Family Stories

Aunt Geraldine And The Mystery Box

Aunt Geraldine was actually my mother’s aunt which I suppose would make her my great aunt.  She’s always been one of those relatives I was never clear exactly how she fit into the family tree.

I believe Aunt Geraldine’s older sister mother, Aunt Fay, raised my mother’s baby sister after their mother died. And somehow they are related through Aunt Fay’s husband, who was a blood relative. Or not.  I’m not sure. I’m sure my mother the genealogist will send me an email shortly and straighten me out. For the 146th time.

I bring all this up because recently I was going through a box of old childhood treasures and I came across a fragile little antique book I have had since I was 9-years-old.

The book was a gift to a young girl named Julia from her Sunday school teacher, Addie F. Simpson and it is dated December 25th, 1875.  It is inscribed in that delicate old-fashioned cursive handwriting in sepia colored ink.  This little book is one of the very few things I own that I really care about, although I’m not certain why.   One summer, I spent a few days with Aunt Geraldine and she took me to a farm house auction where I bid on a wooden mystery box of assorted things and I won.   Inside that box was this little brown book.

Aunt Geraldine and her husband, Uncle Mario were of retirement age. They had no children of their own and therefore free to indulge their eccentricities.  They lived a tiny town in central Illinois with a population of about 200, most of which was related to my mother in one way or another.

Aunt Geraldine was a small-framed woman with soft but exacting speech. She had long gray hair that she kept in a bun, not in a severe school marm bun, but one that was always coming loose in messy wispy tendrils.  She wore wire-rimmed glasses and no make up and I don’t think I ever saw her in a pair of pants.  She had sparkling brown eyes and an especially tender heart for animals.

Her home was unkempt and not especially clean, but she had a dazzling collection of small jewel colored cut glass Cinderella slippers that she kept in her picture window that sparkled in the sunlight and her bathroom was usually occupied by an injured bird of some sort that she was nursing back to health or a litter of motherless kittens.  Her husband, Uncle Mario, was a tall and skinny Italian, also soft spoken and kindhearted and together they were a charming and delightful pair.

Aunt Geraldine had a deep and abiding love for antiques and Uncle Mario had a deep and abiding love for Aunt Geraldine.  Her hobby was going to flea markets and auctions to buy antiques and his hobby was accommodating her every whim and desire.

They bought so many antiques over the years that they eventually had to start buying houses to store them in.  They always imagined that they would refinish and restore them and maybe sell them, but they never did because they never got around to refinishing them and restoring them and moreover, because she could never bear to part with any of them.

When Aunt Geraldine died several years ago, she had a number of houses, sheds and barns that were stacked floor to ceiling with antiques, all at the mercy of the years and the  mice and all waiting for a second chance that never came.

I remember quite clearly the summer day we went to the auction.  I rode in the backseat of their car with the windows rolled down.  My hair whipped me in the face as we bumped down dusty gravel farm roads that zigged and zagged through a maze of cornfields. The air smelled sweet of hot earth and scorched corn.

When we got to the auction, we parked in a sea of cars and trucks on the lawn of a big white farm house with a wrap around front porch.  We went through the house and looked at all that was for sale.  Even though the house was filled with furnishings and all the stuff of living, it felt empty.  The farmhouse and all of its contents was to be disposed of that day, auctioned off to the highest bidder.

When the bidding started, the cadence of the auctioneer’s song was confusing to my ears. I wasn’t sure when to raise my hand.  I was timid and afraid I would buy a chair or a sofa or a tractor by mistake. Aunt Geraldine stood behind me and nudged my elbow.  I lost the first few things I bid on when they went for more than the $2 I had in my pocket.  No one but me wanted the mystery box and with the help of Aunt Geraldine, I won.

The book is now 134 years old. I’ve had it for the past 40 years.  I hope that long after I’m gone, Sean will treasure it as much as I do and keep it for his children.

