Thursday, January 17, 2013

A tin box full of love

When I was eight days old my mother and father left Iowa with eleven dollars, four daughters, a tank of gas, and the dream of finding a better life in Texas. When asked if I'm a native Texan I tell people, "No, but I got here as fast as I could!"

My parents settled in Dallas and every couple of years, finances permitting, our family took a vacation to Iowa to visit my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. Almost all the memories I have of my grandmother are of her in bed or otherwise resting. Even if she was up and about, she tired easily and wasn't active. She was what my mother calls "sickly" but even though Grandma couldn't play with me she spent a bit of time with me on those visits and helped give me good memories. A favorite has always been "the tin box".

The box sat in Grandma's room on a small, lace doily covered three legged table by the bed. Next to the box were Grandma's Bible and a small lamp. The box was faded, battered and worn even in the 60s but I loved to sneak into her room to look at the kitchen scenes depicted on its lid and sides. Each one was different and I was fascinated by them, especially the New England kitchen scene.

Now and then Grandma would follow me into the room, open the box, take out an item, and tell me about it. "This is a letter I wrote your grandfather not long before we married" she'd say as she gently pulled sheets of stationery from an ivory colored envelope. She'd unfold the pages and hand them to me, telling me to be careful with them. I'd try to read the words on the paper but struggled with the cursive writing. I barely knew my ABCs. Before long she'd take the letter from me, fold it, and carefully slide it back into the envelope.  Then she'd hand me another item. "This is a card your grandfather gave me on my birthday". "This is my book of birthdays I've had for many years" And so it went until she decided I'd seen enough.

Sometime around my seventh birthday, my grandmother became gravely ill and each trip to Iowa found her in bed. As soon as we got into the house I'd hug and kiss my grandfather and ask if Grandma was awake. If she was, I'd go to her room and sit on the side of her bed. She'd ask me about school, friends, and Texas. I'd ask how she was feeling, if she'd been to church, and if she'd bought any new hats or gloves recently. I knew the answers but asking was the polite thing to do and I didn't know what else to say to her. She'd smile and patiently answer my questions. After a bit she'd tell me to look in the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. I'd hop off the bed and run to the old cedar chest, throwing wide the lid. Inside there would be a surprise of some sort for me; a new book, crayons, a writing tablet, a couple of cookies, or perhaps a handkerchief with "D" embroidered on it. I'd return to her side, clutching the gift, and we'd talk more about little things. Before long we'd fall silent and my eyes would wander to the box. She'd notice, of course, and ask me, "Would you like to open the tin box?" I'd say yes and she'd tell me to hand it to her and I would. She'd motion to me to open it and we'd start the little routine of the past but within a few minutes she would tire and tell me to put back the box and let her sleep.

I was eleven when my grandmother passed away. On the day of the funeral, after I'd put on my new dress and while everyone else was still preparing, I made my way to Grandma's room. I entered and stood at the foot of her bed. The scent of her perfume lingered. The bed was neatly made and seeing it empty brought tears to my eyes. Everything else seemed the same. Her cherry wood dressing table holding the crystal atomizers and sterling silver brush, comb, and mirror set, the pictures on the wall, her Bible, and the lamp on the bedside table. And the box. I crossed the room and picked it up, holding it to me. I needed comfort and desperately wanted to feel as though my grandmother wasn't gone forever. I climbed onto the bed and sat cross legged, the tin box in front of me, for several minutes. I wasn't sure I could proceed without her there. I wasn't sure I even wanted to. What if the box was empty? What if Grandpa had thrown away all the items? Finally I let loose the front latch, opened the hinged lid and peeked in. I saw the letters, the cards, the photos, and her book of birthdays and was relieved.

I removed the first letter from the top of the pile. It was the one Grandma wrote to Grandpa shortly before they married. I started to read it but the words were so romantic, so lovely, so sweet I had to stop. Holding the letter to my chest, I hung my head and sobbed. The grief I felt was almost unbearable and the comfort I thought I'd find hadn't come. I don't know how long I sat there but suddenly I heard a sound and looked up to see my grandfather standing in the doorway. I scrambled to put the letters back in the box but Grandpa came over and put his hand on mine. "It's okay. Read them if you like. And I know you've always loved the tin box." I couldn't speak and just shook my head. Grandpa sat down across from me on the bed, took the letter, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and started to read.

"Des Moines, Iowa. November twenty eighth, nineteen twenty seven. Dearest love, as the shadows of evening softly bring the day to night, memories of your tenderness and devine love seem to speak to me. Just a few hours since I was in your arms, dear, and close to your heart."

His voice got hoarse but he continued.

"It makes me very happy sweetheart to have a pal like you. You always understand me and guide me in the right way. Each day of this week will be full of sunshine and dreams of you."

