She had inherited it from her mom, as with so many other things. Like the red metallic christmas tree-shaped bottle still filled with chemical-smelling bubble bath from the early ‘60s and the plastic globe with some powdery soap now stuck firmly to the sides of its translucent, time-traveling prison. The leather and cheap metal fleur-de-lys pendant necklace from the gaudy height of the commercialization of the hippie movement. The rubber book strap from carefree elementary school days in the dappled hills of 1950s Tennessee, hugging the blue shadows of the Smoky Mountains. The teen mag-style photo of a young George Harrison before his shaggy Hare Krishna and sitar days (“I always thought he was the sexiest,” her mom said when she discovered it in a desk drawer). The paper dolls, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, with a staggering pastel array of sundresses and Sunday dresses and sunny day dresses. God and Sun and Rosy Cheeks. America in the 1950s.
Her grandparent’s house was a portal, her mother’s room unchanged since she left for college in 1971. The living room was arranged with Scandinavian mid-century furniture and decorative objects; an abstract ceramic owl kept watch over the grand piano, a vestige of her grandfather’s old world aspirations, when conservatory and a career as a concert pianist seemed more imaginable than his eventual flight from Nazi Germany. Downstairs, in her aunt’s former room in the chilly semi-finished basement, she found old copies of fashion magazines and a mesh veil straight out of Mary Quant’s London, still in its original package.
On Christmas mornings as a child, she would wake early, before dawn, palms sweaty and heart ticking like a bomb waiting to explode all those carefully wrapped boxes and twisted ribbons. Her grandparents were always up already, chain-smoking and drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Her grandmother’s long, wrinkled fingers with their fleshy pink pads were usually wrapped around a fresh, yellow Ticonderoga pencil while her cigarette dangled from her lips, eyes narrowed in concentration over the crossword puzzle, which was always finished within minutes (“Smoking helps me think,” her grandmother would protest when anyone tried to get her to give up the habit. That was before the Alzheimers, when her mind was still as sharp as her pencil, and she regularly grand-slammed her friends in bridge).
She usually hopped up on her grandfather’s lap on those mornings, her nightgown insufficient padding for his knobby knees. But she didn’t mind. He bounced her up and down. (“Hoppe, hoppe, reiter, wenn er fällt, dann schreit er,” he would sing, rare evidence of a well of deep-hidden nostalgia that trickled out like drips through cracks of Germanic granite whenever she clambered onto him). Breakfast was toast. Whole-grain sandwich bread toasted and slathered in butter or margarine. Cut into fourths. If her grandfather was on toast duty, it was halved on each side into four squares. If her grandmother was in charge, the bread was cut into four long soldiers. Equally delicious.
It was on one of those early mornings, years later, that she found it, catching her palm on its sharp edge as she tossed off her bedcovers, the tail end of the wintry Tennessee night filtering in through the windows and blanketing the room in its glimmering blue obscurity. She squinted, moving old children’s books (the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, all read multiple times in multiple generations) out of the way to find what had scratched her. It was a little wooden box, and she could just make out faded paintings of pastoral landscapes in the darkness.
She crept out into the hallway, where her grandparents kept the light on, it’s glow as comforting as the musty scent of stale cigarettes that permeated the very fibers of the house. The box was around four inches wide and five inches tall, and just a few inches deep. It was divided into two sections; the bottom was open, while the top half had small linked wooden slats that met in the middle, like two sides of a mini rolltop desk. This rolling tambour is what was painted with green hills, in a style that seemed both vaguely Central American and vaguely Chinese. She used her thumbs to push the slatted covers to each side, revealing a tiny drawer.
One time, her mom had showed her the shoeboxes full of letters in that old room. The stream-of-consciousness love notes from her father, from when they first started dating and he was living in Europe, dropping acid and hitchhiking to hippie communes under dolorous gray skies in post-war Citroëns. The letters from her mother’s various boyfriends at music camp, math camp, French camp. Diary entries about would-be lovers and real-life lovers. Snapshots of life as longing.
She thought about those boxes of letters now, as she stared at the tiny drawer, its miniature pink, wooden knob like the nipple of some ecstatic god of destruction and rebirth, trapped inside. That’s how she felt, often. The destruction and rebirth of all that had come before. It’s why she combed through that house like the manifestation of some ageless ghost, seizing the objects and memories from her past lifetimes, the viscera of lives that resisted decay. She had rummaged to its cobwebs, inhaled the particulates of human flesh that had settled invisibly across its surfaces over decades, like a map of chronological pinpricks. She found her fingertips playing one of her grandfather’s favorite songs over the edges of those painted hills as green as the Smokies, a Mendelssohn sonata (another German Jew, although her grandfather never mentioned it).
She went back into the room and found a pen in the desk drawer amidst beaded necklaces and plastic tchotchkes, and tore a piece of empty watercolor paper from a booklet that had her mother’s teenage sketches of hands and feet. In the hall she wrote a note on the paper, folded it up, and dropped it into the miniature drawer in the box. She pressed her thumbs against the slats and pushed them back over the little drawer, her pulse fluttering in the pads of her fingers that one day would be as pink and satiny as her grandmother’s. She opened the door of the room, slid the box back behind the beaten cardboard covers of those well-worn books that found rebirth with each successive generation, and climbed under the sheets, her secrets sleeping and satisfied, waiting to be discovered.