But it could be that at some point, no one will care and all my stuff will be disposed of at auction and it will end up in a mystery box and in the hands of another little girl.




* * * *

Do you have a treasure with a story?

35 thoughts on “Aunt Geraldine And The Mystery Box

  1. I do. It was a rocking chair that my Great Aunt Kitty (she was such a character) had bought my Mom when she was pregnant with me. The seat had been refinished with a piece of leather originally it had been wicker. It had been painted so may times and you could only tell because the corners of the side rails had been chipped. I remember sitting in the chair for hours when I needed to be soothed. I had it until 1994. My ex-husband who was husband at the time wasn’t paying attention and creamed it one night after he shut off the lights and ‘forgot’ it was in the same place it had been for over a year. I was not able to salvage it but it will always be my rocking chair. My husband was mad because I was more upset about the chair than I was that he had bumped his head on the wall after he demolished the chair. Wow. I hadn’t thought about that chair or my Great Aunt Kitty in a very long time. I miss her. I have her love for cross word puzzles, her thirst for knowledge and her sense of humor – so I have been told. When she passed away, she left me her brass bed because I had told her once that I liked it. It was her only possession that she left to anyone. I miss her.

  2. Loved this story. It spoke to my heart that at such a young age you could appreciate that beautiful little book and think about who might have owned it and what they were like. I too hope Sean will treasure it. I love old books with their quaint illustrations and wordings.

  3. Beautiful post. You have inspired me to write about my paternal grandmother. When she died I inherited all of her stuff that wasn’t visibly “valuable”. However, this pile of left-overs is precious to me.

  4. My grandmother always loved antiques, she had a house full of them. I never appreciated them as a child; my belief was that modern was where it’s at, and old stuff was outmoded for a good reason.

    Years after she died, and as I grew older, I began developing an appreciation for antiques. Just a few years ago my mother surprised me by giving me a few of Grandma’s old things, in particular an old digital clock from the early 1940’s. Really, a digital clock. I was able to fix it with a soldering iron and a bobby pin when I was eleven, which pleased my grandmother to no end.

    I don’t keep it running now, but we do keep it dusted and displayed prominently.

    * * *
    I have an appreciation for antiques but I’ve never wanted a house full of them. Back when I did interior design my theory was that every design could be improved with one well chosen antique and one thing Oriental in flavor. ~AM

  5. Beautiful post – I always love to read your blog.

    I have an old tin box full of letters, postcards, bills and sermon notes on the backs of envelopes, which belonged to my grandparents.

    I also have a school exercise book written by my great grandmother in a very spidery, but neat, hand – it is dated 1882 and seems to be about the history of the english language.

  6. I had the glass syringe (without the needle) in a little tin box, that my grandmother had used when she was a nurse at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London. She was there in the 1920’s, and one year received a medal for being the best nurse in the hospital. She explained to me how the syringe and a needle had to be boiled in a steriliser between patients, and she taught me how to assemble the pieces. I loved it so much.

    I was playing with it, with a friend, and we broke it. I was heartbroken, and I confessed to my mother. We agreed that we wouldn’t confess to my grandmother. We mended it with some kind of medical tape, but I couldn’t play with it any more. I think there were sharp edges.

    I haven’t thought of that little syringe for years.

    * * *
    Oh that is a wonderful story, even though it broke my heart to know you broke the syringe. Life is kind of like that isn’t it, broken but still precious and meaningful. ~AM

  7. I love this story! I always wish I had more treasures that would remind me of my ancestors. But one thing I do have is an old blouse that was my great-grandmother’s. She is wearing it in a photo in 1898 where she is holding my grandmother as a baby. For many years, it was stuck in somebody’s rag basket. My mother discovered it, rescued it, and gave it to me. I really do treasure it!

    I also want to tell you how much I enjoy your blog! I’m working my way through your archives – I love the way you write. My favorite so far is the one about Mary Tyler Moore. Keep up the great work!

