I have finally taken possession of my letter box.
The letter box has been “mine” since January of 2001 although my Mama hasn’t been able to give it up to me until now.
A small, shellacked wooden box, it’s brass hinges bent. The magenta satin lining, faded and stained, holding letters.
Handwritten letters, seventy years old.
My grandmother’s wooden box.
My grandfather’s letters.
When the stroke took Gramma without warning, it was no surprise she had everything written out. She liked things to be as she wanted… she wouldn’t have left any detail to chance. On different kinds of paper…in different colored inks. Added to over the years as things occurred to her. Which dress she wanted to be buried in…the hymns to be played and scriptures to be shared. Her handwritten notes included a schedule and sequence of how she wanted her memorial service to be held. It was followed to the letter… as best they could. Her list of pallbearers was outdated. It included two of her grandsons who had “preceded her in death,”…and the minister at Congress Street Methodist had long since retired…replaced by some new guy nobody knew.
There was a hodgepodge list of “who gets what”… a specific piece of jewelry for each of her granddaughters, a candy dish, a treasured bell, the collected Liberty Dollars by birth year. The Grands had never owned things that cost a great deal, but every item on her list held sentimental value. One of the seemingly inconsequential items listed was a “wood box of letters” with “katherine” written next to it.
I didn’t know when Gramma decided the wood box of letters would come to me. But I knew why.
It was way back, one of those rare summers when we went “home.”
Going home meant Lafayette, Indiana, although I had never actually lived there myself. I clearly recall the crazy cross country Christmas trips with my cousins…nine or ten of us in the yellow Plymouth Fury station wagon…long before min-vans, childseats, SUVs, or seatbelt laws. However, I have very few recollections of the two or three childhood summertimes in Indiana. They have been overshadowed by adult memories when most all of the trips were in June. I do remember making ice cream in an old, hand cranked freezer….watching thunderstorms and capturing lightening bugs…all that must have been summer.
I was a fairly social child…a bit of a clown. I got along okay with my cousins…but we lived thousands of miles apart…and our worlds had little in common.
(I’m the only one looking at my Dad’s camera…
and apparently the the only one not wearing dressy shoes?)
Occasionally, I suffered from sensory overload when three dozen family members were under the same roof. So every once in a while, I had to go hermit. It was one of these times I had snuck upstairs to be by myself. The afternoon heat was oppressive in an old house with no air-conditioning. I angled the room’s small electric fan and a second one I stole from the other bedroom, to blow on me. Lying on my belly at the foot of the bed, I escaped into one of the books I had lugged cross country.
At some point I rolled over in exaggerated exasperation with the heat and humidity. Throwing my arms out and letting my head dangle off the side of the bed, I was looking up into the open closet. The different perspective revealed something I had never noticed before. On the left wall, hidden behind the hanging clothes, was another door. I jumped up to investigate.
Typical Indiana grandparent off season wardrobes hung in the closet…long, heavy wool coats, sweaters, and Papa’s winter work clothes reeking of moth balls. It took two hands and all my little girl strength to shove the hangers over. A whole pile of folded quilts were stacked on the floor…I drug them out into the room. I had to reach up on my tippy toes to grab the bit of string attached to the bare light bulb.
The door was slightly smaller than normal. Professionally framed with a turn latch. I opened it slowly, cringing when it creaked. I peaked inside and thrilled with my find. An ATTIC!! A Secret Attic no less. I was very proud at the cleverness of my discovery. I started to go inside but it was too dark, I could see the space stretching out to the front eves of the house. There were shadows of boxes and unrecognizable shapes balanced on two by fours.
I had long since graduated from Nancy Drew…but I’d learned a lot from that girl. I needed a flashlight. And I needed to sneak it. I shut the attic door and put the quilts back so no one would discover what I had found. Turning off the light and closing the closet, I headed downstairs. Neighbors, aunts, uncles and a dozen cousins, I was just one more kid in the mix.
I strolled through the living room trying to appear innocent and bored…and as if not on a mission. I paused in the kitchen, watching the poker game. There was always at least one table of cards underway. Even as a kid, if you weren’t dealt in… you were still interested in who was raking in the cash. On a really good day you could make four or five dollars. I stood at the table, watched the action and nodded wisely along with the play. In truth, I was there to scope out the flashlight. As I suspected, it was on the top of the fridge. Even if I could reach it, someone would ask what I wanted it for. No way could I climb up the stool without notice. Especially considering Uncle Chuck was sitting on the stool at the time.
