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By: Kelli J Gavin
When my grandmother passed, I felt defeated and utterly broken. She was the last of my grandparents left and I mourned the loss of our truly great matriarch. She was bold and vibrant, loving and forgiving, and an inspiration to anyone who had the honor to be in her presence. Her loss spurred such a season of mourning and grief in my life, that I worried I would never pull myself from the miry pit where I seemed to dwell.
Receiving a phone call from my grandmother’s attorney was the last call I expected two months after her passing. My grandfather passed away the summer before and I was under the impression that in their old age they had spent everything they had and what was left were the social security and survivor benefit checks that faithfully arrived each month in the mail and the equity in the roof that covered their heads. When the attorney left two and then three messages on my answering service, I knew I needed to make time to return his call.
“Ms. Garlow, thank you for calling back. I was concerned that you had moved or that I was going to have to stop by your place of business to ensure contact. I would like to request a meeting as soon as possible. I have sold your grandparent’s home, liquidated a small life insurance plan which paid for your grandmother’s funeral and final expenses, and hired a small company to clear out their home. Anything that is sentimental, and all furniture, is now housed in the dining room on the main floor, and the rest of the home is vacant. The final sale will be complete the first of next month and I need you to claim anything that you wish to keep and give me the final instructions for the disposal of the rest of the physical property. Could we meet this Friday morning at 9 a.m. at the house? We should be finished by 11 a.m. Please bring a truck or trailer and at least two people to carry and pack the furniture and belongings.” Mr. Smithers spoke so quickly, I wasn’t tracking.
“Mr. Smithers, I am sorry. What did you say? 9 a.m. this Friday? I already have a truck and don’t anticipate wanting to keep more than I can haul. I will hire two men to arrive by 9:30 a.m. and they can start loading while we finish any paperwork and other business,” I replied.
“Splendid. I will see you then. You should know that there were instructions about a few pieces, but we can talk about all that when we meet. Have a good day and I look forward to seeing you.” Mr. Smithers quickly hung up the phone.
Pondering Mr. Smithers’ comments about instructions on a few pieces, I found my mind going down rabbit trails the next few days. Calling to secure a team of two men from the local college service agency, I also made sure that I had plenty of thick blankets and paper boxes for anything that I chose to take with me. Busying myself with preparations for the meeting on Friday made me feel better. I noticed by Thursday morning, I didn’t feel so sad constantly. I was still mourning, but didn’t think that sudden tears were threatening to flood my cheeks at any time.
Friday morning as I pulled up to my grandparents’ home, I couldn’t help but smile as all of my childhood memories came rushing back to me. Times spent running in the backyard sprinklers, sitting on the back porch eating watermelon with my grandfather, and helping my grandmother decorate the large home each Christmas. Beautiful memories that I knew I would always hold dear.
Mr. Smithers greeted me at the front door as I reached the top stair of the front porch. “Wonderful, I am glad there was a close parking space by the curb. This street is usually quite full, even during the day. I have the papers ready to go here in the dining room.”
We both sat down and he pushed two pens in my direction. There were flags on each page and I had no desire to read each document, so I quickly sifted through and signed each spot. Three packets had been prepared for my signature. Two pertaining to the sale of the home, and the last pile was for the distribution of a few small leftover investment assets, liquidating and closing bank accounts, and selling everything that I didn’t want. I also signed a form which reimbursed Mr. Smithers for his extra time spent on everything involving clearing out the home and hiring packers and movers.
My hand cramped near the end of the third packet. As I passed the signed pages and pens back to Mr. Smithers, I glanced around the room at all of my grandparents’ belongings. Knocking on the door and hearing conversation, the moving men entered the dining room and introduced themselves. Quickly giving instructions about belongings that I knew I wanted immediately, I asked the two young men to take the china hutch, the two side tables and coffee table that were once in the living room and sideboard from the dining room. I located the china and kitchen dishes that had been carefully packed and labeled and my grandmother’s jewelry, my grandfather’s World War II memorabilia and all of the photo albums, journals and family keepsakes. I found my grandfather’s black trench coat and my grandmother’s furs. Not sure that I wanted either, I knew I wasn’t yet ready to part with them. I placed a star on each box I wanted and then moved a few vases that were still sitting on the sideboard to be wrapped and also placed in my truck. I didn’t have a need for any of the beds, dressers or the dining room table or chairs, but knew I still needed to locate the sheets and towels. My grandmother had the most beautiful pillowcases I had ever seen and I always knew someday that I would want those hand-embroidered pieces of art so that I could continue to treasure them in my own home.
As I made my way to the back of the large row of labeled boxes, I found the sheets and pillowcases in the very last box on the floor placed next to my grandfather’s chest. An audible gasp left my lips as I remembered the last time that I saw the chest as a child.
“Never, ever touch that chest. That chest is your grandfather’s and no one is allowed to touch it,” my grandmother declared.
“But what is in it?” I asked.