    JoLyn of Uphill Both Ways

  8. Loved the ENTIRE THING. . .but especially this line. . .”Aunt Geraldine had a deep and abiding love for antiques and Uncle Mario had a deep and abiding love for Aunt Geraldine.”

    And so. . .should your things someday get dispersed to the four winds, you need to make a copy of your lovely story and nestle it between the pages of the little book. Just in case.

  9. I have a thimble that was my grandmother’s. Long story short, she had a horrible childhood after her mother died and this is one of the only mementos from her mother’s side of the family. I pulled it out a couple of years ago to show my daughter and then promptly lost it. I searched all over our living room and bedroom. A few days later, it was right on the living room rug. I KNOW it wasn’t there before. I had even vaccuumed in the time it was lost. I truly believe she brought it back to me as a way to teach me to be more careful with my things. I just bought my daughter her first sewing machine and when she is old enough, I will let her use my precious thimble.
    Thank you for your stories. I love your blog!

  10. Oh yes, I have a story. I need to mull on the telling of it. I had lots of great aunts, and a number of great great aunts. Their names alone tell a rich tale: Noah, Mamie, Gypsy, Minnie, Bill, Frankie, Maude. Not an Ann among them. You’ve inspired me to record it. Thank you.

  11. There was a cookie jar on the counter at my grandma’s house throughout my childhood. It was in the shape of a dutchman and had matching dutch boy and girl salt and pepper shakers. I loved this set and admired it every time I visited my grandma. When she moved from her apartment to live in an assisted living complex, my dad came home one night after helping her pack with a package for me- the cookie jar set. My grandma said I always admired it so I may as well have it now. My dear grandma has been gone for many years but that set sits proudly on my kitchen counter. I still love it. Thanks for making me remember this story.

  12. Yet another reason I love reading you! Simply beautiful – what a great tribute, I feel like a little part of her is with me now 🙂

    I have a navy velvet clutch that I bought at a thrift store when I was in college. It had a matchbook from a 1940’s wedding, a tiny mirror and somehow housed all sorts of dreams. I could picture the dress I wanted to wear with it, and I hope to use it one day – I’ve had it for almost 20 years now. I seriously need to make the event happen, don’t I?!? Thanx for the reminder. And happy weekend with your sweeties!

  13. My Grandma was a quilter. She made many many quilts. Every grandchild (17 I think) had at least one. She made mine a bird quilt. Every state bird is embroidered and set in blocks of pink flowers. It is tied, not quilted and not lasting very well. I do treasure it. There are so many things that are gifts of love and triggers of memory. Thanks for inspiring me to dwell on a couple of the things and the love of the people connected to them.

  14. What a sweet little story, told so well as always. Thanks for sharing the pictures of your book. I’m sure it’s very rare!

    I have a locket of a black and white picture of me and my Dad together when I was about 1 year old. My mother gave it to me when I was getting married and I wore it on my wedding day since we eloped and Dad wasn’t there to give me away. I think it will grow even more special as time goes on.

  15. In my bay window resides a 65 year old teddy bear with threadbare fur and tattered ears. The bear has movable arms and legs and silver button eyes that are tarnished with age. I have had this bear for the past 20 years. My mom was cleaning out one of of her forgotten boxes from the attic, and discovered the musty, old bear. She handed it to me unceremoniously and said, “Here, this belonged to your dad when he was a baby.”

    I often look at that bear, and wonder about my father. He divorced my mother when I was 7.

    The bear doesn’t make me feel sadness or longing, rather it reminds me to be a better parent and grandparent than he ever was.

  16. When my grandparents moved into town from the farm in 1961, she wrapped her goblets in newspaper and put them in the cabinet over the sink. They had been gifts when she married in 1935. No money for fancy parties during the Depression, so they were always put away for a ‘special occasion’. When my grandmother died in 2001, I got those goblets. They were still wrapped in newspaper dated 1961. Never used. My family used them for communion last Christmas to give thanks to God for my grandparents and all they did for our family.

