It doesn’t seem that long ago when most of our homes included a piece of furniture some called either a cedar or hope chest. These were initially designed in the 15th century as a dowry box to store items to be given to the first married daughter.
Many of ours used in the south were for storing blankets, sweaters, photo albums, and hidden secrets if you also used the lock. Every one of my relatives, as well as myself, owned this vital piece of furniture including my grandmother, aka, “Grandpa.” It was the name her first grandson bestowed her because he deemed her special.
Grandpa’s cedar chest was made of a golden mahogany veneer that matched her bed and dresser. Her bedrooms throughout her life were small, but she somehow expertly carved a space for her treasured piece.
I would often see her use the key to unlock the chest, throw something inside and quickly lock it back. When I was young, I wasn’t that curious about the contents because I usually was trying to rush her to go fishing or play Rook.
Once I was grown, my mother and I went for our usual visit. Grandpa was in her late 80s, lived in a small duplex in Tennessee, and was still full of fun and feistiness. We didn’t fish much anymore, but we sure had some great Scrabble matches and humorous discussions.
One afternoon Grandpa and Mama were in the bedroom talking, and I joined in. Grandpa’s old pocketbook was on the bed looking worn and abused. Once my mom noticed it, she said, “Let’s go shopping Mama and I will buy you a new purse!”
When I heard the word “shopping,” I quickly began putting on my shoes. Suddenly, Grandpa said, “Well, shoot Elizabeth, I think I have a new one in the chest!”
She retrieved the brass key from the drawer of her little dresser to unlock the chest. When she lifted the top, the mild scent of cedar wafted through the room. She rummaged through to the bottom and pulled up an elegant navy blue leather purse, lifting it high above her head. “See, I knew I had me a new pocketbook in here!” she happily declared.
For a moment Mom and I couldn’t close our mouths as she held the beautiful purse with the original tags still dangling from its strap. “Mama, where did you get that?”
“Oh, I am not sure Elizabeth, but I think it was a Christmas present years ago from your brother. I was holding on to it like I do all these things in this chest.”
Once she made that confession, we both jumped to look in the secret space where Grandpa had collected a stash of finery fit for a queen. Gifts of robes, gowns, sweaters, perfumes, wallets, and shawls.
I was so shocked I couldn’t say a word. However, my mother exclaimed, “Mama, why in the world have you not used these fantastic gifts? “Well, shoot, I was saving ‘um!”
“Mama, how long are you planning on living? You know the purse will last for years, plus these are items you need and can use now.”
With that my almost 90-year-old grandmother simply stated, “Well, I reckon you are right. I forgot that part!”
With that statement, my mouth finally started producing a laugh so loud that everyone joined in as Mama fell back on the bed in a howl.
We began to empty and organize the contents of the cedar chest with the hope that Grandpa would be able to live enough years to enjoy all those gifts she had been saving for that ambiguous “rainy day.”
Why do we assume we are going to live forever? Why do we forget “that part” of living? How many of us are like my grandmother and put away the fine things we are given to save for the uncertain future. How many of us store our dreams in a hope chest in our minds?
I say we should take the plastic off the sofas, use the fine china on the table along with the once-stored crystal pieces to hold good wine and elegant candles. I suggest we open our secret stashes of hopes and dreams to become realities today. Who knows what we might discover when we unlock the secret place where they reside?
When I leave this earth, my hope is I used up all my dreams, broke a few pieces of my fine china, and my last purse is worn and abused.
Grandpa lived another 10 years after we opened her secret box. In the end, the emptied mahogany hope chest held only our precious memories of her.
Lynn Walker Gendusa is an author and columnist who lives in Georgia. She can be reached through www.lynngendusa.com.