A Chest of Small Treasures

Written September 29, 2013

The cedar chest in the laundry room always was a mystery when I was growing up. I knew it was my mother’s, and that she had gotten it from her mother. I knew it held things precious to my mom, including the purse that my grandmother had taken to the hospital for her delivery, as well as photographs and memories from times long past and rarely discussed.

What I didn’t know was if the chest held family stories I needed to know, so once and for all I could separate what I recalled from the facts. This wasn’t tough to do on my father’s side because the Cooks were pretty much an open book. My paternal grandmother kept a diary for years and every scrap of correspondence — or so it seems — that she received in her lifetime. 

Last month, I cleaned out several boxes from my paternal grandparents and turned the items into a photo collage/visual story. When I went to Texas, I asked my mom if I could do the same with things from her family.

“It’s not a lot,” my mom said. “But we didn’t have a lot.”

That helped explain why I knew little about my mom’s childhood, except that her family stories often provided insights into how difficult it was. She spoke nostalgically but realistically about her early years, especially when she lived with her aunt and other family members while my grandfather was serving in World War II.

I knew next to nothing about my maternal grandmother, who died of complications from my mom’s birth 72 years ago. My grandfather, having remarried six years later, never discussed life with his high school sweetheart, even though just before his death he insisted on being buried next to her.

For some time, I’ve wanted to explore what was in that cedar chest, to see the items that were in my grandmother’s purse and look through pictures and letters. In the grand scheme, it was a minor mystery with no great revelations or secrets, just a broader understanding of the various people whose lives intersected at different points and brought me to the place where I am today.

What you see here are many of the chest's contents. There are pictures of my grandparents together and seemingly happy, although most are of such poor quality that you can only make out my grandmother’s general features. (It turns out that my daughter, Emma, looks a lot like her.) Most came from my grandmother’s scrapbook, but I also found some of my mom as a baby and little girl. Her first grade picture confirms that she was as frail as she has said over the years.

My grandmother’s childhood doll, now more than 100 years old, is there too, badly in need of repair. The clear plastic containers are small banks advertising Premier Ranger Motor Oil; my grandfather worked for the company for more than 40 years.

The real mystery for me, however, was what was in the purse, which had seldom been touched over the past 72 years. It was placed in the cedar chest and never emptied, kept the way it was when my grandmother went to the hospital to have my mom.

I opened it and slowly emptied the contents. Most was what you would expect: Tissues, lipstick, a small mirror, Lady Esther face powder, an empty change purse, handkerchiefs, and a pair of burgundy gloves.

What was unexpected was the folded piece of paper with the list of names and addresses. I opened it and several small cards fell out. They were birth announcements my grandmother never had the chance to write.