Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Treasure Chest

My mother’s Lane cedar chest always stood at the foot of her bed. She got it when she lived in Lewiston, Idaho and her sister, Irene, had one identical to it. I like to imagine them walking arm in arm, smoking cigarettes and talking excitedly about their upcoming weddings. They never could have guessed where their lives would take them.

My mother’s cedar chest was a beautiful piece of furniture when I was young. It was oak veneer and Mom always kept it polished and oiled. I loved it in the winter when she would open the lid and pull out the calf length fur coat which she always wore to midnight mass. I would lie on the fur side of the coat and rub my nose in the soft hair, inhaling the tart aroma of the cedar. I imagined wearing the coat when I became an adult. It would be the height of sophistication.

Another old fur lived in the treasure chest. It is one of those long narrow stoles with the tails and heads of the poor animals it was made from dangling from the ends. I found it frightening but intriguing. I used to believe that it belonged to my grandmother, but I learned recently from my cousin Leslie, it was probably Aunt Irene’s. The stole was used as dress-up clothes and was part of many a Halloween costume.

As much as I loved the smell and the glamour of the chest, inside it lay many mysteries. On the rare occasion I was left alone in the house, I would sneak into my parent’s room and carefully open the treasure chest. Most of the contents was boring; old linens and my old baby clothes. However, tucked in a corner was my mother’s old diary, kept in the years before she met my father. I tried to read it to try to understand her better but she was too crafty for me. She wrote the entries in Gregg shorthand, so even her diary’s contents was another mystery I never was able to decipher.

In the top drawer of the chest lay an unburned baptismal candle and a death certificate. I knew my sister had died shortly after birth. We visited her grave every Memorial Day. Along with my sister’s papers was a mysterious envelope which contained a copy of my birth certificate. I couldn’t understand why an attorney would be mailing my birth certificate to my parents. When I asked about it, Mom said, “You stay out of that trunk. The lid could fall and you would get locked in there and suffocate.”

Some of the items in the chest were my father’s. There was a small silk pillow case which he had purchased for his mother while he was stationed in England during the war. Some old cards to his mother were tucked inside the case. He had kept it all these years for my grandmother who had no use for it where she lived at the state mental hospital.

Over time I removed some of the items and made them my own. There was a wonderful calf-length wool pea-coat with military insignias on the sleeves and pockets. I pulled it out when I was in high school and wore it thinking myself very smart and John Lennon-like for protesting the Vietnam War by wearing it. Along with the coat there was a battered, brown box containing various military patches and buttons. These were a sacred relic to my mother. I believed for a long time they belonged to my father, but my dad hated war. He never talked about his experiences flying in bombers over Germany. Perhaps the box, like the coat belonged to my mother’s first husband, lost in the war.

When my mother died, the chest of treasures came to live with me. Time had changed the outside of the chest. Someone had let the water flow over a potted plant leaving a large ring in the shellac. Pieces of the veneer had been pulled away and lost. As I sadly sorted through it, most of the items in the chest were meaningless. The old clothes and linens had no history attached to them so they were sold at my mother’s estate sale. But the fur coat, which I still love to lie on and rub my nose against still resides within it. I am too large to wear the coat and the wearing of furs is no longer sophisticated or politically correct, but I keep it none the less. The old fur stole keeps it company in the bottom of the trunk.

The old linens have been replaced by two quilts my mother made for my daughters. They are young and have no interest in them for now, but I hope someday they will. My baby clothes have been replaced by my daughters’ favorite blankies. The cedar aroma cannot hide the smell of their soft babyhoods. My sister’s papers and candle still lay in the drawer next to the silk pillow meant for my grandmother, and my parent’s birth, marriage and death certificates lay beside them. But that age yellowed envelope containing my birth certificate still remains. I have removed it to a safety deposit box. The attorney’s name is the only clue I have to the past I am continually seeking.

As I get older I think perhaps the cedar chest is all I really need. The sight of it brings up memories of my mother and father and life on our farm. I no longer seek to know my mother better. She hardly knew herself. My life has moved forward making memories of my own. My daughters are women now with their own lives. Perhaps my grandchildren, the future of my DNA, will be drawn by the mysteries of my treasure chest and I will share with them the stories of my life and the items within.