It was nothing more than a homemade wooden box with a flat hinged lid. Pegged together of unpainted oak that had darkened over the years, it would have been big enough for a large child to hide in, not that any child ever did. With a cushion, it could have served as a window seat for the bedroom window it sat beneath, but no cushion ever graced its top. It was just a rough wooden chest, approximately three feet wide, two feet tall and perhaps eighteen or twenty inches deep and I would trade every piece of furniture in my house for it if I could.
The only time I ever saw the chest open, my grandfather sat in a chair beside it with a packet of letters balanced on his knee. I had not yet learned to read cursive, so those lines of ink on that page meant nothing to me as I leaned against his shoulder and saw tears in his eyes. He had always been sweetly sentimental and the stroke had left him even more so. He patted my face, then tucked the letter back into its envelope. In those days, my hair was so light that it turned silver in the summer sun. He brushed a strand of it away from my eyes and said, “I’ll show you something precious.”
His large workworn hands sorted through the packets and bundles in the chest and came up with another envelope. Inside was a lock of pale blond hair tied with a pink ribbon. “One of your mother’s baby curls,” he said.
More rummaging and he brought out some pictures. “Here’s what my sweetheart looked like when we first met.” I cannot remember the picture. She would have been sixteen, he would have been thirty and it was love at first sight. I never heard him call her anything except “Sweetheart” or “Miss Nellie.” She called him “Mr. Stephenson.” They adored each other. Although she would sometimes get impatient with him, I never heard him snap back.
That day, she followed me into the bedroom and he immediately looked guilty. “Oh, Mr. Stephenson,” she sighed. My grandmother always acted as if she was not sentimental at all, yet she was the one who had kept their love letters and she was the one who had saved that lock of my mother’s baby hair.
That chest held all the private mementos of their courtship and marriage, things too personal for the eyes of others. There was a photo album in the living room full of pictures taken in social situations, but the chest held that first picture of her as well as tintypes and small formal photographs of their parents and grandparents. They had never had much money, so there were no material treasures in that chest, just dozens of letters, their marriage certificate, the birth certificates of their two daughters, the death certificates of his two brothers and a sister, the handkerchief she had carried on their wedding day, some pressed flowers, the tangible record of their lives together.
My grandfather had been dead for almost a year when the house burned. Built of heart pine, it went up like an Olympic torch, sending clouds of black smoke swirling against the blue sky. Neighbors heard the iron bell ring and the smoke immediately told them what was happening. My grandmother was so distrait that she kept trying to get back into the house to save the only thing she could think of at that moment: the mattress on her her bed.
“Please, Miss Nellie,” one farmer said. “If you’ll stay here, I’ll go get your mattress.”
And he did. He went into that blazing house, into the bedroom, bundled up an old mattress that could have been replaced for less than fifty dollars and carried it out past a chest full of things that no amount of money could ever replace.