The Box – A Short Story
© Antique Mommy 2005-2013
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By Antique Mommy
Part One – The Box
I stood in my parent’s basement in front of my mother’s aging washing machine waiting on a load of laundry. Late morning light filtered in through a small rectangular window exposing specks of invisible dust hanging in the air and slowly tumbling like tiny astronauts. The machine shimmied like a hula dancer and then with a dramatic ka-klunk, it whirred to an abrupt stop.
I transferred the clumps of sodden clothes to the dryer, then took a panoramic look around the basement. The house is nearly 100 years old. My parents have lived here since they were married 52 years ago. A lot of stuff has passed through the doors of this house and our lives in that time and most of it had apparently ended up here.
I wandered over to the far corner of the basement to snoop around and see what of my things my mother had saved. Anonymous brown boxes were stacked upon and underneath the old kitchen table. A garment bag hung from a nail in the rafters and next to that, stood the dresser from my childhood bedroom.
Collectively, it composed an odd sort of still life arrangement, and in the absence of light, an eerie study in silent gray. A naked light bulb hung from the ceiling. I reached up and jerked the short chain sharply downward. Bright light invaded the space instantly changing everything from gray to medicine yellow. I squinted my eyes. A sleepy spider scurried away.
The boxes held no interest to me, and the garment bag? Prom dresses? Boy Scout uniforms? I didn’t want to know. But the dresser – the dresser caught my interest. Somewhere along the way, it had been painted blue. It looked small. And cheap. I remembered it being a much bigger and heavier piece of furniture – more substantial. I recalled standing on the pulls of the bottom drawer to reach the top. Which explained why some of the pulls were missing. I smiled thinking of how I have seen my son scale his dresser in the same way.
I tugged on a middle drawer with some anticipation, not knowing what I would find therein. That’s the fun thing about my mother’s house – every cabinet and drawer is a surprise, a grab bag, an odd collection of bizarre and unrelated items. The drawer scraped dryly and resisted my pull, unwilling to yield until finally it gave itself up and released, pushing me back on my heels.
Inside the stubborn drawer was not a collection of my childhood relics or anything familiar at all, but a yellowing vintage Christmas box that I had never seen before. I carefully lifted the old box from the drawer. It had a bit of weight to it. It smelled pleasantly old, like a book. I slowly and evenly lowered the fragile box to the floor as though it were a sleeping baby. And for reasons that I do not know, I patted it as though in blessing.
And then I knelt down on the cold cement floor to investigate.
Part Two – The Great Mystery of Ruth.
The earliest memory I have of my grandmother is going with my dad to visit her in her tiny two-bedroom cracker box house when I was about three-years-old.
She kept a small broom with a red wooden handle beside her copper colored stove. In the haze and swirl of cigarette smoke, I would pull it out and pretend to sweep her floor while she and Daddy sat at the kitchen table, talking and smoking Parliament cigarettes.
Even at that age, I was aware that she didn’t care for me – probably because she made little effort to hide it and because kids have radar for that kind of thing. She never once pulled me into her lap or hugged me or fussed over me as I had seen other grandmothers do. And when she did address me, she didn’t call me by my name, but Suzy-Q. And even though it wasn’t an endearment, I liked it. I liked it so much that I wished my name were Suzy-Q. It was a sorry substitute for genuine interest, but I would take what I could get.
She seemed to enjoy my two older brothers, and I was certain that I was more lovable than either of them, which made it all the more puzzling. I didn’t cry or lament over her lack of affection towards me, but it was a great mystery to me, one that I spent half of my life trying to solve.
Even given that, going to her house was not unpleasant. There were things there that were fascinating and mysterious. There was Grandpa Joe’s big bass fiddle, which stood tall and forbidden in the corner of the back bedroom. Grandpa Joe died when I was eight or nine and his giant fiddle was all the evidence of him that remained in the house. Sometimes I would slip off unnoticed and as the tides cannot resist the pull of the moon, my fingers were unable to resist the lure of the taut stings.
As delicately as one would pick lint off a baby’s sweater, I would ever so slightly pull a string and then release it. And oh the sound! Tuhmp! Tuhmp! Like big fat rain drops falling from the sky into a tin bucket.
But what I was most curious about at her house was a photograph of a familiar looking little girl in silver frame that she kept in the bookcase in the hallway. One time when I thought no one was watching, I reached in and pulled it out to have a closer look. I was lost in a study of her face when I felt the cold shadow of bitter fall across me. She was standing behind me. I was caught. I froze. “Put that back!” she hissed as she reached over my shoulder and snatched it away to her chest. “Do you have to touch every thing?”
