It’s up in the attic, close to the window in the front of the house. My grandmother gave it to me sometime when I was in my early twenties. It’s a Maple Lane Hope chest. My mother had a Hope Chest too. Her grandmother gave it to her. It sat at the bottom of the twin beds, next to the piano in what we would, today, call the Master Bedroom. I remember that, as a child, when I was sick, my mother would open it to walk us through its contents, contents that were special and apart from our daily lives.
A normal child of the 1940s, I was sick often and so I became very familiar with my mother’s treasures. They were treasures, not by monetary value, but by another set of standards that are hard to quantify.
Inside that chest, there were two evening gowns, one was a pearl white and the other, what could only be described as a delicious, scintillating cerise. Crafted in the 1930’s they were, in today’s parlance, body conscious. Few of us today, especially me even when I was young and relatively thin, could pull of wearing these bias-cut beauties. Each dress had two wonderfully glittering clips at the neckline. There was nothing to match the glitter of those pins, nothing. In a house that had a total of three faux paintings of scenes from Elizabethan England and a lithograph of the Sacred Heart, they were special. They took my breath away each time I saw them. Those two dresses represented a kind of life that was so different from the life of a child in 55th street in Brooklyn. And for my Mom? After four children in less than five years? One can only guess.
There were baby clothes in the chest, which Mom would carefully lay out on my sickbed, recounting incidents that were associated with each piece. There tiny white leather shoes, a tiny brush with the word Baby inscribed in silver on the handle and an envelope that held the hair from my first haircut. These always brought tears to my mother’s eyes. I didn’t understand why then. I do now.
The trunk also held greeting cards from my father to my mother. These were beyond precious for Mom. You see, by the time I was five, there were three other children in the house and my father, who had contracted tuberculosis, had been taken away to a Sanitarium in Otisville, NY. Life was hard for my mother then, with a drastically reduced income and four children between the ages of newborn and five. I think that the Hope chest had an almost therapeutic effect for both of us, for me, a release from the boredom of being sick and for Mom, a way to recapture more exciting moments in her life.
I was in college when my grandmother, who could scarcely afford it, gave me my Hope chest. She had carefully taught me how to do the things that a young woman was expected to know. She taught me to sew, knit, crochet, cook and clean. The Hope chest filled up with hand crafted treasures, reminiscent of the customs of my grandmother and mother’s youth, a cache of things that would carry a sense of beauty to the life of a woman after her marriage.
I did have use for the pillow cases with hand crocheted edgings, the table cloths and napkins, the beeswax candles, but the chest had other uses as my life progressed. It’s last was to store the handmade baby and toddler clothing that my mother made for my daughter. The little dresses and hats, the snowsuits (not handmade) with pink rosebuds, the patent leather shoes and socks with little embroidered flowers, the barrettes and tiny pocket books…so sweet. They lay above
the Eaton suits that my son wore, some I made for him, some purchased. There was a toy gun and gun belt, a pair of chaps, assorted blue jeans and t-shirts, all carefully preserved along with their memories.
There were times when I would wander through Emily’s little girl clothes to conjure memories of her sweet little girl life. My grown up daughter has two sons. Those marvelous little dresses and things had nowhere to go. I gave the clothes to a young couple a few years ago, hoping that they would ease the financial burden of their young family’s life. I kept the memories for myself.
With the exception of the Easton Suits, which are very out of fashion now, some of my son Ben’s clothes are being worn by his nephews. What a joy to have them used again.
My daughter never dreamed of a Hope chest. Such things were remnants from other times and the lives of women who lived in those times.
The chest remains in the attic, now filled with rugs and detritus of things no longer wanted or useful. There are no glittering brooches, no elegant bias-cut evening gowns, no sentimental love notes. Television and tablets entertain sick children and the memories of long, boring days in bed as a child, relieved only by the contents of my mother’s hope chest are mine alone.
Mar 20, 2019