met.”   I cannot remember the picture.   She would have been sixteen, he would have been thirty and it was love at first sight.  I never heard him call her anything except “Sweetheart” or “Miss Nellie.”   She called him “Mr. Stephenson.”   They adored each other.  Although she would sometimes get impatient with him, I never heard him snap back.

That day, she followed me into the bedroom and he immediately looked guilty.  “Oh, Mr. Stephenson,” she sighed.  My grandmother always acted as if she was not sentimental at all, yet she was the one who had kept their love letters and she was the one who had saved that lock of my mother’s baby hair.

That chest held all the private mementos of their courtship and marriage, things too personal for the eyes of others.  There was a photo album in the living room full of pictures taken in social situations, but the chest held that first picture of her as well as tintypes and small formal photographs of their parents and grandparents.  They had never had much money, so there were no material treasures in that chest, just dozens of letters, their marriage certificate, the birth certificates of their two daughters, the death certificates of his two brothers and a sister, the handkerchief she had carried on their wedding day, some pressed flowers, the tangible record of their lives together.

DownloadedFile My grandfather had been dead for almost a year when the house burned.  Built of heart pine, it went up like an Olympic torch, sending up a column of black smoke against the blue sky that could be seen for miles.  Neighbors heard the iron bell ring and the smoke immediately told them what was happening.  My grandmother was so distrait that she kept trying to get back into the house to save the only thing she could think of at that moment:  the mattress on her her bed.

“Please, Miss Nellie,” one farmer said.  “If you’ll stay here, I’ll go get your mattress.”

And he did.  He went into that blazing house, into the bedroom, bundled up an old cotton mattress that could have been replaced for less than twenty-five dollars and carried it out past a chest full of things that no amount of money could ever replace.

What item would you retrieve from your family's past if you only could?



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Margaret, so very moving. I love reading about good memories. With sadness attached, they seem all the more lovely. What I would restore to my family would be pleasant memories that were destroyed by my parents' indiscretions.

When my brother died in 1971, he was 16. My mother in her grief gave away or threw out everything that was his. I don't know why that helped her but I would give anything to have some tangible small thing of his. In the 6 months he was terminal there is only one photo taken of him. I do have that on my wall, I still think of him often.

So beautiful, Margaret.

I would bring back my father, for a day, or an hour. He died when I was a baby and I have no memory of him. I do have an old cigarette lighter that doesn't work, silver, with his initials on it. And his Navy shirt that he wore on board ship. And a play he wrote, on an old typewriter, about the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

Four stories so far this morning, and any one of them could be the heart of a very moving novel.

As for me, there's nothing I want to retrieve, but I sympathize with those who do long to be able to reach back, if only for a day or an hour or a moment.

How wrenching for your grandmother, Margaret, when she realized her loss.

I have a sense of urgency to share the family photos, for exactly that same reason. They're all here, at our house, and that worries me. I'm in the middle of scanning them onto a portable hard drive, which I will then copy and give one each to my three daughters. They all want the records of their own childhoods, and then each of our family photos will be in at least two places. (Family Christmas gift. I REALLY need to get cracking!)

Harley, same here with my dad, who died in 1969.

The Christmas mornings when I was around 4 or 5 years old, in our first house on King Street. When my parents were still young and had their dreams before them and mine had yet to sprout. I revisit that house in my dreams now. I've driven past it in decades gone by and looks smaller somehow even though the new owners added a second story to it.

Photos and mementos are precious.

What a lovely post! I am the keeper of the rosary beads for our family. They are all in one pretty box, and it would be the first thing I would grab, given the chance.

Very sweet. I am lucky enough to have many many things from both sets of grandparents. The bread bowl crock, the writing desk and the glass hurricane lamps to name a few. I can't begin to relate the stories that go with them.
I wish I had the Airstream trailer my grandparents had. Many memories of trips taken there. It would have been fun to have relived them with my family.

Oh, Margaret, this is so lovely and heartbreaking. I think I'd want to save some photos--especially the old ones of parents and grandparents. And a candid one of my boys and their dog taken on Easter 1995 on our front porch. It defines their childhood for me.