Nonchalantly, I headed to the basement. Stored there were toys, old prom dresses, and canned goods. It had a laundry area and a moldy cinderblock shower. In a separate room, behind the scary old boiler was my Papa’s tool bench. I KNEW a flashlight would be down there that I could get my hands on unobserved. My brother and some of my younger cousins were playing around at the foot of the stairs. Thinking back now…it was probably harder to sneak anything past them than past the adults.
I worked my way through the maze of the basement, until I was in Papa’s work room. It was officially off limits unless you had Papa with you…but the other kids were paying me no never mind. A big black flashlight stood proudly on the far back corner of the work bench. I grabbed it, perplexed. I was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. How could I smuggle this through the house ? WWND? (What Would Nancy Do?) I had to find something to carry up with me to hide the flashlight. Something I was “allowed” to be carrying around…something no one would question.
In the corner by the washing machine was a stack of old magazines, Good Housekeeping, RedBook, Ladies Home Journal, National Seed Corn. I held a few in my arm up against my chest, hiding the flashlight. Brilliant. I was able to retrace my steps without notice. I was always reading. I’d been known to get into trouble for reading too much. Me getting something to read was pretty common place.
Back upstairs I was quick to pull the pile of quilts out and reopen the hidden door. Armed with the flashlight I stepped carefully onto boards which had been laid across the rafters. I knew better than to step between the two by fours and fall through the ceiling into the living room. I also knew to step quietly so those below me wouldn’t hear. There were boxes of old shoes and hats. A couple full of books and magazines. Mostly old stuff in a home that would have never considered a garage sale.
Everything had that film of dirty dust and cobwebby stickiness. I was rummaging around none too carefully…digging through a bunch of old stuff when I found the wooden box. Kinda junky to my California eye…but interesting nonetheless. I pulled it out and opened the brass hasp. Tucked inside were pages of lined paper folded up. I couldn’t see well enough to read them… but I did recognize my grandfather’s handwriting. I lunge stepped back over the rafters and through the closet into the daylight. I sat indian style on the floor and gingerly opened up the letters.
Even so young, I immediately recognized the intimacy of Papa’s words. I instinctively knew reading them was wrong, but I couldn’t pull myself away.
Words of love and longing interspersed with the daily recollections of work and meals.
Young husband and wife apart. He in Indiana. Her in Tennessee with the babies as her mother was dying. He was struggling to find enough work to send her money for milk…and to repay the $25 loan for her emergency train ticket south.
(the old homeplace, Tazewell,Tennessee)
I read every page over and over. I refolded each one and placed them back into the wooden box. Not so junky to me now, I wrapped it up in an old woolen shirt and carefully put it back in a cardboard box. Out through the hidden doorway and into the closet, putting everything back to rights. I stowed the flashlight under the quilts for future use, and turned out the light.
Washing off the dust I was still immersed in the letters. My preteen sensitivities to young love torn apart was off the charts. The thought of not having enough money to buy MILK, for crying out loud. The thought of my own Mama as a toddler, without milk. I couldn’t get out of my mind the raw, unsophisticated words of my lonely grandfather in his early twenties, struggling to be a man and take care of his family…and longing for his young wife.
(my Mama at the homeplace)
Back downstairs I sought out my Gramma. She was sitting in her chair in the living room…holding court no doubt. I just sat next to her, with her patting my arm, while she talked away.
My Grandparents loved me to pieces…but I was third of thirteen grandchildren…and we lived the farthest away. I always knew my other cousins were closer to our Grandparents…but at that moment I felt as if I shared a special secret with them. And I felt more than a little guilty for prying. I was raised to be honest…and to own up when you did something you shouldn’t have done. Although inadvertently, I had violated their privacy and it was bothering me. And…I wanted to know more. Part of me wanted to tell my Gramma I had read the letters to absolve my guilt…and part of me wanted to confess so she would tell me her side of the story.
I waited until there was a lull, when we were just about alone, and told her I’d found the Secret Attic. She said it was just full of old clothes and too dangerous to play in. I probably gave her a “yeah whatEVer” response…I wasn’t one of the little kids after all and I knew what I was doing. And then…I told her I found her letter box.
It took her a minute to realize what I was talking about. She was smiling and saying how long ago it all was. Chances are pretty good she was using words like “land sakes chile” and “heavens to goodness.” I remember starting to cry and saying… “but you didn’t have any money to buy milk for the babies” and quoting other parts of the letters.
She hugged me and told me to go get the box. I ran back upstairs and went though all the steps in record time.
