Sawdust settles on my arms, legs, and the folds of my clothes as I stand in the back yard. My hands feel the vibration of the sander as the coarse grit struggles to cut through century-old varnish and the hard grain of virgin cedar. The finish won’t go easily. I have to stop often to pick clumps of softened varnish from the sandpaper with my fingernail.
I’m sanding my grandmother’s hope chest. She moved in with our family when I was born and helped raise me. This chest was a fixture in her room, and I remember climbing on it when I was a young boy. I never knew what secrets it held. She rarely opened it. After she passed away, my mom went through it, then put it out of the way in a closet, where it remained until it was given to me.
That’s when I found that something had been spilled on the lid, marring the finish and staining the wood underneath. I’ve kept it in my garage until recently, when I decided to restore it. I’ve already pried ninety-four tacks that held several decorative copper bands in place. Each one will need to be straightened and cleaned by hand. My grandmother, the woman who brought my dad into this world, was born in 1895. She received this chest when she was eighteen in 1913. After two hours of work with the sander, most of the finish and damaged wood has been removed from the lid, and I realize I’m the first person to see this unfinished wood grain in over one hundred years. The work is time consuming, but it helps me feel close to her again and gives me a way to honor her life and her memory.
This chest is just one of her possessions. I dealt with many others as I liquidated her personal property, that of my late father, and my sick mother when I prepared to sell my boyhood home to pay for Mom’s nursing care. Now Mom is gone, too, and all I have left of any of them are photographs, memories, and a few pieces of their property. This experience underscores for me how little is left when we die. Most of us leave just memories with those who knew us and the property we accumulated along the way.
This chest, given to my grandmother as she was transitioning from a girl to a young woman, was intended to hold her hopes as represented by the property she gathered for her future. While the chest remains, the things she once carefully placed inside it do not. They were scattered long ago.
I love my grandmother and treasure this chest, but I wish she had left more. I wish she left stories of her real hopes and dreams. She was married forty years to a grandfather I never met, but whom I heard was a controlling man and a mean drunk. She almost died during her first childbirth, and was thereafter unable to have more children. My grandfather quit drinking later in life and became an accomplished oil painter before dying of cancer the year before I was born. My grandmother was sixty years old then. Her life wasn’t always easy, but she never complained.
What dreams did she hold when she placed each item for her future in this chest? What disappointments did her choice of spouse bring? How many of her dreams were realized, and how did she deal with the hardships she encountered in her eighty-eight years? What would she say to me about mine?
I wasn’t there to accompany her on most of her journey. I wish I could have been. While I’m grateful for this chest and the other things she left behind, I would trade it all for a book of her writing, describing her real life hopes, dreams, and disappointments. To be able to walk with her through her future, now in the past, would help me walk in mine. Sadly, most of her life experiences died with her. One of her favorite sayings was “I hope to tell you.” I wish she had.