Oh - someone please pass the Kleenex!

I'm a sucker for family things and the history of all of my families. So much so that whenever a relative has something of meaning to them, and they want to make sure it makes it to future generations, they give it to me. I have a house full of furniture with stories. (EX: The straight backed chair hand whittled out of walnut by my great-grandfather) And dishware, and pictures, and kitchen implements.

Fire is one of my biggest fears.

Karen - good luck with your pictures. I started such a project, but it was too big to finish for this year. Probably next year.

Also, I'm a Flea market/estate sale junkie. I get all misty everytime I see the old suitcases or drawers filled with someones family photos. Entire histories being sold for $1 each. Fancy wall portraits in the curved front glass frames sell for a bundle, but the connection is still lost. I mourn for missing histories that aren't even mine. How pathetic is that?

Dammit, Margaret - I'm weeping at my desk. My co-workers are going to think I finally lost it. Maybe they'll leave me alone.

What a wonderful story. No wonder I love your books.

I don't know what I would grab. If I, my husband and kid, and the dogs all got out, I don't think I'd care about much else. I do have a picture of me with my Dad from when I was about 13 that I would like to have. Most of the mementos I have from grandparents and other family are pieces of furniture, like the piano I learned to play as a child, or my grandmother's large wall mirror over our fireplace. It would be hard to grab them on the run.

Having a flashback and thinking of Mary Tyler Moore grabbing her Big M off the wall of her apartment?

Very lovely, poignant writing. I try not to get so very attached to things, but it's hard. There are pictures I would mourn, my son's baby shoes, etc. The one thing I wish I had was the letter from Adlai Stevenson to my grandmother. Adlai was my cousin (a few times removed) and when he was running for president, my grandparents took me with them to vote. They said someday I'd be old enough to vote for Cousin Adlai. At 4, I thought they meant I could go in the booth next to vote, and I had a terrific hissy fit when they wouldn't let me. My grandmother wrote to Adlai to tell him about his young supporter and he wrote a letter of thanks, saying he hoped I would always be as fervent about the democratic process.

Gaylin, you must be thinking of Cate Edwards today. She was 12 when her 16-year-old brother died and now today, her mother Elizabeth.
Karen, you're doing a good thing by scattering family photos through the family. Just make sure you ID them. I have an old B&W picture of a tall white-haired man, dressed in overalls, standing in a cotton field. I wish I knew which of my great-uncles it is.
Marcia, I feel the same way when I see all those old photos for sale at a flea market.
Harley, I, too, have an old Ronson wrapped up in memories that come drifting back like cigarette smoke whenever I hold it.

That's my plan, Margaret, although it's a massively big job. We have some 5,000 photos. I was scanning them in using my three-in-one printer, but it got to be too unwieldy, so I just found a wand scanner that I hope will work better, and faster.

Gayle, I hope you still have that letter! That's pretty cool.

I wish that I still had the paring knife that my Dad brought me when he came to live with me. Sadly, it broke one day as I was in the kitchen and it hit me hard.
I still clutch his rosary beads when I want a feeling of connection and guidance.
Picture of my father's mother at a sideboard drinking tea was a favorite. I gave the picture to my daughter as well as some jewelry from my mother's collection.
I wanted my daughter to have a double connection traveling from my mother's spirit and mine to my daughter.

I have many Victorian pictures taken in Quebec at the Ice Carnival..these are historic and bring everything full circle.
Thanks Margaret for this beautiful blog.

I would grab our passports and legal docs and photo albums at the same time along with my travel and courting journals when my husband and I first met. We have masses of thousands of reference photos taken on our travels for painting reference. Would mourn their loss, but there are more important things. Mum's pearls that Dad bought her in 1969 on the way home from Western Australia. There are a couple of stories attached to them and I wore them during the 80s and for my wedding in 1998. There are some family treasures of mine back home in Australia that I won't part with. The art deco antique blue glass mantle clock my grand mother was given by her mother when she was seven y.o. Nan gave it to me as I was fascinated with it since I first noticed it. Miss my Nan even after 20 years. Nan and Granddad gave me the antique cedar wood chest with the carved roses as well. There are other things as well as the family photos mum has custody of and is in the process of arranging again, but the above are what matter the most.

