The Hope Chest

 

As far back as I could remember it had been there. For years it occupied the area at the foot of momma and poppa’s bed, before the remodel banished it up to sit in the attic with all the creepy crawlies and dust that drove my allergies into a frenzy. Momma always called it her “Hope Chest” although I wasn’t sure what that meant. It was a beautiful thing, dark wood with brass fittings, a giant trunk that had played quite a few roles in the imagination of my childhood. A pirate’s treasure chest filled with booty, as I fought of the swashbucklers with my little wooden school ruler that had magically become a mighty cutlass. After a night spent with my dearest friend from school, watching scary movies, it became the sleeping place of some horrid vampire looking to feed in the darkness of the night or the mummy’s resting place, come back to life to seek out his revenge. In reality I knew it was momma’s own chest of treasures, and she kept it locked up tight. So I knew there had to be something truly dazzling hidden inside. I remember when I finally got access to the contents of that mysterious trunk. I was six, it was a rainy day, and I had come home from school with a cold so wasn’t allowed to play. Growing restless trapped inside, Momma found me as I lay face down on the sofa close to death from boredom.

“Adelaide, sweetie, being stuck inside isn’t so terrible is it?” momma cooed like she was trying to draw out a frightened animal hiding in a burrow.

“Oh, momma, there is nothing to do. Nothing at all.” Arose my muffled protest through the floral pattern of the couch.

“Come with me silly girl” taking me by the hand she led me into her room and that is when she pulled, out of its hiding place in her pocket a tiny brass key. I recognized it as the key to the trunk. As we knelt down in front of Momma’s Hope Chest she explained to me what a Hope Chest was.

“See, Adelaide sweetie, when a girl reaches a certain age she is given a special chest like this one to store away things in the hopes of one day becoming a wife.” Momma explained.

“You mean get married?! To a BOY?! That is so gross!” I bawled in protest.

“One day, all too soon, you won’t think boys are gross honey.” Momma laughed as she slid the key into the lock.

“You will eventually find a boy that isn’t gross and you will want to start a life with him.” She explained. “When you get older we will start saving important things for that time.”

Opening the lid with a screech and let me see the “treasures” inside. As I peered over the edge excited to finally get to see the doubloons and jewels I was deflated to see it was full of nothing shiny and fabulous. Some rotten scallywag had gotten to the treasure and spirited it away leaving the chest filled with a bunch of old blankets and linens. There was however in the bottom, a pretty quilt that I had never seen before. Hand sewn pieces of yellow fabric with delicate little flowers. This was all the treasure the chest held. This is when I lost my interest in that massive wood chest.

I hardly noticed when the trunk was banished to the attic. The time of playing at being the mightily monster hunter fighting off all manner of chilling creature or a pirate princess guarding my treasure had long gone. My attention had turned to the silly things that occupy the mind of the teenage girl. I once overheard momma on the phone tell Aunt Nadine that I was Boy Crazy. Life was about what girl had a crush on which boy and who had been kissed by who behind the gymnasium.

Life moved on and I was busy with growing up. Anxiously awaiting my Sweet Sixteen I imagined of the incredible things to come in my life. It was just a week before my birthday when momma called me up to the attic to help her with something. I hated the attic, it was dark, dirty and creepy, but I had to do what momma asked.  So I reluctantly trudged up the stairs wound my way through boxes of Christmas bobbles and crates of Halloween decor to find her standing over the trunk that I had long forgot. It looked the same as I remembered just coated with years’ worth of dust and cobwebs.

“Remember this old thing?” she asked as she ran her hand over the top of the chest, sweeping away some of the grime.

“When you were little you were fascinated with it. Now it is time that it is yours.”

I was astonished. I knew that it had been in the family for a long time, it had been my Grandmothers and her mother’s before that but I really never thought about it one day being mine.

“Really? Do you mean I get to have one of those Hope Chest thingies like you and Aunt Nadine and Aunt Kathleen all had growing up?”

“Yes, this very chest was actually used by all of us and now it will be yours.”

She again produced the delicate little brass key from her pocket and opened the chest. In the dim light of the attic I could see the chest held only one thing inside its depths. A beautiful hand sewn quilt of yellow florals.