Years later, I asked my mother what she knew about that little girl in the bookcase. She told me it was Daddy’s little sister, Janice. There had been a tragedy. She died when she was five. The end. No one ever mentioned it again and I was left to wonder about her all the more.
As hard as I tried, I could not imagine Ruth, with her hooded eyes and lemon lips, tenderly mothering the happy little girl in the picture, If that world ever existed, it had crumbled to dust, lifted in the wind and blown away.
When I was a teenager, I made a number of attempts to get to know Ruth and become her friend, but was always soundly rebuffed. I was given no entrance and no encouragement. I was the stray dog she wouldn’t feed. She wasn’t mad at me – if she were, that I could accept, that I could work on. But I was nothing to her and therefore, there was nothing that I could do. And that’s a sorry spot for a girl to be in.
I moved to Texas from the Midwest when I was 21 and I never saw or spoke to her again, even though she lived for another 25 years, well into her 90s, alone in her cracker box house with the stoic bass fiddle, the silent silver frame and the idle little broom.
In all those years, she never inquired of my well being or asked my dad how I was doing or what had become of me. There was no Christmas or birthday cards or condolences offered when I was widowed. Nothing. The regret for what could have been faded over time and was replaced by fresher regrets. And eventually, I just gave up trying to solve the great mystery of Ruth.
Until one summer morning in June, while waiting on a load of laundry in my parent’s dim and musty basement, I lifted the lid off the box that would change nothing, but explain everything.
Part Three – Four Pennies
In central Illinois, April is the most hopeful month of the year. The cruel and quiet of winter yields its gray sorrow to the color and noise of springtime as all of God’s creation stirs from its icy slumber and awakens to another season of life.
And after the long winter, the cool delicate spring air is intoxicating. It cleans the winter out of your head, making you believe that all is well with the world.
And so it was in April of 1940.
Overcome with spring fever, Ruth had spent Monday downtown shopping with money she didn’t have. She loved to shop. Shopping seemed to spackle over the hairline cracks in her heart where misery would sometimes well up and ooze out. Her own mother had died when she was nine, leaving Ruth and her six siblings behind. The older boys stayed behind to help with the farming, but she and two siblings were put in orphanages and the rest were farmed out to relatives.
Her father promised her that he would come back for her, that they would all be back together again as soon as he could arrange it. But he never did. She never saw any of them ever again more than a few times in her adult life. And so one day she rolled a stone across the entrance to her heart and put up a sign that ordered the world to Keep The Hell Out.
Ruth had lived most of her life in the cold blue shadows of loneliness. Marrying Joe had eased the daily sorrow. Yes, he drank too much and he wasn’t all that ambitious, and they didn’t have much and probably never would, but he made her laugh and he was steady, and for the first time since she was 9-years-old, she felt secure and loved and wanted. Finally. She had her own family now. She would never be alone again.
The store clerk waited patiently as Ruth first held up one tiny dress and then the other, trying to decide between the two. She recalled how the last time she had bought Janice a new dress, she had clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “Oh Mama! I will be the prettiest girl in town!”
“I’ll take them both,” Ruth told the clerk decisively and then she emptied her purse of everything but bus fare home and a few pennies. There was barely enough money for butter or eggs, let alone precious store-bought dresses, but she simply could not resist spoiling that little girl and neither could her husband, Joe. Especially Joe.
Where Ruth was serious and quiet, Joe was gregarious and outgoing. He was a Bavarian German who loved to party. He loved to drink beer, tell jokes and play cards. He also loved to play his bass fiddle with his buddies in a polka band down at the local tavern and in the dance halls. But more than anything else, he loved that little girl and the way she would dance and twirl when he played his fiddle for her. To him she was walking sunshine.
When Ruth returned home from shopping around 3:30 with the two dresses, she found Janice and her little friend Lois home from kindergarten and playing dolls in the house. She quickly stashed the two dresses behind the bedroom door to surprise her with after dinner.
Anxious to get dinner going and the kids out of the way, she opened the screen door to the backyard and called in 8-year-old Eddie and his friend Chuckie from the backyard. “Here is a penny for each of you kids,” she said opening her purse and handing her middle son the four pennies. “I want you to take your sister and your friends down to the store and get yourselves some candy,” she said. “You look out for your sister Eddie,” she added. “Now scram.”
And off they went, the four of them, running the entire block to the store.
She watched Janice run down the street, trying to keep up with her long-legged and lanky older brother and the other kids. Short brown curls bounced against an April blue sky. A crowd of laughing birds burst into the air like black confetti and then floated back down as they ran past. But Ruth did not see the birds. In the silver screen of her mind she was watching Janice’s eyes light up as she saw the dresses, watched her clap her hands with joy and twirl around and around the kitchen as Joe played his fiddle. All was well with the world.