Grandpa stopped. He put the letter back in its envelope, placed it on top of the pile in the box, and tenderly closed and latched the lid. Setting the box on the table, he turned to me. "It's time to go. You need to brush your hair." I nodded and stood up, smoothing my dress. Grandpa took my hand and led me from the room. As we stepped into the hall, he turned to shut the door and I stopped to wait for him. When he turned back to me, his face was wet with tears. "I've never loved anyone like I loved my Patty and I pray someday you are as loved as she." He took my hand again and led me down the hall to the living room where the others somberly waited.

Five years later my grandfather passed away and we returned to Iowa for another funeral. When we left for Texas, Mom brought the box home with her. Now and then I'd open it and look through the items. As the years passed more items were added. My sister's hospital record and death certificate. A booklet from some high school program I was in. My mother's will. Some years ago Mom gave me the box, empty, but later I was in a not so good place in my life and gave it back to her for safekeeping. As much as I hated to part with that tin box, I hated more the thought of it not being safe.

Today I went to my mother's house as I usually do on Thursdays. We talked about things, a lot of things. Mom is having a very difficult time dealing with my stepfather who has Alzheimer's. She needed to talk so I held her as she cried. I cried with her. Somehow our conversation turned to my grandparents and I asked her about the tin box. We went into her office and she removed it from its place against a wall and handed it to me. I opened it and we looked at some of the photos. It was difficult but we did it together. She said I could have the box if I wanted it back and agreed to let me photograph and/or scan the contents. I might keep the box with me but most likely I'll return it and the contents to my mother in a week or two. The time will come when the tin box will be mine but this isn't the time.

I'll happily go through the loveliness inside the box, though. I'll leisurely read each letter, card, and piece of paper. I'll photograph or scan them and send the files to my sisters so that if something happens to the physical items we'll have the scans and photographs.

And I've decided to share some of this with you, dear readers. I don't know yet how much of it I'll put up here but I imagine y'all enjoy a good vintage letter, envelope, card, or photo as much as I do so I'll share the love.

To start with, here are some photos of the tin box, in all its faded and scratched glory. It really isn't much to look at but this old piece of metal is absolutely beautiful to me. I did a bit of Googling and found out it's a Canco Biscuit Box with the "Kitchens of the World" theme.

From the front

One side

The other side

The top

The bottom. Note the sticker my mother put on it years ago. ;)

And a peek inside. Ohhh, look at all that loveliness! Is it any wonder I love letters?

I know what I'll be doing later tonight and tomorrow before work. Care to make a guess?

Have a lovely night and I hope your Friday is wonderful and full of postal goodness!


  1. Oh, my. A lovely read. Thanks for sharing. The box is beautiful. You know I have to tell you about the Clabber Girl baking powder can some day.

    I had to enlarge the image. The glimpse of the contents made my mouth water. Your box is full of treasure. :)

    1. Thank you, Limner. It really is a lovely box. I hope you do tell me about the Clabber Girl baking powder can. I love stories about objects that hold memories! The box is definitely full of treasure. And most of it is in very good condition. There's a very old, rolled up photo of my grandfather and a lot of other men who were masons. It looks like a senior book sort of thing and it's in horrible condition. Mom and I unrolled it enough yesterday to find Grandpa on it but it's literally falling into pieces. :( I don't know what to do with that other than leave it alone.

    2. Google photo preservation and restoration. I hope you find someone who can save it for you.

    3. I've looked at that and am pretty sure I've found a local person to do it. I sure hope he can. I need to take the thing over to his shop so he can look at it. I'm terrified to even touch it now!

  2. What a lovely story. I love the homey pictures on the tin.

    1. Thank you, T! The pictures on the tin are great. I'm still fascinated with them. :)

  3. Denise I love the story of your grandparents. I have a box made just like yours that was my grandmothers only difference if the decoration. Mine does not have pictures on it. Other that that they are about the same size and made the same way. Mine belonged to mt grandmother and it was her button box. It was given to me when she passed because I was always allowed to play in it when I was a child. It was full of all kinds of buttons from plain ones to flower shaped ones, buttons made with rhinestones that sparkled like diamonds and buttons that looked like pearls and rubies. I always imagined I was a princess wearing the most wonderful jewels in the world when I was playing with Grandma's button box.

    It's nice to have such wonderful memories of our grandparents isn't it? Thanks for sharing your memory and bringing mine back to the fore front of my mind.

    1. Aww Carol, that's wonderful about your grandmother's button box! My grandmother had a lot of buttons, too, and Mom got those but gave them away many years ago at a garage sale. Of course, now she wishes she hadn't! I really don't remember my grandmother a lot but what I do remember is wonderful. :) After she died, my grandfather came to Texas and stayed with us for awhile and I got to know him better. Now that was a fun time! He was a brilliant man but I didn't know that until he lived with us for that time. I discovered so many amazing things about him then and I'm very thankful for that time with him. :)

  4. I am so happy to have found your lovely blog. I didn't know there were others who share my lifetime love of touchstones from the past, writing, pens, paper, old love letters from grandparents, and sending/receiving mail. I look forward to marking your blog in favorites and reading all of it like a book.