I closed the door to the old home, my eyes peering through dusk’s imprint. Little had changed since my childhood except the most essential element that was lost forever; my mother’s touch was reduced to shadows. Her essence remained, it was true, but the aura was diminished. The vibrancy that once resonated within the home had slipped away while I was gone and taken too many memories with it.
My memories were reduced to the day’s gray proceedings where the colors that once embodied her life had faded to a monochrome palette suitable for a dreary day. Hours before the unhurried hearse had served its purpose and departed. The black casket was forever struck from my sight, buried in my memory instead. When I’d blinked back my grief I’d looked skyward above the ashen faces and allowed the smoky clouds to rain cold tears on my cheeks until I shivered.
Inside her home I shivered again.
I stood with my back to the closed door waiting for insight and finding only the early evening gloom. I was a refugee from the past thrust into a future I abhorred where a grayscale brush had coated all that was positive within her home. My gloved hand reached out to create light, but hesitated and withdrew instead. Grief watched me with raven’s eyes and I found that I welcomed the company.
If pain was all I had to hold in my empty, routine life then I’d keep it close and nurture it.
“Attic.” My mother’s last word resounded in my mind, uttered when I was still gasping for air after racing to the hospital from the airport. Almost I’d forgotten the moment amidst the chaos that afterwards stormed into my life on grief stricken winds.
I removed the tiny flashlight from my purse and climbed the stairs.
The thought of lurking insects in the shadows gave me pause when my head broke the plain that was the attic floor, but I’d need not have worried. I panned the tiny beam around the small, angled space, its weak light revealing my mother’s impeccable cleaning and organization. Straightened shelves, neatly stacked boxes, and dust-free chests lined the walls.
Given my heels, I advanced with caution until I was standing within the murky space, my short stature an aid beneath the low ceiling. Around me was an emporium of mementoes and a mausoleum of memories all in one.
Little did I wish to begin sorting a lifetime that night, for seemingly that was the task before me. Instead, I shone my narrow beam lower to illuminate my descent and discovered a nondescript cardboard box centered upon the floor. I jabbed at it with my toe and was relieved when a multitude of angry spiders failed to emerge. More than a little intrigued, I located an embroidered throw pillow, set it on the floor, and knelt upon it.
I eased back the cardboard flaps and, half expecting a jack-in-the-box, peered within. Inside were two wooden boxes, one far larger than the other. My puzzlement attempted to stoke further hesitation, but when I recalled again her spoken word and considered the box’s location I knew I was intended to find the package.
Outside, the rain intensified, the liquid drumroll on the roof quickening until it became a steady drone to fill the tomb-like silence. I found the attic air oppressive and so, despite a shiver, opened my coat. My black dress became another shadow in my lonely, overlooked life.
My attention returned to the mysterious find.
I reached first for the larger box and was surprised to discover it possessed little weight. It was several times bigger than hand size and made from a cheap, lightweight wood like balsa. I shrugged, for the construction mattered little. With a twist of my wrist I examined its sides, finding only tiny hinges on the back. With near reverence I set it on the floor. Upon the top my mother had carefully painted, My Hopes and Dreams.
“Mom?” I muttered to someone who couldn’t answer.
My shaking hand eased back the lid to reveal tens of folded papers, all of them small and many yellowed with age. I reached into the crinkled mass, but found nothing beneath. My brows lowered. My body sagged until I rested on my heels. I stared at the sea of slips until thunder sounded nearby and I jumped.
When my breathing slowed I extracted one small slip and then another and another. Each contained only a few words, but each held enough meaning to paint an unrealized woman’s portrait. My mother’s hopes and dreams were many, some small and some big, but all still waiting for her to breath life into them. I continued to unfold. Each tiny message I extracted weighed more heavily upon my grief, for in my hand and upon the floor was a woman I’d never known.
A tear escaped my eye and plummeted to the darkness that was my dress. The stillness that was the attic whispered only emptiness. The hand holding the flashlight hung limp at my side. I stared at nothing, my mother’s box of revelations retreating to the shadows from hence it had come.
Never had she allowed me to suspect that she’d led anything other than a fulfilling life, yet before me was evidence to the contrary. Was I to add my mother’s grief to my own? Why would she leave me such a message? Were the fire risk not so great I’d have made the box an urn at that moment and extinguished her mournful messages. Her hopes and dreams were for me a curse, a haunting memory, and an epitaph that I little wanted.
Nearly I fled the attic until I remembered the smaller box. I glanced at the litter about my legs and considered leaving the remaining mystery buried, but curiosity cut through my bitterness and anger. I heaved a heavy sigh, raised back to my knees, and extracted the diminutive container.
It was heavy, yet smaller than the palm of my hand. Black as midnight, it was, suggesting its wooden construction was ebony or that it contained a heavy object. The contrast with the first box was obvious, but the mysteriousness unnervingly similar. My hands shook. The flashlight’s beam darted from side-to-side, tilting the shadows and bending my equilibrium. Almost I thrust the ebony box away, a part of me relishing the opportunity to watch the black object skid across my mother’s too clean floor and into unretrievable darkness.
In the name of closure and haste I swallowed hard and looked at the top. In precise, elegant strokes she’d painted, My Daughter’s Hopes and Dreams. My shoulders sagged in bewilderment. Why a tiny box for my hopes and dreams and a large box for her own?
I sighed away my questions and pushed back the lid with my thumb.
Crammed within was a single sheet of stationary that was folded at least half-a-dozen times. I shook my head in confusion, placed the tiny lamp between my teeth, and extracted the paper. Several times I fumbled the sheet before I succeeded in straightening it. I held the flashlight high and read.
My darling daughter, this box is heavy already and so needs no regrets. Likewise, this box is too small to hold your hopes and dreams so please keep them with you instead. Live your life to the fullest and leave no place inside for emptiness to dwell. Find instead happiness within, for it will take you where the truth in your heart desires.
One tap and then another upon the paper alerted me that my tears were raining upon the message in my hand. I dropped the note, I dropped the light, and I wept. The empty road I’d been traveling she’d traveled before and so she’d placed a sign to reveal her passing. That I should see the sign was her final hope; that I should heed its warning was her final dream.
©January 2013 Christina Anne Hawthorne