Updated: Jun 21, 2022
A box can hold more than a thing. A box can hold memories. It can hold sweetness and anger and despair and love and heartbreak. Sometimes it can hold all of them at once.
It was 1986. My father was ambulatory, but he had lost connection with the world most of the rest of us inhabited. He would die within a couple of years of the Alzheimer's curse that had started noticeably affecting him 10 years prior. He was restless and angry and anxious and confused and totally dependent on my mother. But he could move about and sometimes roamed from room to room. It was a sunless day in December when he wandered out into the living room and stood in front of the whatnot.
A whatnot is a piece of furniture, an open, decorative cabinet of sorts. They were common in the homes of women of my mother and grandmother's generation. On them they would display their 'pretties', objects that they had collected or had been handed down to them. There were often figurines, statues, china plates, painted vases—things that they treasured. Things that they were proud to own. Things that gave them pleasure to look at and to sometimes just pick up and hold.
In my mother's case they were objects that had been gifted to her, things that had been passed on to her. They were 'keepsakes', things left in her protective custody. It was then her duty to pass them on down the line. To the rest of us who came after.
That's the way it was done back then. Things that had belonged to our fore-bearers, our ancestors, were part of the lineage. They were artifacts, relics that physically connected us to previous generations from previous centuries. In that era, which wasn't that long ago, things had value beyond market value. Some things linked us to our history, had stories to tell. They had heart value as well.
We are not sure why, of course, but my father approached the whatnot, took hold of it and began violently shaking it. Though he had little strength, it was a light piece, and everything on it began tumbling to the floor. Piece upon piece, treasure upon treasure. They were fine and delicate things, fragile works of art. And none survived the fall.
My mother was in the kitchen and heard the commotion. She heard glass breaking, the soft tinkle of delicate china shattering, continuing one after the other. She turned the corner to find my father with his hands on the whatnot and all her lovelies in pieces, her legacies, her most treasured inheritances shattered in thousands of pieces on the floor.
It is hard to express what she felt at that moment. As she rushed to take hold of her husband of all those years, as she held this bony old man, as she stood over the shards and fragments and headless figurines of a lifetime collection. It is not within me to really grasp or describe. Even if I could comprehend it, I could not express her grief or her sorrow. I could not describe that moment of helplessness. There could be no anger at a man who had lost his capacity to think and reason. There could only be disappointment. There could only be the realization of emptiness, of loss. The loss of a past. The loss of a future. It is true that no one had died. But in some ways, some Thing had become irrecoverable. It was a kind of death.
My mother over the years developed a custom of dating and writing on boxes as she stored things away. For example, each year as she put the Christmas decorations away, as she wrapped and stored the Nativity figures, she would write a brief overview of the Christmas holiday—who was home, when they got there, how they were doing. “January 16, 1986. Kenny and Diana came Christmas night 1986—to backdoor singing carols. Soon announced that this time next year—God willing—there would be another Haydon with us. How happy that made us!! It made my Christmas!!!”
If someone had troubles, she would write her prayer for them on the box. “Thank goodness God allowed the sun to come out from behind the clouds on Tuesday, January 10. Mary Lou is OK. No surgery!! Thank you one more time for your favor!!!”
I pulled one of those boxes from the shelf the other day. In black magic marker on the outside of the box, my mother had clearly printed--“THIS CAN NOT BE MENDED. JUST A BROKEN MEMORY OF ALMOST 60 YEARS. I HAD TO KEEP IT!!!!!”
I had of course seen this box many times before but had never been brave enough to open it. There were inside, I knew, remnants of a small family tragedy from December 1986. There were artifacts in that simple box that I would not know what to do with.
On the top of the box was a note I had not seen before. Written in blurred, cursive red ink were more words that I did not know what to do with:
“This was the first Christmas present Joe ever gave me. 1928 or 1929. I loved it all through the years and took care of it with love. It was my treasure—I never saw another like it. Just a week before, I had looked at it and thought how perfect it still was. It had survived as Joe and I had. Perfume bottle, lipstick holder, rouge and powder containers in a pink, depressions glass case. Not a crack or a chip. It was broken December 13, 1986. I cried—quietly!! A part of me was broken. A part of me had disintegrated and so had Joe!”
It was an extravagant gift in the middle of the Depression. Meant to impress and endear and express a lifetime of proposed love. As she so clearly had interpreted it. They married 2 years later. And now what remained of that gift, that expression of love, were five jagged, unconnected fragments.
I knew this story of course. I had heard it over the phone days after it happened and one more time after that. It remained painful for her. She dutifully saved all of the shards and chunks and pieces and chips and wrapped them as if they had never been broken, as if she was protecting them from further harm.
Diana had heard the story too. And she had seen the sad remains of my mother's treasures. But she is an artist. And artists see things from different perspectives. To her, broken china is meant to be part of a collage. Shattered figurines are pieces of aggregate art. Fractured vases are reusable and beautiful in their own right. She uses memories to create things memorable. Many disparate parts make a new whole.
For my mother, this was a kind of redemption. This was a fine and wonderful solution. This was renewal, a proud new story to value and tell.
For my part, I fix things. I have some skills in that area, mostly patience and persistence. So St. Joseph has his head back. And Little Bo Peep is reconnected to her porcelain sheep.
And the depression glass case is in one piece again. Though it will always be a broken thing, an object repaired, it is recognizable as an extravagant gift and a measure of endearment. Though it has no market value, it is reborn in a sense. It tells a grand story and retains its full heart value.