My mom and my brother Mike’s Christmas visit was too short, as always, and they were about to start the three-hour trip home when she and I decided to take a quick look in her old cedar chest which now graces the foyer of our home. In no time, we were making a good old mess, pulling everything out and reminiscing.
“Why do you keep all that old stuff?” my brother asked. Anyone who saves sentimental things understands the scenario and has probably been asked this question. On the flip side, I’ve heard friends say, “I wish my mom had saved some of my old things. I don’t have any of my old…” Fill in the blank: Toys, clothes, keepsakes, schoolwork, letters.
Probably ten years has passed since I last sorted through the baby clothes my brother and I wore a half-century ago, that my children also got to wear as little ones. Those clothes were made to last. My old Peaches and Cream dresses with the spinning skirts were favorites with our daughters. They and their cousins wore the scratchy, white mesh, half-slips called crinolines on their heads as bridal veils when playing dress up.
Mom showed my brother, his tiny baby cap. Preferring to play music than drive, he had taken up his fiddle to wait us out. The cap was navy wool with little white ducks and a bill to shade his eyes. He raised his chin and stopped playing long enough to lift his eyebrows in mock excitement and say, “Well isn’t that cute.”
“It is cute and so were you when you wore it on your sweet little head,” Mom said.
“Why would anyone save stuff that smells like hundred-year-old houses?” one of my boys asked as he walked through the hall, stepping over a stack of frilly little girl clothes. “This stuff is stanky.”
“It smells like cedar, Mr. Snarky, like the name of this chest. Cedar chest. I’m glad they don’t smell like mothballs. Now that’s stanky,” I said.
Mike paused from playing and wandered close, looking into the deep chest when Mom said, “Do you remember this purple snow suit? Both you and Lisa wore this one.”
“Yeah, I think I do,” he said.
Old softy, he’s probably more interested than he lets on. He reached out to squeeze the puffy leg of the toddler suit.
“Oh my gosh!” I said. “Look what I found. It’s my old fake face toboggan. I loved that hat so much. When I wore it, I had two faces: a face on the front and on the back of my head. I wore it all the time. I loved those eyeballs that rolled around and the red yarn hair around the sides,” I said. I put the hat on and looked in the mirror. “Don’t I look adorable? You know a lot of people around suburban Charlotte don’t know toboggan means hat? They think a toboggan’s a sled. Silly city folks.”
“Watch it Sis. Your country roots are showing,” my brother said. “I remember that two-faced hat. I could throw a snowball at the back of your head and hit you right in the face.”
My daughter, Sarah, one of our three eighteen-year-olds, hung out with us as we plundered through the cedar chest. She kindly oohed and aahed at all the right times. “I remember wearing lots of these clothes — especially your old Easter dresses,” she said. “We have pictures where you made me pose in each of those dresses in front of my bedroom mural.”
“You were a willing model, thank you very much. I put your big sister Danielle through the same thing each time she wore one, by the way. Check this out. Danielle wore this tiny outfit home from the hospital. You and your brothers couldn’t wear regular baby clothes home. At three pounds each, I had to go to a toy store and look for Cabbage Patch Preemie doll clothes for you. Here are your teeny, weeny clothes.”
“I can’t believe we were ever so little,” Sarah said as she reached deeper into the chest. “Mom what is that? Is it a doll?”
I lifted out of a sticky, plastic bag a large baby doll with a heavy, stuffed-cloth body, forearms, and legs. The head, hands, and feet were plastic. It was having a really bad hair day. Picking up the doll felt almost like holding a real child — dense and floppy with eyes that opened and closed depending on her position. I handed it to Sarah.
“It feels kind of real, but creepy,” she said.
“Support her head,” I said. I smiled at her as she looked up at me to see if I was serious. She returned a fake, toothy smile and put the doll back in the chest.
“Do you want to try on my scandalous, blue sequin majorette uniform, or my old dance costumes? That orange one is why I quit dance in high school,” I said.
“You quit dance because of the one that looks like a flapper dress?” she said.
“Well, partly. The costume was sort of French cut and I didn’t want to show off my backside or the fact that I didn’t know the routine very well. So, I quit before the recital. Now you know. Once upon a time, I was a quitter but just that once. Sure you don’t want to try these on?” I held the orange suit up and wiggled the tasseled bottom.
“No, but thanks for offering,” Sarah said, picking up two coats. “I remember these little blue and red plaid coats. The boys were so cute in them.”
“We had to peel them off your brothers. They looked like pint-sized lumberjacks,” I said. “It’s a good thing plaid flannel is in style now since they still wear it at six feet tall.”
Further down, we found a navy plaid dress and a blue satin coat my Mom’s mother made for me. It was great having Mom remind us who made what. She also identified a seventy-five year-old sateen bed jacket that was her grandmother’s.
Mom’s tone changed as she held up a pink, green, and blue blanket and delicate beige and pink handmade cap. “This is all there is of little me,” she said. “With Daddy building tobacco warehouses all over the place, we moved almost every year, sometimes more often. We kept very little of sentimental value to have to pack and move. I’m so glad to find these things. I should have known you’d have them tucked safely away somewhere with your keepsakes.” She smiled and went back to searching through the chest, sharing tales about this or that outfit or handmade item.
I’d never thought about it until that moment, but now I wonder if her lack of keepsakes is the reason she kept so many for us. Whatever the reason, I’m so thankful. The cedar chest seems as bottomless as Mary Poppins’ bag.
My brother had the car packed, ready to beat the Friday afternoon traffic for their long drive. “Well Mom, I hate to break up your party but you girls have to stop playing in the old stuff now. We have to go home,” Mike said. He gave Sarah and me a hug with one arm and carried his fiddle case with the other.
Mom laughed. “This is just like when I was little. I’d go to my granddaddy’s farm and play paper dolls with the relatives and make a good, old mess and then it would be time to go home. The other girls would be stuck cleaning up after I left.”
Looking around at the things we’d pulled from the chest, she hugged us all good-bye, grinned, and said, “Just look at the lovely mess I’ve made. It’s been fun but I’ve got to go now.”
I think after all these years, I’ll tell Mom’s relatives she’s still making a mess and leaving it for someone else to clean up. They’ll get a kick out of that.
Perhaps our future grand babies will dance around in dresses and veils. Or play lumberjack in plaid jackets. Maybe they’ll stand still long enough for a photographic moment. Oh what a fun chest full of belongings.
So why do I keep all this old stuff? It’s all about memories and sharing. Smiling, laughing, even crying, and reminiscing about the past with people you love who experienced it and with others who didn’t but are lucky to get a glimpse of the past. We all have life stories. That’s why. Old stuff. Thanks, Mom.