My son and I just returned from traveling a few weeks ago and yesterday I finally put away our passports. I keep the passports in my fireproof lockbox, along with other important papers, and for some reason, getting the key out and unlocking it managed to feel like a burden somehow. So it took me a while to put them away. But when I did, though, I made a mistake at first.
I opened the wrong lockbox. I have two. One is small, for all the important papers, I go in and out of it fairly regularly. The other is big. The big one holds actual items, like the only two pieces of actually valuable jewelry I have (and not that valuable). There are letters from my grandmother and great grandmother, both of whom have died. A book of poems my grandmother wrote and self-published (I have another copy on my bookshelf, but this is a precious item I’d rather not lose in a fire), and a copy of the eulogy I wrote and gave at her funeral. The big box also contains a very small box, in which are the very few mementos and precious items that make up the memory of my first baby, a little girl, who, 13 years ago lived long enough inside me to become a girl, but not long enough to be born. There are also several small boxes of jewelry that were passed to me.
I settled down and sat on the floor as I opened each little box and look at the jewelry. Most of the jewelry was of the 1950’s variety – similar to this:
It had been so long since I’d opened the big lock box that I didn’t even remember all that was in there. I found a watch with my grandfather’s name inscribed (I never knew him). And wedding rings. I was given the wedding rings of my grandmother (my dad’s mom) – and perhaps her ring from her second marriage? There were more than just one set. She never explained, just left them for me. The last time I saw her and was able to speak with her (though I’m not sure she knew who I was), I had just found out I was pregnant with my son, so that would have been about 11 years ago. My grandma was named Mary, and she was a teacher. The box also held a picture of her – a beautiful young woman – there is no date, but from her hair and clothes, I would guess it’s before or just after her children were born in the mid-late 1940’s:
I love her shoes! I don’t really look like her, but I can see some of my dad in her. She looks really happy, so I know it was before the divorce, which was a terrible ordeal for the entire family, and turned her quite bitter in her older years. But she saved some of those smiles for me, and I loved it when she would come to visit — and we corresponded almost on a weekly basis for most of my entire youth. She was an English teacher, so she would correct my spelling from my previous letter in each of her letters – I am an excellent speller now.
There is also a set of rings from my step-grandma, who married my grandpa after he divorced my grandma – those rings include my grandpa’s. I never knew him. He was a doctor – went to medial school at the age of 17. I think my son inherited some of his smarts…it can be very intimidating. My step-grandma just passed away a couple of years ago. There is also a charm bracelet in the box, which charms must have held precious meaning, but I have no idea what they stand for.
There are also letters. A small packet of letters written to my great-grandmother (on my mom’s side) – all condolences on the death of her son (my grandfather), who died only 3 years before I was born…probably of medical malpractice, but unprovable. A precious, withering newspaper with an obituary in it. A thimble my great-grandmother bequeathed me on the occasion of my birth. An old tradition? I don’t know. It has immeasurable value because I had the gift of growing up knowing my great-grandmother (we called her “Grammy”). She was born in 1898, a child of the Oklahoma Land Rush, and she lived through the incredible changes of the 20th century – she died at the age of 99.
She’d happily lived up until her early 90’s in her own double-wide, with a golf cart as her daily transportation around her neighborhood. I wish I had been able to sit with her for hours and record stories of the things she saw – I remember some of them: the drive from Oklahoma to California in a Model-T. The day Pearl Harbor was bombed. Her memories of her only son.
I’m glad I opened the big box. Even if it was by accident. I don’t connect enough with where I came from, and it reminds me this holiday season that my roots are much deeper than my immediate life, and they are roots I want my son to know. There are precious pieces of history and memory wrapped up together in that box. I’m going to open it more often now, so that I remember that though the atoms that I’m borrowing to be the person I am right now may have been formed from the universe’s vast store of matter, they still connect me to the people who, through whatever random choices they made in their lives, created the pathway upon which I now walk.
I’m glad I opened the big box on accident. In all our moves and upheaval the last few years, I hadn’t actually opened it for a very long time. For those few precious holiday moments, I was transported and that was a gift no one living could have given me this year.