A bag full of tapes.
The leather bag was heavy. It was a gorgeous, hand-made Haitian bag made from stiff, golden-brown leather. Some 35 years ago, I saw it in a shop and fell in love with its stylish appearance, ideal for traveling. I was so proud of my beautiful piece of luggage and so disappointed when, taking it on its very first trip to Europe, I realized it was simply too heavy to drag through the long airport halls. Ever since, it sat in my closet, for decades, its function reduced to serving as a resting place for the too many cassette tapes we’d collected over the years. Haitian merengues mixed with German Schlager and French ballades, the Christmas sermon my old German pastor spoke in the 70s and which my father registered so we could listen to it in far-off Haiti. The cassette tapes stretched the bag so tight that it took the fiddling hands of two to close the heavy-duty zipper. After squeezing the last cassette in, I had pushed the bag further into the closet, never to open it again until we moved, decades later.
Storage space was tight in the new house. Despite a heavy heart, the bag and its content were destined for the dump, but a few cassette tapes I salvaged. The Christmas sermon, and two tapes of Ivy, my spiritual director, sharing her missionary life in Mexico, some copies of the radio broadcasts I had produced at Radio Catholic Voice in Jamaica. A song, or two, despite not owning a cassette player anymore.
I let go of the rest, symbols of a long-gone part of my life, memories of a happier time, memories of songs in a house we called home. Minimalism is my credo these days. Emptying my life of many things, discarding some memories, some feelings too. Seeking the freedom to live without clutter. The CDs will be next. When I find the courage to discard what’s attached to them.
Before I even come to that, there’s…
The old chest
“Can you decipher these words?” read the message under a picture. I looked at the photos of my grandmother’s old chest. Stripped off the wallpaper, which had lined its wood, some writing is revealed, “Aug. Ecklebe, Söhlde den 7. April.”
I gasped, my blood rushing through my body. Unable to reply I stare at the picture. The smells of the chest invade my memory. The sounds it makes upon opening and closing the lid too vivid in my ears.
On the other side of the world, grandma’s chest had just changed owner and discovering my ancestor’s handwriting increased my feeling of loss.
Eight years ago, after selling our German family home, I had left the chest in my friends’ attic. They, too, are selling their house now and asked what to do with the chest. We offered it to other family members and friends; nobody had any use for it. I inquired the cost of having it sent to us, across the Atlantic. Exorbitant amounts! We opted to advertise locally, and some neighbor took it. He stripped the chest of its color and lining. When the writing appeared, he wanted to understand its meaning. Thus, here are the pictures, and I stare helpless at what they reveal. “I would never have stripped an antique’s varnish, nor removed its lining.” Naked, stripped, the chest looks so foreign to me. Well, it’s not mine anymore. I’d let go of it, or so I thought. Yet, the writing in its lid brings a rush of memories home.
My grandma, a seamstress, had used the chest to store her most precious fabrics. Later, my mother her winter clothes, then mine. Whenever I visited Germany, I found my warm pullovers, pants, and socks waiting in the chest. None of us knew that words were hidden under the lining. Now, analyzing the other markings made with the same pencil onto the wooden pieces that form the lid, it looks as if the writer was also the chest’s builder.
In the past centuries, German craftsmen often signed their pieces in pencil. Someone found my father’s signature under the floor boards of the town’s kindergarten. He had marked them when he was contracted to lay the floors long before he went to war. Upon refurbishing the rooms some 70 years later, the workmen found his signature, cut the board piece out and presented it to me. Sweet memories.
“Who is August?” my children ask. “My great-grandfather,” I replied, and as soon as spoken out loud, my doubts settle in. No, somehow it could not be right. Grandma’s father’s name was different, and yet, this name, August, sounds so familiar. Was it grandma’s own grandfather, an uncle, a brother? Did grandma have a brother? I am stunned, cannot believe that I don’t know anymore. Worse, there’s no one left who could tell me. Except some old papers, maybe.
I rip open the box that holds our old family papers. I takes time, I search and search. Old birth- and death certificates, old pictures, old everything. But they don’t go far enough back in time, and I don’t find the answer. “August, you seem to remain a mystery,” I speak out loud, while racking my brain for answers. If grandma had this chest and used it for her business, it seems that either the chest had been in her family all along, or August built it for her. The only thing I always knew with certainty is that she brought the chest with her, filled with embroidered bedlinen and fine table cloths, when she married grandpa. The chest was always “Ida’s chest”.
In searching the documents, I stumble upon some old little snippets of folded papers. The messages my father wrote with a stub of pencil onto two pieces of squared paper to inform my grandparents that he had been taken prisoner of war in late April 1945, barely 3 weeks before WWII ended. He dropped the snippets, tightly folded, into the street when the guards weren’t looking. Miraculously, each of them was found by a good man. The first finder rode his bicycle 24 km to my grandparent’s home and gave them the message in person. The other found a way to forward it to them with his own personal note attached to it, giving them some details about the soldiers taken as prisoners of war. At last, grandma Ida learned that her only child was still alive.
The next paper in my hands is the first letter Dad sent to his parents on June 2, 1945 from a war prison camp in Reims/France. He expresses his gratitude to God for “bringing the murdering to an end” and for sparing his and his parent’s lives, with great hopes to see them again despite his detention in war prison camp. Little did he know that it would take 3-1/2 years of hardship before he returned home. By then my grandfather was long dead, and grandma’s house filled with war refugees.
Moved to my inner core, I call my son to look at the papers. Reading them again, we both cry. “It’s one thing to hear grandpa’s stories, it’s another to look at these snippets of paper and read the message with my own eyes,” he sniffed. Words of great meaning. Once again, I feel so close to grandma Ida. Just like I had felt close to her when my own son was at war in Iraq. What mothers go through when their little ones are in danger can only be felt by mothers who endured a similar plight. Ida passed on when I was barely three years old, but when my son went to war I felt her presence, and the knowledge of her endurance was holding me up every day. Suddenly, I cannot understand why I had left her chest behind when I moved across the ocean.
“August, who are you to me? August, did you build Ida’s chest? August?” No answer from a dead man, obviously. And my paper search had produced nothing but the revelation of an old bond between the things we own and the persons who inherit. Maybe we are not meant to throw them all away. Rather, cherish them for what they are: the link to those off whose line we descend, to those who have been before us. Who held the love transmitted through the generations, and are part of who we are today.
My chest, Ida’s chest, has changed hands. May its legacy give peace to them, and to us.