When I was 4, Mama’s uncle, a kind and successful man, died.
The call came late one night that his life was ebbing away. Mama pulled me out of bed, smoothed my tousled red-tinted hair and hauled me, still clad in pajamas, to sit vigil until her beloved uncle had crossed the river Jordan.
We sat in the musty smelling living room of the Victorian house, its walls covered in ancient floral wallpaper while everyone talked in low, reverent tones. I sat quietly until finally I curled my feet beneath me, laid my head in Daddy’s lap and slept.
My great uncle made no fuss when the angel of death arrived so quietly he slipped into a world far removed from this vale of tears and sorrows.
After the funeral, we visited his sweet widow when she said to Mama, “I want you to pick out something of his to keep. To remember him by.”
She took us into a room filled with personal items. “Pick anything you want,” she said.
There, in the corner, was his old clothing trunk. It was about 3 feet long, made of wood with a rounded top and metal adornments, including a rusting filigree covering the lid. Once, it had thick leather grips on either end, but they had long been torn away and disappeared. Somewhere around 1900 or so, it had been purchased new, but it had reached that difficult age where it was neither new nor antique. It was simply a rusting piece of something that didn’t look like anything to be wanted.
Quietly, I stepped from Mama’s side and, enthralled, I ran my hand gently over the trunk. I raised the lid and peered inside to see a tray covered in water-stained and peeling yellowed paper.
“I want this,” I said.
Mama laughed and tossed a dismissive hand.
“Oh, you don’t want that old thing!” she said. “We ain’t got nowhere to put it.”
“I do want it,” I said.
It was magical to me.
As Mama would later tell the story, “Your daddy, who thought you had to have whatever you wanted, put his foot down and said, ‘If that’s what she wants, that’s what we’re takin’.’”
Mama shrugged and went along with it, because the truth of the matter was I rarely asked for anything. Daddy picked up the trunk and toted it to the car.
From that day forward, that trunk would be my beloved treasure. For almost 20 years, it sat in my bedroom closet in my childhood home, and there I stored precious possessions and later used it as a “hope” chest, storing towels I had needle-pointed and other bits and pieces of things I collected for the day I would be married. Once, I opened a savings account at the bank and received a single, five-piece place setting of flatware. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
When I built the house where I live, I put the rusted piece of family history in the living room as a footstool/coffee table in front of a love sofa.
“Oh my goodness!” Mama exclaimed when she saw it. “Why on earth do you have that old thing in the middle of such a pretty room?” She shook her head. “You’ve always been crazy about that trunk.”
We all know it’s ironic the way life twists on us. Two years later, Mama was standing in my foyer when a brain aneurysm struck. She swayed and fell into the living room, hitting her head with a thundering bang on the edge of that trunk. She was buried with that bruised knot on her forehead.
That trunk remains in the living room and I still love it was much as when I was 4. It reminds me of the day Mama stepped into life everlasting.
There’s no greater treasure than that.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.