The Hope Chest
“Here you are,” she said. “Save this for your hope chest.”
Aunt Valeria handed me a miniature silver spoon. I was five.
Upon asking Mama what a hope chest was, she explained it’s a chest where you store things you hope to use someday. I used my silver spoon every day for imaginary tea parties, so what she said made no sense to me.
Every time I visited Great Aunt Valeria, she told me stories of all her suitors and how they wooed and pursued her, but to no avail. These stories entertained me for a few years until I noticed an ever-increasing exaggeration in the number of suitors and the machinations of their interest. Poor thing! She choked on an olive pit one day and died an old maid.
After the funeral, her attorney gave most the estate to charity. I didn’t miss her. She talked too much. Mama told Father surely Aunt Valeria intended to will more to her own family. The attorney’s charter school earned quite a high profile with the addition of the great house.
From what was left over, I received a traveling trunk and a set of bedsheets. While I thought longingly on her partridge feather hats, there was nothing to be done about the matter. At fifteen years old, what was I to do with a set of bedsheets?
Father died that same year. We moved from the cottage we could no longer afford into the city where Mama and I found jobs doing laundry. Before we moved, our neighbors gave me a tea towel set as a parting gift. I put it in my hope chest.
Work became long and weekends short. I found it hard to keep my eyes open at Sunday mass. Scrubbing Mrs. Meyer’s children’s clothes was quite an athletic event. Whether with rip or stain, her boys never failed to challenge.
One Sunday, however, I found myself distracted from the sermon for quite a different reason.
A tall redhead sat alone in the back row. I couldn’t get him out of my mind the whole service. It took another month before I could figure out his name.
Darren moved to the city to work at the rail station. I now saw a reason for my hope chest.
Every time I had something extra, I would walk down the shops of Main Street looking for household deals. Got Mama and I an ice chest that way. I still remember the day I bought my first hat. Pink ribbon around in a bow, and it matched my dress perfectly. A girl’s got to celebrate being eighteen.
Darren smiled extra that day. I even walked up and asked how’d he do. He didn’t say much I could remember while my knees were shaking. I found myself walking to the rail station and watching him all the same.
Around the corner I stood, clutching my pink-ribboned hat in sweaty hands. Most days he worked loading and shoveling coal. Sometimes he filled in at the teller window. I stared for a long time. My washing suffered.
Much to my surprise, a young man by the name of Dwight, one I’d hardly noticed, approached Mama that week and asked if I was free for courting. When she told me about I said: “certainly not!” I was waiting for Darren. What use had I for a freckled, bespectacled accountant? I was in love with the railway man.
Mama spoke wisely what I did not know then: Beauty was in the eye of the beholder and often love took unexpected forms. Whenever Dwight approached me, I moved briskly, always finding someone else to talk to.
Dwight married Belinda that year and together they moved to a better neighborhood. Darren still worked at the station.
Then came the day I finally got up my gumption. I was going to tell Darren I loved him. Surely he would tell me he loved me back, we would marry and that would be the end of it.
That Sunday he was not at church. Nor the Sunday after. I was extremely dismayed. I’d even bought new shoes. Determinedly, I finished my washing early that Monday and walked to the train station. The white leather of my T Strap heels rubbed too tight against my ankle but I pressed on regardless.
I stood at the station in my white shoes and pale green dress, a damsel near distress. When I did not see Darren in the usual places, I bravely walked to the counter.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” My stomach was throbbing. “Have you seen Darren of late? Is he here?”
The middle-aged lady looked over her steel spectacles.
“Darren? Darren who?” Her face was blank. My face mirrored hers, wordless.“Oh, Darren Bextfeld? That poor devil. You know he fell, right?”
The throbbing in my stomach moved to my throat.
“Oh yes, miss. Fell out of a bar window two weeks back. Gambled more than his paycheck and the boys got upset. Too much liquor in all of them, and he went flying. Landed wrong and that was that. He never saw it coming.”
My speechlessness continued.
“Poor boy, he worked hard enough, he did. But never had enough smarts about him to grow up and move on. At least he died quick. I just hope he went to the right side.”
Words for that I had.
“I know him from church. I’m certain he went to the right side.”
“What’s that, child? Ah, be careful. Not one human being can speak for another’s place with God. Each man decides that for himself. Church is a good start, but the Word has to live inside of you. That’s the only part that matters.”
I nodded duly. She continued.
“If you give me your name, I can tell his wife you visited.”
All throbbing stopped. Then began again at the back of my heel.
“No thank you, ma’am. That’s quite alright.” Thoughts raced while my feet stood still. A train whistle burst my ears and the wheels began to move.
“May I ask his – his wife’s name, if you please?” I asked, the train now fully in motion.
“Her name’s Maria. Maria Bextfeld, she lives at 11th Place Glaston.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
I walked away from the train station empty-hearted. Halfway home I took my shoes off and walked barefoot. I never did get that pair to fit me.
I visited Maria Bextfeld that week. She was devastated by the loss of her husband. She kept blaming herself for not becoming Catholic. I’d never heard of a couple attending different churches but apparently they tried. Six months into marriage and Maria was a widow.
A month later, Maria and I were friends. Barely a year older, we’d both struggled to make the best of our blows, and this was no different.
When Maria talked of starting a tea parlor, the idea caught my interest. Together we worked and planned. She baked cakes, and I bought the place settings. Linens and doilies caught my eye, and I remembered the tea towel set from my neighbors. They complemented the décor beautifully.
Business took off, and so did our lives. Learning how to bake and hostess, I discovered a new purpose: the art of introducing others. As the social circle grew, so did our opportunities. Eventually, Maria remarried and moved to the country. I gave her my tea towels.
“Here,” I said. “For good luck.” With new chapters ahead for each of us, we went our separate ways. Now a fully accomplished businesswoman, I had Mama help me in the kitchen. I even hired a waitress.
“I’ve got the bed upstairs. I just need your help to clean on Tuesdays.”
Vera agreed eagerly. She was a sweet young thing and worked hard. Frugal as anything now, I pulled out the sheets from my hope chest and, with a fresh washing, put them on the extra bed. We made good friends, good business, and good tea.
Then the depression came.
Money for luxuries dried up, and so did business. With the shop closed down, Vera decided to find her family. As we gave away the extra doilies, I looked at the rest of her provisions. After the next wash, I folded the sheets and sent them with her.
“They’re not the right size for my bed, so I guess I don’t really need them anymore. And every bit of readiness helps you know.”
Vera thanked me and went on her way. She did write once to say she was home and settled. She thanked me again for the sheets.
“They fit my bed here perfectly and I wouldn’t have had a set otherwise.”
I smiled gratefully. The hope chest kept on giving.
Eventually, the landlord told us we’d have to go our merry way. We packed our remaining things and watched him board up the building we’d long called home.
Mama and I sat at the railway station. Not sure where to go exactly but knowing better than to stay. I sat on my hope chest and watched a little girl before me play with her rag doll. She couldn’t have been more than five.
“And then when Papa comes home, we will have tea.” She cupped her hand and served first her doll, then herself.
I smiled watching her pretend.
“Do you have a spoon, love?” I asked.
She looked at me suspiciously. Her mother stood alongside.
“Here you are, dear,” I reached from my pocket, fingers clasping my silver spoon. “Now you have a spoon for your doll to play pretend. Save it for your hope chest.”
The child smiled. With renewed joy, she served her doll, then herself, pretend tea.
Mama and I got on the train.