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It’s a child’s trunk, made more than a century ago, standing only 11 inches tall and 15 inches wide. But for my grandmother, it was big enough to contain the whole world.
From the outside, it looks like a treasure chest. On the inside, it’s packed with tiny compartments and decorated with ancient decals of flowers and plants. It was where my grandmother kept her most precious belongings when her life turned upside down.
Her name was Florence Breakey and she was 9 when her mother, my great-grandmother, died. When she was 11, her father, who had been overwhelmed trying to keep his family together, sent her to live with another family where she worked as a servant. Before she left home, she packed the tiny trunk, made for her by her uncle who was a furniture maker, with her mother’s earrings, hatpins and bracelets, as well as family letters, a prized doll and other things most precious to her from the life she had known.
And then she spent the rest of her life adding to it.
I am the keeper of it now, the latest of four generations of women, all mothers, connected across time in ways none of us could have imagined. It’s only now that I’m older that I’m beginning to understand all the secrets found within it.
A few months ago, I was looking through the trunk with my mom, Beth, now 88, who has fond memories of exploring the trunk with her mother on lazy afternoons. We came across two yellowed pieces of paper folded together that, somehow, I’d never opened before. Each only had a few words, but they were devastating.
One, dated May 28, 1891, is a receipt for “a child’s coffin and case” ($8) and a shroud ($1.50). The other is the death certificate for 3-year-old Laura King, my grandmother’s little sister.
I had known that my great-grandmother had lost a child, but I didn’t understand it then the way I do now —not since I lost a child of my own.
My firstborn son, Phoenix, died 12 years ago at the age of 7 months and 4 days. After all of this time, I can write the fact of his death. But I still can hardly fathom it. He woke one morning with a fever. Twelve hours later, he was dead from a rare strain of bacterial meningitis. We’ll never know where he got it, or why he died so quickly. For a long time, I tried to make sense of it by blaming myself and trying to figure out at what point I could have done something different and he would have lived. But some questions don’t have answers.
I don’t know how Laura died. But I know that she was deeply loved. I understand now how much by what my great-grandmother saved of her life, no matter how obscure. There is a matter-of-fact letter, written in the formal cursive of the time from A. Bretz of the London Life Insurance Co. that accompanied a $14 check, payment for Laura’s life. There is a photo of all four of her children together, likely the last one taken before Laura died. There’s a postcard with a pink rose that simply says the name “Laura” across the front.
I recognize the desire to hang on to any last thing that remained of the child who was your heart. After my son died, I asked friends and family so send me any photo that had him in it at all, even if it was just his foot. When no more memories are going to be created, we hang on to what we have left, no matter how small.
“Objects carry a story,” said Deborah J. Cohan, a sociologist and assistant professor at University of South Carolina Beaufort. She’s currently working on a book on the role objects play in our society and what we hang on to and what we let go of.
Today, many of us no longer make photo albums, choosing instead to post something quickly on social media that may disappear. And, there’s a mania around decluttering and simplifying your space, she noted.
But sometimes these family objects can tell you more about where you come from than a DNA test. It’s a way to connect with those no longer here.
“You think about how at one point they were holding a pen that touched that piece of paper however many years ago that you are now holding in your hand,” she said. “That’s an incredible thing you cannot get from a photo of Facebook.”
I thought about that when I held one of my grandmother’s most precious objects, kept in the top compartment of her trunk. It’s a metal dove, about four inches long, and it once lay on top of the casket of her stepson, Hector, who died in the 1918 flu pandemic when he was in the military and about to be sent to fight in World War I.
In another area is the folded christening gown she made for son, Abner, who later would become my beloved Uncle Bud. During the 1950s, Uncle Bud, so loved by children as an adult that neighborhood kids would knock on his door to ask if he could play, buried his only child, Nancy, after she died of pneumonia.
Looking through the trunk, I realized for the first time, that the last four generations of my family have all lost children. We are bonded in ways I never imagined.
It’s isolating to lose a child — the nightmare no one wants to think about. I wish I could have talked to my great-grandmother, my grandmother or my uncle, about it when my son died. But through this trunk, they talk to me.
“These objects are part of the thread of an ongoing human story,” said Cohan.
And here is one of the biggest secrets of the trunk, which I have come to understand. While tiny, it’s big enough to hold the whole of life. It’s not only about death and loss. It’s also survival and resiliency. It’s about joy and triumph. It’s packed with wedding invitations and photos of friends.
There’s a love letter from my great-grandmother to my great grandfather (“The days seem so long for the time to come to you,” she wrote when they were briefly apart). There are poems written by my grandmother, books of stories and prayers she saved, recipes and embroidery patterns for squares of the quilts my grandmother made each of her grandchildren. Recently we added a box that once contained the medicine my grandmother swears saved the life of my mother when she was a baby and had diphtheria, in those days before a vaccine.
The secret of the trunk is that joy and sadness can coexist, you can survive what you think you cannot survive. Despite loss, or maybe amplified because of loss, you hang on to joy wherever you can find it and love hard. And you pour that love out on to the next generation.
The trunk won’t stop with me, of course. Someday, it will belong to my sweet son, Gabriel, now 11, who likes to look through it with me, hearing the stories and marveling at the treasures. Maybe someday I’ll add the lock of Phoenix’s hair, along with the one from Gabriel’s first haircut, to the trunk.
Lately, I’ve taken to adding notes to it for him, like my mother did for me, about memories of those who came before. And maybe he’ll do it for his children, feeling the strength of those who came before him, reaching into the future.
Linda Dahlstrom Anderson is a writer and editor who lives in Seattle with her husband, Mike and her son, Gabriel. Follow her on Twitter: @Linda_Dahlstrom