  17. I LOVED reading this!

    I went to an estate auction a few years ago and got a box of hand pieced quilt pieces waiting to be sewn together. It broke my heart that some sweet little lady worked so hard on those and no one cared about them.

    We have a couple of books that belonged to my husband’s grandfather. (Ready Answers to Religious Errors and Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ) He was a preacher and used to conduct debates on radio programs. The books are tattered and worn with many of his notes scrawled in the margins. Treasures!

  18. I have many treasures from several different ancestors. From my great great grandma on my moms’ dad’s side there is a dutch doll quilt that was made for my Grandma and Granddad when they got married.
    On my dads side I got a bunch of treasures because noone else cared…I couldnt bear them to be lost so my house is crammed with some of it…but my favorite is a Needlepoint Bell Pull. I know my dads mom made it, and it was likely in the 60’s because its in every picture i have ever seen of her last home which was built in 63. The thing is its a creamy yellow background with white roses and blue ribbons…totally my favorite colors, flowers, ribbons, etc…she did beautiful handiwork and she “signed” her name into the bottom of the pull. The bell hangs on the wall and there is a spring to attach the bell to the pull…its fragile and it means the world to me so it remains hidden from my children for now….
    we have letters from my dads great great grandfather to his father during the civil war.
    i am totally the history buff and the one who feels the need to be connected with it so i am terribly thankful to be the one who wound up with many of these things.

  19. More later but I love your mother the genealogist. She sets me straight a lot. Funny how I got most of my stories mixed up. Yes, when I contact my siblings your mom is right. Joni

  20. Thanks for sharing your well written story of your treasure.

    My treasure is an old bible passed down through my father’s family. My father was an old romantic soul who knew how to tell the stories of our ancestors in a way that brought them back to life. He would bring out this old bible and tell the story of how it was buried in Scotland in the 1600’s during the time of Charles I when he tried to make everyone use the English Prayer Book.

    This bible looks like it has been buried in the ground. At some time someone used what appears to be part of a ladies leather glove to repair the spine. A note pencilled in my great(great?) grandmother Ferguson’s handwriting states that the bible is possibly 250 years old and that it was buried in the ground so that it might be preserved during the Inquisition. Now it is 400 years old. I hold it in my hands and think of the women(I always picture women)in my family that opened its pages and read the beautiful Psalms in the Scottish metre.

    This bible and a few of his paintings were the only things I really wanted after my father died. Thankfully, the rest of my family were generous and let me be the keeper of this family treaure.

  21. My grandfather was a teacher in one-room schoolhouses in Northwestern Wisconsin in the 1930’s… He loved literature & antiques. He was an avid auction-goer when I was a child, and when I was older, he was on the board of directors for our county’s Historica Society & donated many of the items that sit in the museum in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. I now live in Michigan, but last summer my family travelled to my hometown and stayed in my grandparent’s house (it’s not a home anymore, Grandpa passed away 2 1/2 years ago, and Grandma is in a nursing home). While I was there, I was able to puruse some of the things left that had not gone to other relatives or auction. I found a stash of old school books on a shelf in a back bedroom that Grandpa had collected. Old McGuffy’s readers, books of poetry, math books, etc. I stashed them all in a box & brought them home. I am feeling really guilty right now because they’re still in that cardboard box in the bottom of my closet. I need to get them out, dust them off, look through them again, then put them in a place of honor on a bookshelf in our library. Thanks for reminding me of that. They are to be treasured, not tossed and forgotten!

  22. My parents were living at my Grand parents,when I was born in an old run down farm, no electric or gas, water from a pump in the garden, and the loo was a bucket down the yard. I can remember visiting them as a child, and the oil lamp being lit and placed in the centre of the table, on dark evenings. We would all sit round the table, to make the most of the light. My mother inherited the lamp, and a few years ago it came to me. I understand it had belonged to my great grand parents, and it has VR on the base, meaning it is Victorian. It is plain with a brass base and white glass shade, but I love it, dispite having to clean it, as it takes me back to my childhood.

