That trunk was a place where my grandmother kept all her treasures. It was big, black, and shiny with large gold locks, bolts, hinges, and corners. It provided hours of memorable conversations with my grandmother, and I am so happy she shared them with me.
My grandmother was born in Mississippi but spent much of her adult life in Alabama. The early years of my childhood were spent with her in Mobile. It was a joyful time in my life. We lived in a small red brick house on Maple Street, next door to Bernice Johnson (who we affectionately called the “Ice Cream Lady”). Miss Johnson made homemade vanilla ice cream and sold it by the cone. You could buy one scoop for a nickel and two scoops for a dime. One scoop was always enough, though, and I have yet to taste anything close to that yummy perfection.
On the other side of our house lived Mrs. Crumb, a retired schoolteacher. My visits to her house included a piano lesson and playful romps in her backyard with the kittens, to the annoyance of the mother cat.
We had a plum tree in our backyard and thorny bushes that bloomed red roses in the front yard. The front porch was enclosed with a wooden swing. This was my play area when my grandmother didn’t want me getting dirty in the yard, which was guaranteed given the opportunity.
I admired things on my grandmother’s dresser in her bedroom. Laid out and orderly, were her wonderful hair pins, combs, brushes, and bottles of perfume. The shiny black trunk was in the room too, but I never got to see it open. Always closed and locked, it was a mystery to five- year-old me. The children in the neighborhood thought my grandmother was rich, and the idea may have gone to my head. Yes, there had to be some treasure in that trunk.
A few times a year, my grandmother and I traveled by train to Chicago to spend time with family. The black shiny trunk traveled with us. A nice porter would transfer it onto his carrier when we arrived at Chicago Union Station.
When our family decided my grandmother shouldn’t be alone taking care of an active seven-year-old like me, we moved to Chicago and into a new three-bedroom house purchased by my parents. My grandmother and the shiny black trunk gave me comfort in this new, unfamiliar place.
One day, I was bringing my grandmother breakfast to her room. She had been ill and needed more care. As I entered the dimly lit space, I almost dropped the tray—there, on the side of the bed, sat my grandmother bent over the open trunk. My heart leaped with joy because finally the mystery would be revealed.
I was a little disappointed that the treasure I imagined wasn’t real, but I came to understand that these were precious treasures that were dear to my grandmother. As she turned to see me standing there wide-eyed, she wearily sat back and asked if I could lift out the blue sectional compartment for her. I set down her tray and with some effort lifted the thing out. Underneath was an unfinished quilt she’d been working on. She enjoyed sewing and, in the days to come, she would call me to thread her needles as her eyes weakened. I also saw other neatly folded fabrics of lace, silk, and cotton in the trunk.
She asked me to hand her the quilt. I held in my hands the history of our family, whose many multi-colored squares each represented an event to be remembered. She quietly whispered that she needed to finish it before she died. The opening of the trunk was tinged with a bit of sadness. It was a solemn rite of passage between us.
I spied other interesting items in the heavy compartment. There were stacks of letters, photos, boxes of various sizes, books, and papers. About to close the heavy lid, she stopped me and asked for a worn paperback book that lay on top. It was her Gospel Pearls hymn book. I remember her singing or humming—especially when she was cooking or sewing at her pink Singer sewing machine.
For years, every illness became a prayer vigil as the family waited for her to fade away. After overhearing an agitated relative utter, “She’s not going to die; she’s going to outlive all of us!” I learned not to take it so seriously. I spent many hours of laughter with my grandmother, as I was designated to keep her company. There were nights when I should have been in bed, but I was up watching westerns and “tough guy” movies with her.
My grandmother lived for many more years. She witnessed me become an adult, finish school, marry, and become a mother. She was there when I went through a separation, divorce, and disillusionment. If I asked, she offered good, practical advice that I still live by today. When my grandmother passed, her belongings were divided among family members. I don’t know what happened to the shiny trunk or its contents. But fortunately, there are two items I now treasure, her Gospel Pearls hymn book and the precious family quilt that she eventually finished.