It occurred to me I could get into some serious trouble from my own Mama or her sisters for my little escapade. At home it would have been no problem…but it was a different gig in Indiana. I had to abide by the rules my aunts and uncles imposed on my cousins. It would be another decade before I clued in on the reasons behind that family dynamic.
Cradling the letter box with reverence, I walked directly to my Gramma. She opened it gently and glanced through each page. I had seen her cry before. Waving as a car pulled away…when we were going home to California…or when they were going home to Indiana.
But I had never sat next to her with tears in her eyes.
Her hand at her lips and nodding slowly she read through each page. Halfway looking up she called out “Clyde…Clyde, come over here… look what this child’s found.”
My investigative pride won out over fear of punishment. “I found the Secret Attic upstairs” I whispered, creating a little conspiracy. “It’s okay….I didn’t tell anyone” As if that would make it acceptable. I was without blame. As if me traipsing through the attic was common place and perfectly alright.
Papa just looked at me.
A bit exasperated. Not surprised.
I wasn’t their normal grandchild. It wasn’t about me really…it was more about how they felt about my Mama and what they thought about my father. I know that now. Thirty years later, after Gramma passed I spent time in Indiana. We all did. Then at the low point in my life, I went to Tennessee while Papa was there. And he would come to California often. During those times, he and I would talk about a great many things.
It only took a glance for Papa to recognize those letters. He went from exasperated to annoyed to irritated in point-oh-one seconds. Uh Oh. Gramma handed one letter up to Papa. Her face sweet…his face soft. And I was crying again.
He glanced at me embarrassed…not at my tears, but that I had read his words from so long ago.
I remember them talking to one another…but not what they were saying. It was the murmurings of two longtime lovers and their remembrances.
It was amazing the three of us could sit there for so long uninterrupted. Or maybe it actually wasn’t as long as my memory reflects. I don’t recall how the conversation ended. Or what happened to the letter box after that. I didn’t get into any trouble. No one told my parents and neither of my aunts berated me. However, I was forbidden to go back into the attic.
I knew they weren’t serious about THAT.
I snuck into the Secret Attic more than once over the next several days. Looking for more treasure. Imagining complicated episodes of family lore. I remember sporting an old fedora. I wore it around one day…and eventually gave it up to my brother (who was ALWAYS wearing some sort of hat.) My Dad asked where it came from. I didn’t want to lie…but couldn’t confess the Secret Attic. I told him I got it upstairs in a closet…and Papa snorted from across the room. I wasn’t fooling Papa, he knew where the hat came from. But he didn’t rat me out to my father.
At one point we spent a couple days at my cousins’ house. When we got back to The Grands’ I repeated my now familiar routine of shoving over the clothes and dragging out the quilts…..and…whoa!! A shiny, brand new, brass latch with padlock had been recently installed on the door to my Secret Attic. I just stared. And then I smiled. I had an idea.
It didn’t take much rummaging in my Gramma’s bathroom cabinet before I found the bobbie pins. I would pick the lock of course. I was on a roll...channeling Nancy. Back upstairs I prepared my tool. (meaning I pried open the bobbie pin and pulled off the rubber tips with my teeth.)
I twisted and tweaked the end of the bobbie pin in that lock. I gently probed with one end and two. I jammed it in and tried to force the padlock open. I worked on it for almost an hour. Nothin’.
Totally frustrated with failure I put everything back. I stomped downstairs looking for my Grandfather. In the kitchen getting coffee, he hardly looked up when I plopped onto a chair. He asked me something and I ignored him…sitting with my arms tightly folded and glaring at him through squinted eyes. My impression of “boy am I angry with you.” He finally noticed my attitude, and picked up right away what was going on. He had that smirk on his face. He knew why I was bent out of shape and was right pleased with himself. I just glared at him as he left the room, laughing.
Over the next few days I tried to return to my Secret Attic. I kept going back, checking the door…still lamenting on being locked out. I poked around in drawers looking for the key to the padlock. I examined both my Gramma’s and my Papa’s key rings…to no avail.
Belatedly, I realized the flashlight I had hidden in the quilts was missing. I assumed Papa had found it and I went to the basement for confirmation. Sigh. Sure enough…there it was, back in its place. Messing with the stuff on Papa’s tool bench was a far greater crime than being in the attic. But he hadn’t even mentioned me swiping the flashlight.