  23. One of my childhood treasures looks like a wooden carving, but is actually something that seems to be a cross between molded hard plastic and ceramic. It’s a dark brown, three-dimensional plaque of a small boy, sitting on a bench, one foot propped up, reading a book. It was old when it was given to me by a bachelor friend of my dad’s, for what reason I don’t know, over 50 years ago. I can’t say even now what it was that appealed to me so much that I always have displayed it wherever I have lived. I think it seemed an old and therefore special and somehow grownup posession, entrusted to me as a young girl, and I have always loved books and reading. I doubt, when I am gone, that anyone will give it a second look, but when I received it I felt I had received a real treasure, and it always brings back fond memories of my childhood.

  24. I had a little children’s book, ‘Mr. Bear Goes to Boston,’ that I had when I was little and who knows for what tidying up reason, I put it up for sale on last year. When I got the email saying it had sold, I started to weep and my husband came into the room and I blubbered, ‘I sold ‘Mr. Bear Goes to Boston!!!’ Turns out that I had more feelings wrapped up in that little book than I thought. I was able to cancel the sale…

  25. My grandmother had a green box with a hinged lid in which she kept tiny treasures. I would love to take them out and look at them – a miniature green marbled pen and pencil set, a little porcelain doll with no arms (I have known the name of this type doll, but it escapes me), some old wire-framed glasses, “fool’s gold” from trips “out west,” and other odds and ends. She always told me I could have these one day, and when she died, I found the box. The little doll was no longer in, but the other things were. The box itself was one from WWII that held a gas mask. Perhaps it had been her son’s or a nephew’s. She never said. She treasured them, though, because I had to wait till I was grown and she was gone before her promise to me came to pass. Other treasures that survived the years are two pictures of a lady and a gentleman’s silhouettes. The glass on the pictures is convex. I remember them hanging on her living room wall and I was fortunate to find these years later, also after she had died. Precious memories…

  26. I’m still picturing those gorgeous little jeweled slippers–how they must have captured the attention.

    I have some of my grandmother’s costume jewlery that I still treasure.

  27. The treasure in our garage is a 1939 table saw that belonged to my husband’s Papa. I just asked my husband to tell me about it (again) and his eyes lit up at the opportunity. He spent every Saturday at Grandma and Papa’s until he had to rotate turns with younger siblings. Grandma would make him a pancake the size of his plate. Then he and Papa would clean the workshop that was behind the house by the alley. All kinds of wood in the workshop made it smell good. Then they would often make things like “what-not” shelves with that old saw. The “what-not” shelves became treasure- holders for all of the “what-nots” from the grandkids.

    We treasure your writing and your ability to stir up our thoughts and feelings.

  28. My treasure is a quilt my grandmother made. If I put my face in that quilt, I can still smell her home and her. I love to touch that quilt, because her sweet hands sewed every stitch.

    Thanks for reminding me of my treasure.

  29. When my grandmother’s health started failing and she just wanted to, “Go home to be with Jesus”, she started giving her special things away to us grandkids. She even would take a piece of masking tape and write someone’s name on it and stick it to the bottom of items so she could remember who she wanted to give them to. Her antique metal supply cabinet from her laundry room is now in my laundry room. I use her antique stainless steel bread box every day as well as her stainless steel canisters. I cannot bring myself to use her hand towels with the days of the week hand embroidered on them. Probably one of my most treasured items is the huge family bible still in it’s original box that grandpa used to read the Christmas story from. Grandpa’s been gone for 20 years now and grandma for 8 years this month. My two older children never knew grandpa but they remember grandma. I didn’t find out I was pregnant with my youngest until two days after grandma’s funeral. He only knows her by the stories from his brother and sister. Man, I miss her!

  30. Lest you think me a pack rat (okay, I confess, I am one), I’ll share just a few of my treasures with a bit of their stories. I come from a long line of sentimental story tellers, so blame it on them!