This is so moving. I actually have a great many artifacts from my parents, but my first thought was to bring back my mother. I would love to talk to her again, and tell her all the news, and she would love it. Thank you for this.

It is that time

By January 18, 2011 I will:

Consolidate the family pictures so they can be safely moved if need be. Those that have duplicates will have the duplicates stored someplace else.

Transfer the micro cassettes of my father's presentation to a format that can be heard by his grandchildren.

Record which libraries hold the family papers.

Record the stories that go with the family artifacts. My Mother's family came to America in the 1860's. My fathers' in 1902. My mother's grandfather was big in Ohio politics. We have his ticket for the 1908 Republican convention, as well as some campaign buttons from the time.

I have my great-great grandfather's copy of LIFE ON THE PLAINS by George Custer. It is old, but not a first edition. It was a gift from one of his fellow calvarymen. While not PC today, great-great grandfather was an Indian fighter in the 1866. Some history books list him as keeping kosher while his unit was trapped by Indians in Colorado. His diary says he "Killed a coyote and ate him up." Coyote is not kosher. his unit has come up once or twice when the princesses study the Buffalo soldiers. I am here today because great-great grandfather was rescued by Buffalo soldiers.


Why 1/18/11? I keep track of the anniversary of my father's death on the Hebrew calendar. It moves around the English calendar each year. Last year it coincided with my mother's birthday. For 2011, it will be on 1/18. Princes two turns 6 on 1/17.

I hope none of you ever lose your homes to fire, but should it happen, I would be glad to know that I inspired that one to duplicate and share photos. My aunt and her family lived with my grandparents and when the house burned, it destroyed all the pictures of her oldest child who had died years before at the age of 9. Relatives and friends gave her copies of all the photos they had of him, but it was sad in that he was usually one of the boys watching the birthday child blow out the candles. On the periphery. He wasn't cental in any of those pictures.

You made me cry, Margaret. I'm struck by the fact that she was 16 and he was 30! How does a love like that happen? I wish you'd been able to sift through those letters to find out. Hugs.

Margaret, thank you for a beautiful post! Add me to the list of people who had to look for a tissue while reading it!

Your post brought to mind a situation my family just had. Our youngest sister is quite disabled (physically and cognitively) from MS and had to move to a nursing home a few months ago. She had lived with our mom until our mom's death twelve years ago, and then she moved to a condo. The condo is about to be sold. The attorney handling my sister's affairs for her asked me to go through the things my sister had left behind in the storage unit at the condo, and to dispose of the items that nobody wanted. My sister stored all of our mom's Christmas items in the storage unit but had been physically unable to set up any Christmas decorations for a few years. My plan was to put aside Christmas items that my sister could hang up in her room at the nursing home, and the rest of us would take one or two ornaments, and whatever was left would probably be donated to Good Will. I went to the storage unit with the real estate agent and we discovered that there was nothing there except unused furniture! I don't have a clue as to what happened to the Christmas items, which were not worth much money but were of sentimental value. I felt so badly for my sister because I had been hoping to be able to brighten up her room for the holidays with familiar items!

Over the past few years caregivers have stolen items (medications, and even canes!)from my sister, and I suspect that something like that happened with the Christmas items.

On another note: like Marcia, I have long had a habit of putting family things aside for family members who might want them in the future. When my mom died, I decided to hold on to whatever nobody wanted at that point, in case any of Mom's grandchildren wanted/needed them in the future. So far, nobody has wanted anything, and I have a basement full of things I can't use and don't really want myself! A few years ago I gave a bunch of things to one of my nieces for her first apartment and felt relieved that I had finally given away some of Mom's things. Then I realized that those were NOT Mom's - they were things I had had all along that I didn't need: extra dishes, pots and pans, etc. Mom's things are still downstairs at my home!

What a sad story of loss, but not loss, because you have the memories still . . also a reminder that the fire fighters recommend not going in for or staying behind to get any things because fire spreads so rapidly. GET OUT! Nothing is worth your life.