Suddenly, I caught my breath. Adrenaline raced through my body. There…all neatly lined up by type and size was his formidable collection of SCREWDRIVERS. Everything clicked into place. I closed my eyes picturing that blasted latch which had kept me from my haven. Guessing the size needed, I grabbed a couple screwdrivers, tucked them into my waistband and covered them up with my shirt.
I practically flew up from the basement, through the living room and on to the second floor. If he had seen me, Papa would have known what I was up to. Apparently he did not. To this day, I remember the gleeful exhilaration as I removed the screws one by one. I WAS IN. HA! One little brass latch was no match for ME…padlock or not! It was all rather powerful.
I had to keep it secret this time. I was now violating actual mandate. I knew they thought it was a safety thing. That I would get hurt…or cause damage. I had been fortunate that my parents hadn’t become involved. Papa had told me to stay out and I hadn’t. He had spent money to buy a new latch and lock to keep me out. I had now become disrespectful and disobedient. But even worse…I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so very pleased with myself for getting back in. And nobody else even knew.
I carefully timed my Secret Attic visits so they didn’t realize I was back in. The Grands took a nap most afternoons, (that’s another story) so it was easy to schedule. Sometimes I’d just sit and day dream. Sometimes I’d eavesdrop on conversations below. Sometimes I’d bring in the flashlight and read my own books. Mostly I just took pleasure with being IN my Secret Attic.
Eventually it was time to go home to California. I thought about reinstalling the latch. I wanted to claim my victory but was seriously concerned about punishment. Not from my Gramma or Papa…I was worried my Dad would somehow get wind of my little adventure. That would not be good. My father demanded we act appropriately in my Grandparents’ home. The opinion his inlaws had of his children was very important to my father.
The morning we left I came down to breakfast. As usual Papa was at the stove making biscuits and gravy. I went around the table, and surreptitiously left the brass latch, padlock, and all the screws on the counter next to the sink. I sat down and watched my Papa cook. It was crowded in the kitchen. More’n half dozen people…most of them talking at the same time. Not me. I just watched. Wearing what we now call a wife beater…he was a man who never raised a hand to a woman or loved one. Been in quite a few “scaps” as he called them… he had kicked ass. He worked in construction at the time and had pretty buff arms and shoulders. But there he was, like every other morning, cooking.
As he reached to the counter for another plate, Papa hesitated. I knew he’d seen my handiwork. He was back at the stove. I stared at him. He turned with a full plate and looked me square in the eye. I raised my eyebrows and had my own little smirk. He set the plate down in front of me with a big ole grin, and shook the spatula in my face. He was laughing as he turned back to the stove.
We never talked about my ingenuity. But a year or two later, the next time I went “home” the door to my Secret Attic had been nailed shut. Completely shut. A dozen or more nails all around the doorjam. Damn. It was a Christmas trip and the house was overflowing with family. It took a while for me to have enough alone time to pull each nail out. But the hammer was easier to come by, being kept in the hall closet and all. I was disappointed the challenge seemed so simple.
(again….I’m the only one looking at my Dad’s camera)
I only waited a day or two this time. I put the nails in the same place by the sink at breakfast time…and he just stared at me and shook his head. Later he took me aside and explained he nailed it up because my Gramma was afraid the “young ’ns” would go in and “git real hurt.” My Gramma was a world class worrier. Personally, I doubted anyone else would be so clever as to discover my Secret Attic….but, I promised not to let anyone know…and he left it at that. My Gramma spoke to me too. She had imagined several disaster scenarios. Telling me how the old house wouldn’t support the weight of a bunch of kids playing around up there. That was fine with me. It made it MY Secret Attic all the more.
I’d get asked, “what are you doing up there?” and I’d say “reading.” It was true. No one ever asked “Where up there are you reading?” so I never had to lie. I remember it being pretty cold in the Secret Attic that winter, so I wore my coat and brought in a quilt or two. There were a few new boxes of discarded dishes and clothing…but the letter box was no where to be found.
A couple years later when I went “home” the door to my Secret Attic was neither locked nor barricaded. However, to my surprise the hideaway was completely empty. No boxes or torn lampshades, even the planks across the two by fours had been removed. The Grands had both retired and I realized they had cleaned out the closets, the basement and the Secret Attic. But I was a teenager now…and not as enamored with the dark and dirty, musty attic. It was transitional summer for me in a lot of ways.
My Gramma, Opal Lee would have been 91 today.
She passed in January of 2001. At the time, she had been married to my Papa for almost 67 years.
She left us a legacy of love and family, hundreds of pictures, and thousands of memories.
And she left me her Letter Box.