“That is none of your business. I have never been allowed to touch it either. Just promise me, your hands will never even grace the hinges. Promise me.” Never seeing my grandmother so serious before, I instantly promised her I wouldn’t touch the chest. I was fascinated by the fleur-de-lis metal adornments and the rope handles. It took everything that was in me to not touch the chest which sat in the basement of their old home. I always wanted to even get a glance of it down at the bottom of the rickety stairs. And then one day, it was gone. I knew not to ask about the chest and then I just forgot that it seemed to be missing from the bottom of the stairs.
“Ms. Garlow. You should know that one of the things that your grandmother had listed in her final instructions was in regard to the chest. Your grandmother wrote that under no circumstance was I to disburse of the chest on my own. That the chest was for you and it needed to go to your home. That opening it wasn’t an option. You have to take the entire chest, contents and all.” I smirked at the attorney’s final disclosure. That sounded exactly like something my grandmother would request.
“I will take the chest and I promise not to open it until I get home. I think I am done with putting a star on all the boxes. Those movers have done a great job loading all the furniture. I am going to go outside and make sure that they started loading the boxes safely for transport.” When I went outside, I found only one box that should be moved as it was lighter than all the rest.
Returning indoors I perused the boxes to make sure that each one with a star had already been taken outside, and pointed to the chest. “Don’t open it. Just put it on the floorboard of the front seat of the truck.”
“Of course ma’am,” the second mover quickly replied.
Mr. Smithers had also been given strict instructions from my grandmother to tell me about who had purchased the home, once purchase papers had been signed and the final sale was pending.
Once everything was loaded, I decided to do one final walk through of the home. The amazing home that I loved as a child. Saying a silent prayer for the family that purchased the home, I prayed for the children, that they would enjoy each room as much as I did. I prayed for the parents that would raise their kids in the home the same way my grandparents raised my mom and her siblings. Heading home, the two moving men that I hired followed me in their car. So pleased with their hard work after they had brought all of the furniture and boxes into my home and positioned each where I had requested, I paid the two gentlemen in cash and tipped them well. I remembered what it was like to be a struggling college student.
I had requested that the chest be put on the coffee table in front of the couch. Sitting down slowly, I steeled myself for what I would find. Slowly, as the chest creaked open, the smell of cedar and lavender wafted out. My grandmother had placed the cedar chips and lavender swags to fight against any musty odors that may have sunk in over the years. Sitting in front of the open chest, I stared in disbelief.
Apparently, the Purple Heart that had always been rumored to have been awarded to my grandfather, had found its resting place inside of the scarred chest. My grandfather had never spoken of his wartime experiences, and even denied being hurt during the war and subsequently sent home. He had mentioned that so many of his friends had lost their lives, and he was grateful to ever make it home. I remember my mother questioning if he thought he was diminishing the experience of those that served and gave their lives when he was only wounded and had the rest of his life to live. Whatever the reason, he valued the Purple Heart enough to keep it and store it for safety.
Next to the treasured medal was a picture of my grandmother and grandfather. Oh, how young my grandmother looked. I believed the picture was from when they were dating, and turning it over I received confirmation. A handwritten note from my grandmother read, “Come home to me. I will be waiting for you. You are loved.” Tears poked at the corners of my eyes.
Underneath, I found my grandfather’s class ring from high school, his class ring from college and the small framed award he had received when he had reached 25 years on the job. I also found my grandfather’s watch and wedding ring which my grandmother must have carefully packed away after his passing. Beneath all of these beautiful items, I found something I never expected. There was a single envelope addressed to my grandmother with her maiden name from my grandfather when he was stationed in Europe during the war. The envelope was never sealed, nor was it torn open. The flap had been neatly tucked inside of the envelope.
“April 11, 1942
I miss you more each day. Know that I will always love you. I won’t overwhelm you with the details, but I am struggling and concerned that I may never see you again. My friends are dying. More and more every day. I have seen so much killing, so much death. I can’t imagine how I will make it three more months, even three more days. If we are not meant to be married, if I do not return, know that I want you to be happy. Find someone who loves you the way you deserve, someone who will treat you like a queen and give you all the babies you want. But promise me you will be happy. Promise me. I need to know this one thing. I love you. I love you. I love you. Always.
Tears streaming down my face, I took the envelope from the table. The envelope had never been posted. My grandfather wrote this letter and never sent it to my grandmother. Checking the date on the top of the letter, indeed, he returned just over three months later to the United States. He loved her the moment he met her, when he was drafted and was forced to leave her, all while he served his country, and he loved her the moment he was reunited with her after a thirteen-month tour of duty. He loved her and this letter wasn’t meant for her to see, as he planned on returning home to his soon-to-be bride. It also wasn’t meant for me to see either. Until now.
That day was the day when I knew that things wouldn’t always be so hard. It wouldn’t always hurt so much to continue each day without my grandparents. I would always miss them, but grief would no longer be so heartbreaking.
Thankful for these treasures, I opened the china hutch which was placed in the new desired location in my dining room. The Purple Heart, the wedding ring and picture, the watch, both class rings and the letter in the envelope were all placed accordingly on the top shelf. A shelf of honor.
Visit Kelli on her blog: https://kellijgavin.blogspot.com/