“Oh, I remember seeing this quilt before, it is so pretty, why have you always kept it in here momma?” I prodded.

Momma ran her hands over the fabric and I could see some sadness in her eyes. As she lifted it up out of the chest. My curiosity grew, there had to be a reason this blanket had been buried away like this.

“You are old enough to know the reason why we don’t visit your Aunt Kathleen often, I suppose.” She almost whispered, “Having sisters can be a difficult thing, especially when one is selfish and rotten.”

We sat together on the closed lid of the trunk with the lovely quilt across our laps as momma told me the story of why she didn’t get along with her oldest sister with tears in her eyes.

“Grandma Aileen’s first baby was your aunt Kathleen. From the time she was a born she was a needy little thing, always demanding all of the attention. When she was three aunt Nadine was born, Kathleen began throwing temper tantrums every time Nadine was given any attention. In another three years down the road I was born. My mother named me after her childhood best friend Isabelle. Kathleen continued acting out and even hurt Nadine on several occasions. There were even several trips to the doctor for various injuries over the years.” She absentmindedly rubbed her left wrist as she said this.

“So anyhow, growing up Nadine and I kept to ourselves as much as possible. I think that knowing how devious Kathleen was capable of being made Nadine want to protect me and made us so close.”

I sat there shocked, I knew mom didn’t get along with her oldest sister but I didn’t realize that Aunt Kathleen had been so mean.

Mom continued “When Kathleen turned sixteen she was given the wooden trunk from our parent’s room to start her own hope chest, and our grandmother gave her a hand sewn quilt in light greens and oranges that were Kathleen’s favorite colors at the time.”

I wrinkled my nose up at the thought of a green and orange bedroom.  Mom saw this out of the corner of her eye and giggled a little. “I know, I know, the great popular colors of the Sixties.”

“Kathleen was so proud of her quilt, she was always taking it out of the trunk to look at it. I think she was almost showing off, rubbing it in our faces. She would lay it across her bed and tell us how it was made special just for her by Grandma Gallagher. When one of us tried to touch it she would slap us. She was always finding reasons to pinch or slap us. Nadine and I both hoped that she would marry and move away soon. Luckily, she did, at nineteen. She had gotten herself in “trouble” according to my parents. I really had no idea what that could possibly mean. I just knew she was out of the house.” Mom sighed and I got an idea of the relief she felt when her mean sister moved out.

“Just as Nadine was about to turn sixteen the contents of the chest went to Kathleen’s new home and the chest was handed down to her to use as her own hope chest. Nadine knew that Grandma Gallagher had been busy sewing her a beautiful quilt of her own to place inside the chest and she couldn’t wait to see it. Grandma’s quilts were always so lovely. Then the week before her birthday mom took Kathleen with her to visit Grandma who lived down south from us, and promised to bring back Nadine’s quilt with them. Of course we were not pleased that mom was taking just Kathleen on the trip. I remember how I felt extremely left out yet again. It had always been that way though, Kathleen was always running us off so she could have mom to herself. Now I know that Kathleen wanted to go alone to tell our Grandmother about the baby she was expecting. It was years before I understood that was the “trouble” she had gotten into.”

Mom and I both giggled a little about that, I knew what that kind of being in “trouble” meant.

“The day they returned from the trip Nadine was so excited. Even I was a bit excited. Nadine couldn’t wait to see it, the quilt she had been anxiously waiting for was finally within her grasp. It was all she had talked about for a week. Mom dropped Kathleen off at her own house and arrived with a large bundle in her arms. Nadine was tremendously joyful as she tore open the brown paper, but once she saw the contents she broke down into tears and locked herself away in her room.” Mom shook her head gently. I could see how this upset her.

“I didn’t understand, what would have caused my sister to be so sad so I pulled open the package, inside was a tattered and torn quilt of yellow floral fabric. It was once beautiful but it had been worn and used, with many stains and rips. I knew instantly, without having to ask, that Kathleen had taken the quilt that was meant for Nadine and replaced it with another. I was only twelve at the time but I knew how awful and conniving my oldest sister was. I gathered up the tattered blanket and went to mom’s room. Laying it on her bed I boldly asked her where Nadine’s quilt was. At first she said she didn’t know what I meant but I would not be dissuaded. She finally told me that Kathleen had just loved the new quilt so much she had to have it. So she had replaced Nadine’s with an old quilt that grandma had given her that needed some repairs. She actually told me that Nadine should just be happy she got a quilt at all.”

“I just couldn’t believe it, my own mother, treating her daughter that way.” The sadness in her voice was crushing.

“Oh Momma, I am so sorry. What happened then? Is that why the quilt has always been here?” I questioned

“Yea Adelaide, I took the torn one and fixed it myself, cleaned up all the stains and stitched up all the rips and tears.” Running her hands over the fabric I could see the pain she still felt over this.

“When I turned sixteen and got my own quilt from Grandma I snuck it into Nadine’s hope chest and never told her what I had done. She thought mom had gotten her a new one from Grandma.”

I sat there, still as I could be and thought about my mom’s story of the quilt. I finally understood why Aunt Kathleen was never invited over for holiday’s or family dinners. I had never really felt like I knew her, but all of a sudden I felt a deep level of hate for her. I knew this was not a good thing to feel, I just couldn’t help it. She was just so awful. My eyes filled with tears thinking about what my aunt and mom had been through. Then momma stood up, wiped a tear from her eye and with a big smile handed me the quilt.

“Well now this quilt is yours, along with the hope chest.”

Grandma Gallagher had been gone for years now and there were no more beautiful handmade quilts specially made for the girls of the family to put into their hope chests so I was pleasantly surprised to know that I was actually going to have one of my own. I held it up to my chest and thought about how much my mom loved her older sister to have done what she had. To hide away the quilt that brought so much heartache and repair it in secret, returning it to its original condition, keeping it tucked away, safe for all these years. Then to give up her own quilt to help repair the broken heart of a much loved sister. My preconceived ideas of my mother had really gone through a serious change in the span of an afternoon in the attic. My appreciation and love for her was overpowering in that moment.

We moved the trunk down to my own room, spent the rest of the day cleaning it and polishing the wood and brass until it was shiny again. I was handed the tiny brass key that unlocked it. Momma had strung it onto a delicate gold chain along with a tiny gold heart with a diamond, so that I could wear it around my neck. The beauty of this was dazzling to me. This was my first piece of real jewelry. I used the key to open the trunk and the spicy deep aroma of the cedar enveloped me. I placed the beautiful and meaningful quilt back into the chest where it had been kept for countless years. Over the course of the next few years I added to the contents of the trunk. Several hand embroidered items, a delicate china set that I found in a thrift shop. An antique set of crystal goblets that my mother brought back from my parents second honeymoon in Europe. Many assorted kitchen wares, including an exquisite full set of real silver cutlery in a velvet lined case. Each time I found a new treasure to add to my hope chest I would open it to see the beauty of the yellow floral patchwork, and I would think about how meaningful this particular quilt was.

Since I was an only child when I finally found that boy that wasn’t gross and married him momma let me take the chest with me. To this day it sits at the foot of my bed and my own children have no doubt had their own pirate adventures or maybe even monster slaying expeditions with the chest playing its role. I had two rebellious boys and had given up on the idea of a daughter to hand down the hope chest and quilt to then we were blessed with a tiny little princess. She has brought so much love and joy to my life and now as she approaches her sweet sixteen I am preparing to pass on a family tradition along with a lesson disguised as a quilt. The very quilt that kept its place across the foot of my bed for years. Finally after being hidden away in the trunk for so long it deserved to be used and loved. The quilt that has comforted each of my children when they fell ill. The quilt I still use to curl up in on the couch on rainy days. See the lesson I learned that day up in the dusty attic with my momma was that sometimes bad things happen and bad people do terrible things and get away with them but it is how you deal with it that really matters and shows your own strength of personality. Even a tattered and torn quilt can be meaningful. That quilt was a symbol of the love of a little sister and how she made sacrifices to help mend a broken heart and kept the disappointments that family and life sometimes deal out from spreading and poisoning entire lives.

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