Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Life in a Trunk

Inside the trunk are two large family Bibles, seven photo albums, two small books (Cogswell Compendium of Phonography and Intermediate Course in Mechanical Drawing), a lady’s jewelry box filled to the brim, three Phillies cigar boxes (two missing  lids), all filled with miscellaneous contents, a Polaroid camera in its case with a boxed flashgun and instruction booklet, many financial records including tax returns (even a 1975 audit letter), a half-full box of powder blue writing paper, a framed photograph of Grandmom, memory books of Grandmom’s and Poppop’s funerals, a like-new Buck knife in its box, three extremely sharp household knives, and on the bottom of the trunk like shelf liner, two newspaper sheets dated March 30, 1945, with articles about the “A-bomb” and “Jap Elections.”

The outside is Army green and measures 16” wide by 30” long and 13” deep. Not a big trunk but heavy with contents when I got it. Although it’s made of hard cardboard, it has reinforcing black metal strips wrapping all the corners. Leather carrying straps protrude at each end. Two black metal locking devices adorn the front on each side, and an Elgin padlock, closed with no key, dangles from the top catch, securing nothing. A black metal band goes all the way around under these locks.

I have no idea how Uncle Johnny acquired the trunk or where it came from. I don’t remember ever seeing it before. It came to my home in Florida via I-95 from Delaware, a trip back home Jim and I took together in 2000, a journey to attend Uncle Johnny’s funeral.

Johnny was born in 1914. He was the oldest of nine children, the son of Arthur and Emily, farmers in Caroline County, Maryland, located on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay. He worked the farm with his dad until 1952, when his dad’s deteriorating health required them to give it up. Uncle Johnny never married, and he continued to live with his parents after they moved to Kent County, Delaware. Not well educated, he found a job driving a truck for a furniture company, Liebman’s, in Dover.

His dad died in 1960, and Uncle Johnny took care of his mom, continuing to work for Liebman’s until he retired at age sixty-five in 1979. His mom, my grandmother, passed away in 1981. Uncle Johnny lived alone until he died on May 20, 2000. He was 85. As his favorite niece, I inherited his trunk.

I didn’t know a lot about Uncle Johnny; he was quiet, not much of a talker. After we moved to Florida from Delaware in 1978, I called him a few times each year and always sent his favorite oranges and grapefruit for Christmas. Now, that seems like so little. I know he had to be lonely.

He was a good son, dutiful and kind. I remember hearing about the bursitis in his elbow. Someone said a car had sideswiped him as a young man, damaging his arm as it rested on the open window. I remember a visit when I was five or six years old, begging for bologna and ice cream as I got to accompany him to the store.

He loved going to the annual Delaware State Fair in Harrington and also to the horse races held there each fall. He always planted a garden (wow those tomatoes), and every time I asked how he grew such red juicy ones, he said it was because of the marigolds he planted around the outside edges. According to him, they kept away the bad bugs. Turns out, he knew what he was talking about. Of course, that rich Delaware dirt didn’t hurt either.

He visited us once in Florida when another brother made the trip in 1983. A few months before that, Johnny learned he had prostate cancer. He had the surgery and made changes to his lifestyle. He appeared at our house in blue jeans and white tennis shoes, and at 69, he got around better than I did at 39. During his visit he asked for Special K and a glass of cranberry juice for breakfast. But he was still very quiet.

When Jim and I returned from Delaware with the trunk, I was more than anxious to see what was inside, my nosy nature being what it is. As I write this, I again look inside the trunk. Each time seems like the first as it takes me back, a virtual time machine. I have tried to keep it as it first appeared to me.

I’ve spent many hours “inside” this trunk and continue to find out things I didn’t know every time I open it up. Surprisingly, Uncle Johnny saved many local newspaper clippings about me, inserted into photo albums, things I had forgotten about. He couldn’t have imagined the pleasure his gift has given me. I hope he’s up there somewhere, looking down and smiling, happy that I’m learning more about his life and the kind of person he was. Some of the things I find make me wish I could call him up and ask, “What was that for?”

But now, it’s a life in a trunk, solitary, suspended, creating some questions with no answers.

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