My mother kept her jewelry in a soft round case made of shiny green quilted material that had a zipper all around. The color green was her color, a dark olive that reminded me of her.
She kept the case in the top drawer of her bureau where she kept underwear and silk scarves. The bureau was of smooth unpolished wood with a fine grain. The plainness of it reminded me of her too. As did the rough wide wooden boards of the floor.
I liked to sit on the edge of her bed, unzip the soft green jewelry case and finger through the tangled jumble of necklaces, bracelets and earrings.
Also amongst the silk scarves in the top bureau drawer was an almost flat metal box, pale blue, that opened on a hinge to reveal my mother’s collection of tiny pretty shells – iridescent, pink – lying on and covered with a few sheets of Kleenex. My mother said the shells came from Cuba, from a trip she and my father took before I was born.
Cuba was something to do with their life from before I was born, some hazy indistinct past. The way my father said “Cuba” in his voice with his Hungarian inflection stamped Cuba as one of our places. Iowa was not one of our places, nor Cleveland. But Cuba was. British Columbia was. Hungary was. New England was – both parents talked about how pretty it was in the fall. Even Philadelphia was one of our places because my father’s Hungarian friends lived there.
Once, years and years later, I came upon the metal box of Cuba shells in the garage. My mother was beside me. The shells were still there despite all the many moves.
Now though they are gone and I wish they weren’t.
Pretty much everything is gone. When the house that held if not all of it, at least a good deal of it, was sold, my mother filled a storage unit with what she did not get rid of immediately. She did it alone – my father back in Hungary, my sisters and I off in our own worlds.
A few years passed and she invited me to come help her sort through the storage unit and its many cardboard boxes. I opened one box and saw the red straw hat of a little figure that used to sit on the piano, a figure that instantly tugged at me, conjuring up the dining room and all that went with it.
I closed the box. “Let’s just throw them all away without opening them,” I said, brash and 30, living in an ashram where belongings had no place. “Okay,” my mother said, and for an hour we heaved cardboard boxes filled with our past into a dumpster.