I'm holding family "stuff" too, and hoping someday someone wants some of it.
In fact, I may continue the thrifty practice of "shopping at home" which I started when I bought the house and hadn't yet sold the condo, and look around for things I can give away from what's already here. Double gift: mementos for them, a bit of reclaimed space for me. I like Karen's idea of copying and sharing for insurance (a friend used to do that with clippings of favorite plants also). I also keep my back-up hard drive in a fire-resistant file box.

My mom was a hoarder and I've spent years trying to get rid of junk. I've become very anti material things. When she passed away last year, I kept her favorite clothes, cut them into pieces and made quilts for each member of the family. It's a beautiful keepsake that can be used every day, but doesn't have to be tended, just tossed in the washer to get rid of ice cream dribbles and cat hair. Pretty much everything else I either donated or tossed. I got all my photo's digitized years ago and both my son's have them on their computers. If I have a fire, I'll get my dad and my pets out and watch the rest of it burn. Well, except for my quilts.

My goal is to make sure that when the time comes for my kids to go through my things, they won't have to spend more than a day or two at the most. Less is more.

Since we can't bring our loved ones back for even just that one moment I would grab the drive with all the photos and the box of things from my great grandfather. I have his citizenship papers, marriage certificate(quite elaborate in 1877), letters he wrote to his wife while he was on business trips or out West for his failing health. Last but not least a letter from his brother written in 1900 to my great Aunt Mary.In this letter he talks about his family, expresses sorrow that his brother (my ggrandfather)had died in 1891 (they had lost track of each other), and refers to a photo of great Aunt Mary she had sent him. He talks about what a lovely young woman she is.

In 1984 I visited a friend who had moved to Germany to work for the army. She worked with a German lady who helped me use the information in that letter (written in English) to check the phone books for people with my last name living in the Hamburg area. I then wrote a letter (in English) with the pertinent information about the family and sent it to all the people with my last name. A few months later I received a letter stating I had found relatives of my great grandfather. (Ironically my cousin had a friend who taught English and did the translating of the letters and our first visits)

We arranged a meeting in Hamburg the next summer. It turned out that cousin Eddi had the original letter in German that had been translated to English and sent to g Aunt Mary.Later he showed me a photo album with great Aunt Mary's photo. It solved a mystery for us. We had the photo (taken in the late 1890's) but didn't know it was G Aunt Mary.

What was supposed to be a one time meeting evolved into a special kinship. I learned to speak German and have visited them many times over the last 25 years. Eddi's grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers. None of this would have ever happened if my Dad had not had that box of "memories" that had been passed down to his father. I used to sit and read those letters over and over as a child - never dreaming I would ever go to Germany and meet the family. I visited Eddi and the family last December when I was in Berlin for the International ALS conference. He is 82 but can run rings around me.

What a great story, Diana. There's something about family that can make connecting so satisfying if there's good will on both sides (speaking as one who's had relatives take themselves out of the family. Very sad. But understandable.) What fun for your American family to connect with the German side of the tree.

Diana, that's a beautiful story! And to think that you had to overcome a language obstacle, too!

OH, gosh, I am..speechless. Thank you, Margaret. Ah.

I have a friend whose house was actually hit by lightning. When she wasn't home. Her dog was staying with her parents.

The lightning's center of impact was on the pillow of her bed, according to firefighters. Though how they figured it out, I dont know--most of the house was demolished. (Including a black satin ball gown I had loaned her.)

The house was smithereens, ashes, a smoking ruin.

But she was safe, and her dog was safe. And so was one other thing. In the rubble, they found her photo album. That's all that survived.


Deb, I've been thinking about your sister and the missing ornaments. I'm sure you'll find a way to brighten her room, but how desecrated you must feel for her.

Deb, that was so sad to read about the ornaments, also what some caretakers had taken from your sister. I am absolutely certain, though, that you will be able to make her room festive for the holidays.

Hank, that's am amazing story about the lightning and the photo album. I am so grateful to P-Wog for scanning the family photos.

We just had an early Christmas with my Auntie-Mom and I am just so very grateful to have her in my life.

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