When my mother passed away several years ago the only family she had left was my sister and I. It was incumbent upon us therefore, to sort through her life; keeping bits and pieces for ourselves, selling some parts to strangers at an estate sale and in galleries. We gave small mementos to many of her friends and donated whatever remained to charity.
I managed to keep both of the self portraits she had done, one she did in college (watercolor) and the other when she was in her 80’s (pen and ink with a sepia tone wash). I got some samples of her pottery and her textiles. My sister kept a couple of oil paintings, and a lot of the dishes she had made. She also laid claim to the big Hammett loom and my mom’s watercolor brush.*
In the course of cleaning and emptying, I came across a box tucked behind some framing in the attic and sealed with packing tape. It was bigger than a shoe box but smaller than a bread box. Scrawled across the top of the box, in my mom’s hand was the name, Beth.
After my mother and father got their divorce, my mother had entered into a string of relationships. None of them panned out very well for her but they kept her happy while they lasted. Beth was the first lover my mother took and they lasted almost seven years. I think that she and Beth truly loved one another, but Beth came with baggage that would eventually rend the bonds that tied them together. Beth had an ex-husband who was a cop. He had that cop machismo thing and couldn’t really accept the fact that his wife would leave him for another woman. She had three daughters in high school and a son who was unable to hold a job. He dabbled with drugs and loved alcohol more than anything else in the world. I hadn’t seen Beth in thirty years and here, in front of me, was a box with her name on it.
I carried it downstairs, set it on the counter in the otherwise empty kitchen and stared at it. My sister was finishing up in the basement and I debated calling her but decided not to. I used my pocket knife to cut the tape and looked inside the carton. I saw balled up newspapers, obviously packing material, dunnage. I dug through until I found a hand colored photograph of a woman in a thin silver frame, the kind with a prop so you could stand it on a table. The woman had curly dark hair, worn short, and she was dressed in an Army uniform with corporal’s stripes. There were a few unrecognizable medals over the left pocket. She held a rifle at port arms and wore a stern look on her face. I didn’t recognize her but knew it wasn’t Beth or my mother. I set it aside and dug deeper in the box.
The next thing I found was a clutch; I think that’s the right name for it. It was a small bag with a folded over top, held shut with a brass snap. The kind of thing a woman would have carried with an evening dress. It was intricately beaded with small gold, black, and green glass beads shaped like little tubes. The design was geometric and made me think of Frank Lloyd Wright. It contained only one thing: a dried up tube of lipstick. The bottom of the tube read ‘Crimson’. There was nothing else in the bag but there was more in the box.
I pulled out a Mark Twain novel with an inscription I couldn’t read, maybe Arabic or Farsi. I don’t know for sure. I found a single setting of silver flatware wrapped in a linen napkin. The initial ‘B’ was elaborately inscribed on the handles of each piece. The set consisted of knife, fork, spoon, dessert fork, and a coffee spoon. My mother’s maiden name was ‘Brock’. Was that what the ‘B’ stood for?
There were a few other things in the box, some jewelry, a bullet, a pair of white gloves, and a small silver box, wrapped tightly in newsprint that was shaped kind of like a three leaf clover. A silver tube, about two inches long, flared at one end and straight at the other hung from the stem of the clover leaf shaped container. It was attached with a delicate silver chain, about 6 inches long, and a clasp . The box contained an amber powder and was about half full. I touched my finger to my tongue, and dipped it in the powder. I tasted it – I knew that taste. I’d been in South East Asia. I’d been in Vietnam. It was Opium. Good stuff too. Pretty pure.
There are some things we are not meant to know or to ever find out. I repacked the box and hid it from my sister in the trunk of my car. I figured I should take it home until I could decide what to do with it – who I should tell about it. I keep putting off doing anything with it. Maybe I’m afraid of what I will learn. Maybe it was not even my mother’s box but Beth’s box. But if it’s Beth’s box, should I give it to her children? If it’s Beth’s, how can I explain the monogram on the silverware?
Who’s the woman soldier?
Who belongs with the formal clutch?
I’ve scanned the inscription from the book (Letters from the Earth, by the way). It should be simple enough to have it translated, but I haven’t. Not yet.
*Side note on the watercolor brush – My mother paid $23.00 for this brush in 1940 – it was very expensive but once she had it – it was the only watercolor brush she ever owned, or used.