The concept of family possesses so many different textures and has so many different sources. Its texture can be rough, gentle, comforting and sometimes brittle. Its source is like a river and we are tributaries springing from one Head River – not always seen or easily mapped. Recently my siblings gathered in Seattle to finally go through a cedar chest kept by my mother for over 60 years. My sister Claudia is in possession of the chest and she was anxious for everyone to go through the items, make their selections and then get the “junk” gone.
I couldn’t believe all the stuff my mother had kept in that chest, nor I could I believe the rich diversity of our family history I saw recorded. It included my mother’s 4th grade report card with signatures from Blanche Koch, my mother’s aunt. What was intriguing about the report card from 1935 was that it was issued in the midst of the depression and my mother and four of her siblings were living with their aunt because the family of 10 children was too much for my grandparents. They needed help. And, like so many other families of the depression era — children in large families were split up and shipped off to relatives to ease the burden.
Also inside the chest was the dress blues — the navy uniform worn by my father in the Second World War (WWII). Complete with his four year stripe and his rank of Chief Boatswain’s Mate, the uniform seemed so tiny that there was no way my father could have fit in that narrow bundle of wool. He did and we have pictures of him in that uniform. He was one good looking guy and my mother was one good looking woman. They had a difficult life compared to most of their post-WWII generation peers.
My dad ran through more business adventures succeeding and failing in rapid order that it felt like we were moving every two years or were run out of a house because some loan collector was coming after us. They did an amazing job shielding us from the pain of those experiences. They bore it all in stride and they never gave up on any of us or on themselves.
The pictures in the cedar chest unleashed memories, laughter, some quiet and sad moments as we trampled through their memorabilia. I was surprised to see that my mother had kept all the news articles where I was featured or editorials I had written. The fact that they were in that chest reaffirmed a pride in her son that she didn’t often give a voice to. I wanted to put my hand on her face and thank her for keeping all that “stuff.” Items in a gigantic cedar memory box that that she wanted to keep and it was evidence that she cherished them. A lot in the chest — none of us could figure out where or who it came from and why she would keep it. It was hard throwing those things away for fear we were throwing away a mystery or the key to an unsolved riddle of her past.
Now the kids were rummaging through their past dividing up the spoils of memories in the vain hope that our children might be interested. As the content of the chest was being divided among those with special interest in the specific contents, the texture of this family felt smooth and attached — strongly linked or bound to each other. Childhood smiles and the tight pen curls on Amarie’s hair or Ron’s dashing navy pictures looking as if he could conquer the world or the ladies that inhabited his world or Claudia’s rakish hair images and her loyalty to her mom as she cared for her in the last days of her life and Bill’s Mr. Universe pose flexing his 5 year old muscles that made us all laugh — all captured by Kodak. Some pictures in color most in black and white.
We have all taken different and divergent paths in our lives. But the source of the various tributaries that constitute the lives of a family is found in a cedar chest — free of moths and mold — kept tight in boxes of no distinction and now being opened to remind us — we all came from family. An amazing family with good hearts and a fierce determination to be the best we could be. Those messages are in that chest — you have to decode them from all the “stuff” but they are there.
Oh, what messages do I leave for my children, nieces and nephews and grandchildren? I think I am going to go buy a cedar chest and let them be surprised by the joy of discovering the source of their lives. They will realize that the texture of their lives — while rough and sometimes out of sync all come together in the source of our identities — the family. Ah, the smell of cedar!
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