When they were out of sight, she turned away from the door and set about making dinner.
But before dinner was on the table, her life and the lives of those not yet born, would be irrevocably changed.
Part Four – Dappled Sunlight
The screen door slammed and then slammed again as the four children tumbled out of the grocery store and into the late afternoon sun, each gripping small white waxy bags of candy. They stood in the dappled sunlight under the shade of an old Elm in front of the store, chattering and inspecting each other’s purchases before heading home.
Eddie and Chuckie walked ahead of the two younger girls. They were lost in a feverish and never-ending argument over who was better – Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. When they reached Grand Avenue, they waited for a break in the traffic before crossing the busy road.
The two boys loped quickly and easily across the two-lane street and continued unaware that the girls had not followed. Janice looked up from her bag of candy and saw that her brother had run ahead. Without looking right or left, she darted after him.
Lois instinctively reached out to stop her. She grabbed at the back of her skirt as it floated up, but it slipped through her fingers like water.
In a split second, the future spilled its secrets before her and she knew what was about to happen. She dropped her bag of candy and covered her face with her hands. She hunched her shoulders to her ears as though it were raining shards of glass and then braced herself for the sound that she would hear every night in her dreams for the rest of her life.
Tires yelped, resisting pavement. The air filled with the acrid smell of molten rubber. She felt like she was drowning. And then that indescribable sound — the sound of metal splitting flesh, bearing down upon bone.
Through her fingers, she saw the small form of her friend tumbling and rolling through the pale cloudless sky, her dress beautifully ruffling and waving like a flag. Neither flailing nor twisting nor opposing the beckoning fingers of gravity, she fell from the sky into a delicate heap in a shallow ditch beside the road. All the world fell silent except for the deafening hum of her own blood rushing and swirling in her ears. And then she screamed until all the breath and sound drained completely out of her.
Eddie and Chuckie were half way up the block when they heard Lois screaming. Girls scream all the time for nearly any reason, but this was different. They turned back to see Lois frozen on the other side of the road. Eddie saw his sister lying in the ditch in an odd pose, her leg unnaturally bent behind her. A man was scooping her up and putting her in his car.
He ran back to Grand as fast as he had ever run in his entire life. He thought his chest would explode. You look out for your sister Eddie he heard his mother say as he ran. The words played over and over in his head, like unending waves crashing on a beach. Look out for your sister Eddie.
Where was this man taking Janice? What had happened? The world had suddenly tilted and nothing made any sense.
As he watched the car speed away with his sister, Eddie spotted his sister’s shoe in the middle of Grand. He ran out into the street to retrieve it. Nearby, he saw her little bag of candy. It was flattened and stamped with the mark of a dirty tire. He picked it up, folded it neatly and shoved it in his pocket to give to her later.
And then he ran all the way home trying to imagine what he would tell his mother.
Part Five – Deus Misereatur
That evening Ruth and Joe returned home from the hospital feeling nothing but the ice-cold precision of shock that neatly excises the beating heart from the body.
Ruth was still wearing the house dress and flour-dusted apron she had on when she was preparing dinner for her family of five. The house smelled sour of soggy boiled potatoes, sitting untouched on the stove since that afternoon.
Eddie sat in the darkened living room suspended between two worlds. Since 4:30 that afternoon he had waited. He had watched the afternoon shadows slide across the room and then melt into puddles of gray. And now, even in the absence of light, his mother’s face told him what words could not.
Ruth walked past him to her bedroom without looking at him or bothering to turn on a light. She pulled the two new dresses from behind the door, clutched them to her chest and then lay down on her bed and waited for the tears that would not come.
Joe followed her and sat on the bed beside her. He stroked her hair and tried to comfort her. She pushed his hand away and then turned on her side with her back to him. Her rounded form reminded him of the hills in southern Illinois, worn down by the brutality of the ages.
He patted her hip. We’ll be okay was all he could think to say, so he said it over and over and over. And when he was no longer able to convince himself, he hung his head and began to sob until the ether of sorrow consumed him and carried him down the river of sleep where he played the fiddle while Janice danced and twirled under the glistening April moonlight.
Three days later, at 10am on the 11th day of April in 1940, Joe and Ruth laid Janice to rest in one of her new dresses. “You are the prettiest girl in town,” Ruth whispered in her ear as she looked at her daughter for the last time. “Mama and Papa love you.” A single tear slid down her nose and disappeared into brown curls. She lightly kissed her cheek, straightened and then turned away. In that moment, she returned the stone to the entrance of her heart where it stayed for the next 63 years. Once she had paused to allow in a glimmering beam of light and the world had betrayed her. She would not make that mistake again.
