The Treasure Chest
The old chest of drawers proved to be a treasure chest. It was a small piece of furniture, perhaps an old washstand, with three drawers. It sat in a storage unit for over a year, and when we bought a house with a garage, we moved it there, along with stacks of boxes filled with the remains of my mother's life. As everyone must do someday, my wife and I sorted out the heirlooms. But for the longest time I could not bear to disturb the chest, as if it slept.
This chest had held my mother's art supplies. She made her living as a greeting card artist. She began working in Kansas City, at age 16, for Hallmark Cards and over the years became known as one of the best free-lance greeting card artists.
I grew up watching her work. I would stand next to her art table and watch her hand move the brush expertly across the paper and then move to the right, to the chest, where she would dip it into blotches of paint or stir the brush loudly in an old fruit jar of water.
The paints and an airbrush and her heavy tape dispenser and her scissors were kept there. From time to time, the tape or the scissors would disappear, and she would call out irritated to her two boys to bring them back. But she never banned us from her desk. The squares of blotter paper she cut out were just right for our drawings, and our drawings littered the floor below the table.
Over the years, she covered the chest with layers of spilled paint and ink and tattooed it with cigarette burns. She was always leaving her cigarettes burning.
Not long ago, I decided that the time had come to go through the chest and refinish it and give it a new life. I sat on the garage floor and sorted through the treasures she had stashed there over the years. They were jumbled in time and space.
Among them …
A list of Ghostbuster action figures, written by my son Jason when he was in kindergarten.
A wallet-sized photograph of my father when he was in his 20s, very solemn and grown up.
An envelope postmarked September 1, 1931, 7 PM, with a grocery list written on it by my grandmother, preparing for my mother's seventh birthday party. "Large dice for Pauline. Roller skates, $1.17 … 15 gifts, 5 cents ea., two cakes. .50." Fifteen names were written on the envelope: Betty, Patsy, Bertha, Carl, Pet, Stanley…
A story recounting a family fish tale: "The gar the kid and the kid's brother. A true story by Jason F. Louv. Once upon a time there was a kid his name was Rich and his brother and once they were floating in the water behind the bote and the parents in the bote caught a gar it struggled they were scared they throt it off the bote the end."
A genealogy, in my mother's handwriting, of her family: "All were farmers except for one Herr, who was a lawyer. Only interesting fact was about Thomas Mifflin. He was a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary War . . . " The Streeters, she wrote, came "across the U.S. to Nebraska in covered wagons."
Bottles of ink, squeezed tubes of paint. An address book from the '50s. A letter my mother, as a little girl, wrote on lined notebook paper in tortured, just-learned cursive: "Dear Arthur. How are you? I am fine. I love you very much. Where were you Saturday and Sunday. I wanted to play with you. This is why I wanted to because I didn't have anybody to play with. Alice was gone to the lake and Marjorie went to her Grandmother's house to stay one month. And now I have no one to play with. Will you please tell me what grade you are in, Arthur. For the first time in school I am using ink..."
Blotter paper, tracing paper, nozzles to an airbrush.
Her husband's—my father's—death certificate.
A 1933 letter from my grandfather, who I never met because he died when my mother was 9 years old. He was a supervisor for Kansas City Southern railroad. The letter is to someone named Charlie: "Business is picking up a little and people are more hopeful—the railroads are doing some better especially in freight traffic—we're all wondering what will result from Roosevelt's proposed rail central plan . . ."
An old column of mine.
Stacks of roughs for my mother's greeting cards. Correspondence from the greeting card publishers. Deadlines set. Deadlines met. Lists of cards to do: "Madonna child, Lambs, Angel, Christ, Angel Head & Wings, Blue Sky, Profile Child, Santa on skis..."
A hand-drawn card from Jason to her: "We were meaning to tell you . . . you're a great grandma. Merry Christmas."
I finished sorting the contents of the chest and packed them into cardboard boxes, then dragged the chest to the middle of the garage. A neighbor came by. "That's very old," he said, inspecting the unfamiliar tongue and groove joints. It had originally been in my grandmother's house in Independence, Mo. I spent the next six hours bent over the chest, leaning into the grain.
Perhaps it was the noise from the electric sander, or the repetitive motion, or the concentration, but as I wore away the years, I heard my mother's voice. We talked all afternoon.
"Richy, your drawing is wonderful." A deep red stain was fading. "Have you seen my tape?" I heard her laughing. I heard her swear. "I don't like antiques. I like contemporary." She told me about my grandmother, and about my grandfather. The green lifted. "See what your brother's up to." Cigarette burns vanished. "Do it right or don't do it at all." I heard a sound like the ringing of a bell. It was my mother's brush in the old fruit jar.
Year after year, decade after decade, perhaps even a century, lifted from the wood. The sawdust began to smell fresher, newer, expectant.
I stood back and looked at the chest. A few of my mother's marks remained. I thought: Perhaps I have gone too far; I should have left more of her there.
I heard her say she was pleased.
The chest, now quiet, is in our family room.
It remains unfinished.
Richard Louv is the author of eight books, including "THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age," "LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," and "THE WEB OF LIFE" from which this piece is adapted. He is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.