86: Granny’s Cedar Chest

86: Granny’s Cedar Chest

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Granny’s Cedar Chest

They say genes skip generations. Maybe that’s why grandparents find their grandchildren so likeable.

~Joan McIntosh

Although the brass trim has tarnished over the decades, the wood of my grandmother’s cedar chest retains a soft, warm glow and the faint scent of cedar still wafts upward when the lid opens. A treasure trove of family heirlooms lies within the cedar chest and my own talismans mingle with Granny’s keepsakes. The worn baby shawl with hand-stitched edging remains within, along with a candy tin filled with dime store jewelry that a young Hazel Hayward wore when she worked as a telephone operator.

Yellowed, thin clippings and brittle photographs capture fragments of lives and preserve moments of the past. I can open any of the albums and thumb through to watch my own life unfold in Kodak clarity. Through these old photographs I can also catch a momentary glimpse of the past, of the world that once was reality.

There are too many items to count, to tally, but there is one artifact that is most important, a single item that has the most meaning for me because it sparked my career as a writer and sustains it. The manuscript is fragile and the ink is faded, the ink that was once stark, fresh black on new pages written over with great care. One corner of the faded manuscript remains tied with a red ribbon now softened to a dusky pink by time. I can read the title and the entire work with ease although my fingers handle the precious paper with a light touch so that I do not destroy my Granny’s one work as a writer, the Class Prophecy she penned in 1912.

Class prophecies were the vogue in the year that the Titanic sank beneath the waters of the north Atlantic and hers is written in the flowery, delicious style of the times. Most graduating classes had one, the work of a single student that attempted to foretell the future of their classmates.

Written in the first person, my grandmother’s work lives and breathes life into the long dead youth who finished school with her that spring. I was fourteen, little younger than she when I first read it. Then, as now, I was awed by the power of the words, the unknown gift of my grandmother.

My own yearning to become a writer came early and I scribbled stories as soon as I learned how to hold a pencil. As a teenager, I hoped that someday I might write words that could touch others but it was a secret dream I kept close.

Granny knew me, however, almost as well as her own heart and so she opened the cedar chest to reveal that old manuscript. I read it with amazement, unaware that the grandmother who wore aprons over her house dresses, the woman whose hands were gnarled and worn with years of toil, had once shared my dream. Dust motes floated in the afternoon sunlight that filled the bedroom that my father once shared with his brother, and tears burned in my eyes as I asked why she had not become a writer.

“I couldn’t.” Her words were soft and simple but they spoke volumes. She couldn’t; she had gone to work soon after that eighth grade graduation. By the time that the World War involved America, she had been a telephone operator. Later, after dial phones eliminated many operators, she went to work in a hospital laundry, a job she held until soon after my birth. She had also raised three sons, sent two of them off to World War II, and buried a husband. She married again in an autumn romance to my beloved Pop, the grandfather connected to me through love if not blood.

I stared at this remarkable little woman, unable to speak… but she could. “I couldn’t but you should.”

Her words were both benediction and challenge. It was a gauntlet tossed down to spur me and it has. Had she been able to attend high school or college, she might have become a noted writer but there is no “might” or “could” in real life. She had not but I could.

My dream had once been hers and on that day the torch was passed from one generation to another. I made a promise that I would not marry until I finished my education — high school and college. And, I made a vow that I would strive to take words and make them sing, that I could succeed.

The road to becoming a full-time writer has been long and filled with obstacles, but when tempted to falter, I would remember that manuscript, that dream and press onward.

Granny’s cedar chest now graces my living room. Within its burnished depths, that manuscript remains, testament to a dream and foundation to my career as a writer.

She couldn’t but I have — because of her dream.

~Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

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