Eddie was the last of the immediate family to file past the small coffin. He paused and looked at his sleeping sister, still not fully understanding. I’m sorry I didn’t look after you better he prayed, feeling the full weight of the world on his bony eight-year-old shoulders. Then he pulled the little tattered bag of candy from his pocket and tucked it inside the casket. He made the sign of the cross and then followed his parents through the thick haze of incense and out into the blinding white light of day as the Father Bertran chanted Deus misereatur, Deus misereatur, Deus misereatur – Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
After the funeral, Ruth went home and gathered up her misery and stashed it away in an old Christmas box. Then she shoved it into the darkness under her bed and never opened it again.
Part Six – Revelation
“We are shaped as much by what we miss as what we have.” ~Amy Nathan
I intuitively knew as I knelt on the floor of my parent’s basement with my hand upon that old Christmas box, that the world I thought I knew and thought I understood, was about to change.
When I pulled away the lid, what I saw at first was not remarkable – documents, photos, letters, papers. I started to replace the lid and shove the box back into the darkness with the spiders, but something stopped me. Something was telling me that in these ordinary, unremarkable scraps of life there was something I should know, that they had been waiting for me, for just this day and just this moment. Just as the shadow of the lid fell across the box, something caught my eye. I pulled the lid off again and set it aside.
Sitting right on top was a birth certificate.
I held it at arm’s length to focus my eyes and then I read the name: Janice Ruth. I flashed upon the forbidden picture in the silver frame in Ruth’s hallway. I felt a thousand ants creeping up my spine. I realized what I had found.
Under the wash of the medicine yellow light, I put my hand up to the imprint of her tiny feet, the same little feet that would run off to the candy store one fateful April afternoon, five years later. Before the ink had dried on the parchment, the sands of the hourglass had already begun slipping away.
There was a fading picture of Ruth, 24-years-old, smiling and holding her infant daughter.
There was the tiny hospital bracelet that Janice wore after she entered this world on September 9th in 1934. I slipped it over two fingers and rubbed it against my cheek wanting to absorb something of her. There were crayon drawings on crumbling construction paper with Janice written across the top in childish scrawl, the capital letter J written backwards.
There were the fragile newspaper clippings, crisp and stained amber with time, that reported the tragedy. They gave a factual accounting of how Ruth had come home from shopping and given each of the children a penny for candy, how the two boys had run ahead, how Lois had tried to stop Janice from crossing the street, the name of the man who was driving the car, how he said he couldn’t stop in time, how he had rushed her to the hospital in his car, that she had been struck at 4:10 in the afternoon and pronounced dead at 5:30pm, that she never regained consciousness, that she had suffered a fractured skull, a broken leg and internal injuries.
The newspaper did not report that her mother never got to say goodbye. The newspaper did not report that everyone died a little bit that day — Ruth, Joe, Lois, Eddie, the man driving the car, his family, her kindergarten teacher and her classmates, everyone who knew Joe and Ruth and another little girl who wouldn’t be born for another 20 years. The newspaper did not report that never has a penny cost so much.
There was a funeral register that indicated nearly 200 people came to grieve with Joe and Ruth the day they buried their daughter. There was not a list of parents who grabbed their children and hugged them tighter and longer that day.
There was a letter from the Ursuline nuns, hand written in fancy cursive promising Joe and Ruth that they had given a little citizen to heaven who would be waiting for them there and praying for them. They did not tell Joe and Ruth how to go on living in the meantime.
There was a picture of the family taken at the graveside, as was the custom in those days. It was in that picture of Ruth, 29-years-old, standing near the grave with her hands folded helplessly in front of her and looking so small and pitiful, that I finally understood her.
In her expression I saw that it is possible to die yet go on living. And now that I am a mother myself, I honestly don’t know how she did it.
But beyond all of those things made of paper, what I found in the box that day was a story waiting 63 years to be told. And in the telling of the story I came to understand that Ruth was a woman who had been swallowed up by grief. That life had handed her a tiny teaspoon of joy only to snatch it away before she could taste it. All she knew to do was to hide her sorrow in a Christmas box and push it under the bed.
In the box I found that the shaping of me began long before I was born and that all of us are shaped as much by what we miss as what we have.
Ruth and Joe lived out their lives in the cracker box house, less than a block from where the tragedy occurred. At the age of 93, Ruth lay in a hospital bed dying. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she called not for her husband or her sons, but for Janice.