Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Chest by Lisa Moreno

I was about 12 years old when my parents finally decided it was time to open the chest.  I had been asking them about it for years.  It was an old cedar chest that had been in our basement my entire life.  I knew it had belonged to my sister, who would have been 21 years older than I had she lived.  But, succumbing to encephalitis that developed from a bad case of the measles, she died when she was three.

The chest was always a mystery to me. Our washer and dryer were in the basement, so I saw it frequently.  When I was really young, I actually thought my sister was buried there, as if it were her coffin.  Later I learned that it held some of her belongings that my parents saved.  And I wanted to see them. 

It was a Saturday when Daddy finally said, “I’m going to bring Susan’s chest in.  The thing is falling apart and her stuff is going to ruin, if it hasn’t already.”

Momma looked sad and nervous.  “This is going to be hard to do, Henry.  There are things in there I haven’t thought about for over 30 years.  I’m not sure I’m ready.”

“Oh, please Mom!”  I begged.  “I really want to see what’s inside.”

“No, today is the day, Jewell.  “It’s falling apart down there,” my father replied.  “Today is the day.”   He headed out the back door and down the steps.   Momma followed him, still looking concerned.

A few minutes later I heard them struggling to get it in the house.  Long before it had split open and begun to rot away, so they had to be very careful.  As they struggled with its bulk, I knew they must have been struggling to hold their hearts as well.  After all, it did contain memories they’d tried to store away 30 years before.  Memories I was worried about watching them deal with.  It was going to be sad.

Once it was in the house, they placed it on the kitchen floor.  The first problem we encountered was a lock that was too rusty to open, even if we had the key, which we didn’t.  Daddy went to the hall closet and returned with a hammer.

“This should do it,” he said, as he held the hammer about two feet above the chest.

“Do we have to do that?” Momma asked.  “It will ruin it.”

“Jewell,” he responded.  “Look at it.  It’s already falling apart.  Besides, this is the only way to get it open.”

“Well, okay.”  Momma replied.  “I guess you’re right.” 

It took about five blows with the hammer to break open the lock.  And when it broke, it shattered like glass leaving little fragments of metal and wood all over the floor.  Then, Daddy tried to open the lid.  It didn’t budge, even though there was a huge crack right down the middle.  It had become warped and swollen from the years of the dampness of the basement.

“Now what are you going to do?”  asked Momma.  “How do we get the lid off?”

Daddy replied, “The hammer.  I’ll tap it all along the edges.  That should loosen it up enough to take it off.  We may have to break the hinges, though.  They look as bad as the lock did.”

You could tell Momma regretted having to damage the chest any further.  But Daddy was right. It was already damaged beyond repair, and the only way to get into it was to pretty much tear it completely apart.

Daddy carefully tapped the hammer around the top of the chest, but it didn’t help.  He went back around it with more force.  Then, with two hard strikes, he smashed the hinges.  This time, when he went to pull the top open, there was a loud crack.  The lid came off in two pieces, which he leaned against the wall.

All of a sudden I was filled with emotion.  I finally could see the contents of the chest, which had haunted me since I was a toddler and first understood that I had a dead sister.  Yet, at this point, I felt like something wasn’t right about this.  Like I was intruding in a time and place that belonged solely to my parents. 

Daddy could tell I was upset, and he hugged me.  “It will be alright, baby,” he told me in a gentle voice.

The first thing Momma pulled out was a doll wrapped in a pink receiving blanket.  She handed me the doll, which I had known was in there, because I collected dolls.  It was a composition doll dressed in a white christening outfit complete with a bonnet.  Unfortunately, it too was severely damaged from age and dampness.  Her face had a crackled appearance, and that disappointed me.  It was also sad.  Here was Susan’s doll, something she probably treasured, and it was ruined.

“Oh no!”  I exclaimed.  “It’s all messed up!”

“That’s too bad, “ replied Momma.  “We made a mistake by storing these things down there as long as we did.”

I carefully placed the doll on the kitchen table thinking that it probably had been Susan’s only doll.  Momma was 18 when Susan was born; Daddy was 21.  They were, by any standard, poor.  I came along when they were 39 and 42.  Daddy was a train master with Southern Railroad, and I had not had to do without at all.    In fact, I literally had hundreds of dolls that they had given me as birthday and Christmas gifts.  Every Christmas morning I walked into the living room to find at least 10 Madame Alexander dolls under the tree.  I caught myself feeling angry at my parents for not taking care of something so important.   It was definitely a day of mixed emotions.

Momma held up the receiving blanket.  “We brought her home from the hospital in this.  Remember Henry?”

“ Yes, of course I do.,  he responded.

Everything else in the chest was either in boxes or wrapped in newspaper.  We came across a few more toys that had been carefully placed inside.  One by one we unwrapped them and placed them on the table.  There was a miniature rocking horse, a little plastic clown, a ball, a little stuffed dog, and, of course, a teddy bear.  These looked worn, but not from the years in the basement.  It was easy to see that they had been played with a lot. 

I tried to imagine my sister playing with these toys.  They had called her black-eyed Susan.   I had seen many pictures of her.   Like me, she had eyes so dark that they appeared black.  But her head was covered in ringlets, whereas I had long, straight hair.  She also had an olive complexion, like Daddy.  I had Momma’s fair skin and freckles.

While I looked over Susan’s treasures, Momma and Daddy had started opening boxes. 

“I remember this one,” Momma said, holding up a tattered dress.  It was white with big red polka dots.  She handed it over to Daddy asking, “Do you remember it?”

“Yes,” Daddy said.  “I can almost see her in it now. “

I noticed that his face had softened into sadness since we had opened the chest.  Momma had been the one I was worried about; she had been so hesitant to open it.  Now Daddy was the sad one.    I think Momma had put more energy into dreading it than she had put into what we were finding.  Daddy, on the other hand, was sentimental, like me.  This was getting to him.

A small box contained her birth announcement; a newspaper from October 1, 1945, the day she was born; cards of congratulations; her birth certificate; her footprints from the hospital; and similar items.   It held all of the things that proved her existence.

“We need to put these in a fireproof box.”  Momma said.  “This box is falling apart anyway.”

“Yes,” replied Daddy.  He was only halfheartedly listening as he read through some of the cards. 

Finally, there was only one box left.  “Are you ready?”  Daddy asked Momma.

“I think so.  It has to be done,” she replied.

Daddy placed the crumbling cardboard box on the table and opened it.  I saw why they had waited to open this one and why they dreaded it so.  It contained all of the evidence of her death.  There were at least 50 sympathy cards.  A letter from their family doctor was mixed in with the cards, expressing his sorrow that he had not been able to save her.  Her obituary was in there, as well. 

Finally, Daddy pulled out a poem about little girls and began to read it aloud.  But his voice cracked and the tears came quickly.   Momma took it from him and read it silently.  Then she offered it to me. 

I waved it away.  I didn’t want to be sad.  Actually, I was feeling rather happy, even though I felt sorry for Momma and Daddy.  That afternoon they were reminded of what and of whom they had lost.  It was different for me.  For, in that same afternoon, I had gained something.  Susan was no longer this ghost-like figure or angel that seemed to be in my family’s midst all the time.  She was a real person to me.  She truly was my sister now.

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