    I have the mantle Nativity scene that was purchased for my grandfather’s first Christmas in 1908 complete with my great-grandmother’s handwritten instructions for displaying it. I have four costumes my great-grandmother made for my dad’s dance recitals when he was a tiny little guy. The rocking chair that my mom cut her first tooth on as she rested on the shoulder of her mother is in my guest room. A handkerchief embroidered with her new initials that was given to my great-grandmother (other side) by her new mother-in-law when she married in 1899 rests in my bureau. Half of a collection (my sister has the other half) of hundreds of tiny shoes and pitchers from all over the world that my great-grandma collected and displayed in her dining room is in a barrister’s cabinet of my grandmothers in my guestroom. She numbered and cataloged each item, where it came from, who gave it to her, etc. Have the catalog, too!

    There’s more, but I fear judgment if I keep typing! 😉

    I loved this post. It took me down Memory Lane, and I do love my visits there!

  31. oh my. I have so many treasures I am not sure where to start. I can start with the largest of them all, my piano. My grandmother bought this piano old, years ago and refinished it. It is now severely out of tune, but I have had it over 23 years. I learned to play on it as a little girl. And my poor husband has to move it each time we move. I also have and old White pedal sewing machine. It was my great grandmothers, and my mother inherited it when my great grandparents home went up for auction. When mom died and later dad remarried he gave it to me. It is a beautiful machine, but I don’t know if it works. My mother as a child used to sit at it and make barbie clothes when she visited her grandparents.

    One thing I tend to get is my great grandmothers old jewelry boxes. I have jewelry boxes of two of my great grandma’s with only costume jewelry, but also with a name tag in one from when grandma worked as a waitress, her husband had passed and she still had small children at home on the farm, so she waited tables also to help make ends meet. I love that plain little name tag. I have jewelry of my grandmothers also, she passed when I was a baby, mom had the jewelry and I later got it, but the most precious piece is my grandmothers wedding ring. Never has it been resized. My mother wore it for 15 years after she married my father, because he did not have the funds to purchase a ring at the time of their wedding. Shortly before I turned 18 my father bought my mom and amazing ring. And my mom put Grandma’s back for me. She had promised my grandfather that she would only “borrow” it for a while, but he told her as soon as I was old enough he wanted me to have it. I knew someday it would be mine, but it never bothered me to see it on moms finger, an I think she loved it also. That ring has fit all three generations and never been sized….

    I have other things, quilts, family members bibles, my grandma’s bible that was given to her at the age of nine, by her grandma. Scrap books my great grandma made dating back to the early 1900’s with clippings dating from before her birth. And a batch of old recipes, that noone could read so they gave them to me. All of these are precious to me. And I cherish them. They tell a little about my ancestors and their lives, what a blessing to be gifted with these things and to be able to share them with my children.

  32. I have a book that belonged to my grandfather. It is called “A Golden Month with Shakespeare” and it was a gift to him from his teacher and it is inscribed in that old-fashioned handwriting you described, with his name and the teacher’s name and dated May 10, 1912.
    The cover is falling off, but I still treasure that book. My grandfather has been gone for 25 years, but I am glad to have this book that was his.
    I also have a cookbook that belonged to my grandmother, in which she wrote in the margins the changes she had made to certain recipes or other remarks, such as, “This recipe is no good!!” I treasure that cookbook and the memory of my grandmother’s delicious cooking.

  33. Oh boy do I have an Antiques Roadshow story for you. My Dad left me his guitar, an old Martin guitar. After it had sat in the basement for about 10 years – near the water heater even! A friend of ours talked us into getting it appraised. We found out it was worth forty THOUSAND dollars – seriously!

    I’m no dummy, I sold it on the spot and that money paid off all our bills, bought the car I’m still driving, and paid for a nice vacation. I’d like to think my Dad would have been so pleased! I would have been a nervous wreck to have had it in the house for one more minute. I do wish I’d thought to get a picture of it though.

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