“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees, and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”
–Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
“Life was as delicate as the paper held in her hand.”
The above is a line from one of my stories, and I remember the flashback memory I had when I wrote it. And how very true it is.
As a teen, one of my jobs was in an antique store. The owners bought things from estate sales all over, often in large lots and sometimes wouldn’t know if it was trash or potentially treasure until they received and went through piece by piece. One day, unloading a new batch of things they had brought in, I found an old trunk.
I needed something like that trunk and though old (don’t know how old) it was still sturdy with good hinges and even a lock with the key still in it. I asked the store owner if I could buy it or work off the purchase price if they didn’t want to keep it for resale. He checked it out and decided it was nothing special. All it had in it was some old scrap newspapers. I think I bought it for $10 and worked an extra three or four hours or so to pay for it.
That evening, at home, as I cleaned it up and out I saw the newspapers were from New Orleans, late 1918. Of course, the major news was still about the Armistice and end to World War One. Wrapped inside a wad of newspaper I found a young woman’s French passport and several letters to her written in French. I kept them, and a couple of years later, when I began studying French in high school, I brought them to my teacher, and she translated them. She had a hard time because they were on thin, brittle, paper and the ink had blotched and faded. They were love letters from a French soldier, the last dated 30 October 1918. On that letter’s envelope someone had written, so harshly there were little stabs and tears in the paper, “Il ne reviendra jamais…”
“He’ll never come back.”
When I wrote the line at the beginning, I flashed back to when I held those letters in my hand. Obviously, someone had written them out of love… and the slashing comment on the envelope was made out of bitterness… and in pain. But they couldn’t bear to throw the letters away. Maybe part of them couldn’t give up their love for the man. Though the man was lost, they couldn’t leave them and their love behind. Perhaps over the years they took them out and remembered him. Or possibly not… maybe they were something that ‘was’ but no longer ‘is’… stored in an old trunk.
When I reflect on my life, I think about all the things I have stored in my ‘old trunk.’ As with most people, there are many memories. Bits and pieces, large and small, of a life full of experiences, bad and good.
Down deep are: pain and misfortune experienced, opportunities squandered or lost, misplaced love or a sad facsimile because I’d yet to discover true love and anger with its life-eating ways. Those are the dusty, faded, cobwebby things at the bottom I rarely take out. Never to dislodge from their resting place but still part of what made me who I am.
Above that is the good stuff: joyful experiences; things I did right, true love found and a more even-keeled temperament.
And on the very top, the things I take out frequently to cherish that renew me and give me strength: thoughts of my wife, daughters, and appreciation for a life well-built despite all the poorer things at the bottom of the trunk.
I think about those letters I found decades ago in that old trunk; the love, loss, and pain they signify. They taught me a lesson about appreciation and that there are so many things for which I’m very thankful.
This story is included in a collection of stories titled SEASONS PASS | Life Remains.