I hold in my hands a yellowed address label: my grandparents’ two-story apartment, before the retirement community, before the assisted living, before the hospital beds, before the cemetery. Two couches, his and hers, and an orange shag rug. Sometimes a neighbor’s cat scurried along the ivied patio fence as I counted BB’s from my grandfather’s slingshot. His gray whiskers were stiff beneath my fingertips, cloaking his smile.
I find a downtown expressway token from the years my father worked at the James Center, a few blocks from the Slip. In the lobby there was a mail room behind a hidden mirrored door. My dad always knew just where to push on what looked to me as a girl to be a seamless wall. Years later on the top floor of that same building, overlooking the lights of Richmond and the James tumbling black underneath the bridge, Rob and I celebrated our wedding vows. I shook one hundred hands and did not eat. Outside, bells rang and bagpipes played as we departed hand-in-hand, rose petals falling like so many tiny flags unfurled. Rob’s brothers stuffed them by the handful down his pants.
Behind a stack of my paint brushes in a drawer, I find an unfamiliar carving of the three wise monkeys ever not seeing, hearing, or speaking evil. Walter, the historian in our family, tells me they were likely a gift from his father’s travels to Japan, given to my grandfather or Aunt Louise, somehow finding their way into the 8-drawered apothecary chest that once stood in my grandmother’s dining room, then my mother’s kitchen, and now my living room. Three wise monkeys traveled from Japan to Virginia, Lakeside and the West End, then on to Texas, the Energy Corridor and in a few days to Katy, Texas.
In the top of a closet I find my childhood jewelry box, a hand-me-down from a grandmother or perhaps my cousin Debbie. Gold, with a satin back and velvet-y square trays. I touch them and the my fingertips alight with memory of its feel. The smell rises from the box and I am in middle school, choosing a pair of earrings for the first day of eighth grade. Those earrings now mostly in singles, like the series of art deco animals bordered with gold: cat, horse, parrot. Mismatched, some without backs. A pink glass shaped like a shark’s tooth, its match lost at a birthday party in the park, maybe now someone else’s found treasure.
Among the jewelry I find a season’s pass to King’s Dominion, a Monopoly house, my high school class ring, two movie stubs, and a note from an old boyfriend, signed only with an initial. The note accompanied long-stemmed red roses, but the occasion I can’t recall. The bottom of the box is a tangled mass of necklaces, my graduation tassel hopelessly netted around them.
Long after the monkeys are packed in a box and the apothecary chest’s drawers have been emptied, the jewelry box remains on the coffee table. I have closed it to preserve the smell, which has carried with it my childhood in the home at the literary crossroads of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown Drive. In a blue on blue on blue room I once scrawled the word “husband” on the wall: a hope I held so loosely that I wrote it in pencil, not pen.
The scent of my jewelry box carries with it laughter and also loss: my grandparents, great uncles, aunts, a few school friends. Depression first caught me there, holding me with skeletal fingers like the bare limbs of the trees outside my winter window. Strange that so much hangs with a single scent, causing me to think of one house while packing another. I should be nostalgic for this house, purchased a lifetime ago when our only child was a large and regal mutt, now distinguished with a gray beard. His grays, like mine, seem to grow with each child. One then two then three. This fourth child is only a few months from arriving, yet will never know this house. Cooper will not remember, though she moved from sleepy infant to squawking walker here, but perhaps Sawyer and Lincoln will carry some scrap of memory. A flash or image, like my earliest of New Orleans: being lifted up to see the Mardi Gras parade, the concrete of our neighbors’ driveway against my legs as I played with Dr. Fill N Drill, the sharp fear as a branch broke and fell while I was in a neighbor boy’s tree house.
I remember my goodbye to that house, walking past the stairs and waving because my mother told me to, not understanding why.
Our memories are like the things I found today, tucked into the back corner of a drawer or closet, behind a pair of shoes or tube of paint. Found when not looking, they rise up from the feel of a scrap of paper on fingertip or the scent in a box long unopened. We do not always realize the ways they hold us, the ways they possess us and are also possessed by us. A fish hook, settling sharply into flesh as we tug.
I do not know how to label the boxes that will contain these things I found today, so I shall simply write Treasures, Fragile and hope that is enough to keep them.