The Halloween Project 2021 - Story 4: Keepsakes
Ramping it up here as we enter the final days to Halloween. We all poke around. Here, there. We like to uncover things. Maybe not.
Also... as this story is a bit long the next will be short. Only six words.
Exploring grandma’s attic after her death divulged some long-hidden secrets, but the basement was far, far worse. No one wanted to look, and when we did, we were sorry. Perhaps it’s important to know a person for who they really are, but I’m no longer sure. “The truth will set you free,” people say, but do they really mean it? Think about it. What’s really more important, “Who you were,” Or “Who people thought you were?” I’m only saying this because the past six months, since she died and we found her, I don’t know what to call it, her stuff, it’s been simply horrible, terrible, horror. Impossible. Can’t sleep. Don’t know what to do. Barely eat.
Beatrice Barker shed her mortal coil at the very ripe old age of 98 and three months exactly. She was shooting for 100 and got pretty darn close. “Bea” also known as Grandma, Grammy, Gram, Maman and Bee-Bee was the queen of her home, her street and her town of Butler, Pennsylvania. She started out on a farm about five miles out of town, one of four children, next to oldest to boot. Her daddy had a bad temper, a drinking problem, and no skill for farming. Bea knew to stay away from him if he came home from town too late for dinner and threw his cap in the corner. Just like that, there would be swearing and smashing and maybe a few swats or even a belt buckle. Her mother passed when she was 10 and she and her older sister took up the housekeeping. That lasted a few years, until her sister, just turned 17, simply left the farm one day and never came back. That must have been around 1936. Bea never saw or heard from her again.
Finally, after 15 years of troublesome toil and failing crops, her daddy sold the farm and they moved into an apartment in the center of Butler. He went to work for the Pullman-Standard Rail Company. They made rigs and cars for the railroad and he was hired immediately. His skills were in hot metal and hotter fire. He was strong and handy and knew his way around tools. He was also much better at factory work than he was at farming, although what he really excelled in was drinking and that belt buckle.
Bea did all the housework and the cooking after that but daddy died young as the drink overtook him. The younger kids were handed over to relatives. Bea got married not shortly after and then her life began. She had seven children in all. Seven children who all grew up, got married, and had 24 grandchildren. Grandma couldn’t even keep track of them all. You’d need a computer just to remember their names and birthdays. But she always remembered me because I was her first grandchild. I’m now 56.
But I’m not here to tell you Grandma’s whole life story and all the bits and pieces. Just the end part. The bad part. She passed quietly in the night, no real illness, just done. Her husband, my granddad passed away 20 years ago. My sister Julie, my brother Robert and I, we still lived in and around Butler so we were given the job of clearing out the old house where she still lived for the last 40 years of her life.
We had tag sales and sold the furniture both streetside and online. None of the kids or grandkids really wanted anything, except for a framed photo here and there.
The attic was a jumbled cluster of boxes; cardboard, and bins; plastic. Days, then weeks, passed as we dissected, and mostly disposed of, Grandma’s artifacts.
“How about this?” my sister or brother would ask.
Silence inevitably followed. Into the garbage bag.
In the farthest eave tucked into a corner, a rectangular object showed. A chest, a jewelry box, some kind of memento cabinet. Upon opening, Julia threw a quizzical eye my way.
Assembled in neat rows like a squared-off jigsaw puzzle were packages, small and smaller, none large, most the size of a pack of cigarettes.
Every single one, every one, was wrapped in elastic bands. Some had two or three, some seven, eight or even ten. Bland, tan rubber bands. The three of us mutually shrugged somewhere in our bones and started in.
Dozens, then hundreds, of rubber bands snapped and flashed from our fingers. What we found, most delicately wrapped was a quirky collection full of tidbits and memories. The paper, always white, was sometimes sheer, sometimes milky. Strands of fine white sewing thread bound each parcel. All were accompanied by a single slice of notepaper, description aplenty.
“My first cigarette. (1930)”
“A seventh-grade achievement award. (1935)”
“Some fur when my kitten died. (1932)
“My discharge papers from the hospital after my father knocked me down the stairs. (1936)”
“The button from a G.I.’s jacket. (1943)”
“Leaves from a beautiful autumn day. (1938)”
And on. And on. Through her 30’s, 40’s, 60’s and on, she recorded her life by relics and artifacts. A story told by the real pieces left behind.
And so we laughed, my sister, brother and I. We laughed not knowing it was, truly, our last laugh.
The next week, November staring us down, we ventured to tackle the cellar. Stone and dark and damp and wet, we tried to make quick work. Tools, assorted bolts, screws, nuts, plywood and nails, out. Old furniture, bedding, linens and most definitely, clothes, out.
In the far corner was another trunk. We approached it and smirked. O.K. Grandma, here we go again. It stood, a large, very old, leather-strapped, scarred and scraped, trunk. We hauled it from the corner, sliding it to the middle of the room. It was locked, heavily, with no key in sight. We glanced at each other. Robert walked to the other side of the cellar, returning in a few minutes with a hammer and a pinch bar. It took a dozen good strikes until the entire lock mechanism bent and snapped.
Pushing back the lid an acidic smell rose to meet us. Foul, yet dry; cloying and desiccated. The top layer consisted of three ancient blankets, all wool. After that were more of Grandma’s packages.
All enclosed by dozens of rubber bands. Each package, some small, some large, each completely devoured by wormy brown elastic bands. A dozen or so parcels in all. We each grabbed one and began to disentangle. It all smelled bad and the rubber bands flew.
Julia was first to uncover her artifact,
“Ugghh,” she said under her breath. The paper wrapping the item read:
“The ear of the dog that bit me.”
Mine announced, “The pig’s hoof that got in the garden and ate most of our vegetables.”
Robert said, “Jesus!” and then read:
“The eye of the cat that always hissed at me.”
We looked at each other.
“Maman?” Julia asked of the past , “What the hell is this?”
All three of us reached in at the same time. These packages were larger, almost the size of a half loaf of bread.
Elastic bands flew again, white paper was removed from the box. Each of us read aloud in subdued disbelief.
“These are the earrings from the girl who stole my fiancé. And her earlobe.”
“This is a piece of the scalp from a girl who always spread rumors about me.”
“These are two fingers from the boy who hit my brother Simon.”
“This can’t be. It just can’t be,” Julia said. But we each looked into the boxes and every note proved true. For minutes the three of us just held our own, deep in thought, meandering the cellar.
“Let’s take one more look and we’ll leave. For now,” she continued.
We never truly agreed but moved in unison toward the trunk. Peering over its side we all stared as if watching harder would give us x-ray vision.
Robert said, “The large one. Let’s get this over.”
Elastic bands, large, thick and much longer bound this box. We pried them off, working together. Finally, the filigree wrapping paper revealed a tiny slip of paper. I reached and it slipped through my fingers floating to the floor. Julia reached down, grasped the sides of the box and lifted. The paper found my fingertips.
“Oh my God,” Julia whispered.
“No, no, God, no!” Robert’s voice rose.
The paper said:
“My father’s head.”