Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hope Chest Stories

I came to my writing life as a ten year old through my mother and the struggles that held her in an impossible life. We’d spent a tumultuous six years in Germany on an isolated air force base. Finally we--Mother, Dad, and Me--were back in Georgia. Thanksgiving 1967 to be exact. The last time I’d been in my home state I was four and recovering from my tonsils being taken out, so there wasn’t much I recalled of the place my mother and father called home. 

Dad drove through the suburbs intent to reach our destination before dark. It was late evening and we sat at a traffic light on Clay Street. In one of the small houses, I saw a thin woman standing at an ironing board. Her hair was twisted into two braids, and she wore a faded apron. Her living room was lit by one lamp and the black and white TV. She picked up her iron and applied it to a white shirt as she watched the Nightly News. She was completely unaware I was peeping into her life. And thus began my unobserved spying.

 “Mother did you like living here?” I asked.

Mother took a deep breath. “It was home.”

That homecoming day, sitting in the back of Daddy’s pea green Valiant, I was missing my parents, only I didn’t have the maturity to understand the emotions. A few days earlier Dad had suggested Mother go to the state hospital when we returned to Georgia. She had pointed out to him in no uncertain terms she would not.

On the car trip, I had the backseat of the Valiant to myself, and I scooted from side to side. Neither parent cared. They only sat in the front seat looking out the window. Waiting to arrive.

When we reached Granny’s house, a long deep sigh released from my chest as if I had held it for months, as if she could protect me from things to come. The house was little, a cottage in the dark woods, a sanctuary. It was clean, solid, and green with white lattice around the front porch. Not a bad place. Not a shoddy house. My father stayed long enough to unload our suitcases. When he drove off for good, I don’t know where I was. I can’t say I watched him as he went down the road. But in my childhood fantasies--the stories I told myself to get through the night or day--I chased the car but he never stopped. The missing memory is still like a bad tooth; I keep going back to test the sensitivity.

Mother tried to stop him. She begged him, pulled at the car keys. Her arm began to bleed, where he worked free. 

The small house, my new home, was connected. We didn’t have any halls. The rooms were joined by doors. To get to the bathroom from the kitchen, I had to walk through the living room and then into Granny’s bedroom and finally the bathroom that was large enough for a toilet, a small sink, and an old fashion claw foot tub. This was my saving grace. I would fill it with water and soak in privacy, telling stories to myself.

Mother and I shared a small bedroom at the back of the house that we could only access through the bathroom. There was a double bed, my twin bed, a nine inch TV, and two dressers. The first thing Mother did after crying for over two weeks was to paint the room stomach medicine pink. Maybe it was her attempt to brighten her life that seemed lost. Maybe it was just bad taste, or an early sign of her slipping reality. Granny allowed her to use the color. I think it was her gracious attempt to save her only child from a mental disease that was stealing her mind.

My twin bed was underneath a window, and at night I would look into the limbs of a giant oak tree. In the summer the leaves felt like a protective blanket. Stars would wink at me in the winter. This view was my hope, my one and only hope as my world became smaller and smaller. 

At the foot of Mother’s bed was a cedar hope chest, resembling a casket in my young mind. On the bottom was a hidden drawer that I found by accidentally kicking it one morning. Inside were over thirty silver dollars dated in the twenties. A treasure. The chest held monogrammed towels, hand sewn linen napkins with a matching table cloth, and sheets with embroider pillow cases. Cards, ribbons, and little pins a girl might place on her blouse collar were stuffed in the satin side pockets. And in the bottom was a shiny wooden box of sterling silver flatware. The box was lined with red velvet. