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My family doesn't have many heirlooms.  Not in the traditional sense of “objects of value held by a family for several generations.”  We have stories and legends and inside jokes.  We have loud laughs and good hugs and lots of scripture and poetry and axioms memorized and available at a moment's notice.  But when it comes to Great-Grandma's sterling or Sister's breakfront, you will have to look elsewhere.

When I moved into Sandhill I didn't have a lot of furniture.  I had been living in a mobile home for six years and the only thing I wanted to take with me from that what was my first grown-up home was a pine end table I'd bought on sale at Macy's. I bought a bed, a nightstand, and a couch from L.A. Waters Furniture and figured I'd fill the rest of the rooms as I found things I liked.

About the time I moved in, Mama suggested that I take her cedar chest.   She didn't give it to me, but, rather sheepishly, asked if I'd like to have it.   It had been the object of much covetousness as I grew up and was, on the rare occasion, allowed to go through its contents -- the wedding dress she didn't wear when she and Daddy decided to elope, the tiny yellow housecoat that had been mine as a baby, her high school scrapbook, and the blue satin-covered baby book in which she had written every milestone of the first six years of my life.

The story behind the chest was as fascinating to me as its contents.  Mama had purchased it when she was a working girl in Savannah and living at the YWCA.  After graduating from Collins High School, she'd left her tiny little for the big city of Savannah to take a job as a telephone operator with Southern Bell.   My favorite phone call stories were the ones involving lonely soldiers at Hunter Army Air Field who would ring up the operators just to have someone with whom to talk.

Once, when I was about 10 or 12, we were in Savannah and, for some bewildering reason, found ourselves walking down Whitaker Street after dark.  Mama pointed out the Y to me and told me how, when she worked the night shift, she had walked home alone, under the Spanish moss-draped trees, down the cracked sidewalks, past a funeral home.  I was amazed at her bravery.  I saw adventure and fearlessness in the woman in whom I'd only ever seen duty and protectiveness.  She had, amazingly, once been young and carefree.

She had also been imagining another life –  the life of wife and mother –  and toward that end she saved up enough money to buy a hope chest, a receptacle for her dreams, the very same Lane cedar chest that was such a treasure trove for the daughter she would one day have.  

So,  of course, I'd like to have it.  And in the back of Daddy's pick-up it made the very short journey from their house to mine, a testament to Mama's youth, a symbol of my adulthood.

Today the chest sits at the foot of the bed in Sandhill’s guest room.  It bears the smell of cedar, a stamp listing the patent numbers given to the Lane Company,  and a couple of short red Magic Marker strokes made by one of the many children who have knelt at the chest with paper and pen to draw a picture.  It holds the quilt made for me by Mama and Grannie, a crocheted bedspread that Mama started when I was a small child and finished when I was 35, the American flag jacket given to me when I was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch in 1996, and the quilt I started in college and which was finally completed by my friend Debra during the Covid lockdown.  

My mama’s chest (because it will never be fully mine) is scratched and faded and watermarked.  The strong cedar scent has faded.  The lid creaks loudly when I open it.  

Not long after Mama died, I went into the chest looking for something and found the Christmas tree skirt she had made for me my first Christmas in the mobile home.  As I unfolded it I felt a prick on my finger – an overlooked straight pin, Mama’s calling card.  

For all the months she had been gone, for all the years before that she had been going, she was palpably there.  Deeply present.  With me in a way I had not known before.

I laughed out loud.  And then I cried.  For Mama, for myself, and for the real heirlooms, the ones that lie folded in our hearts.

Copyright 2024

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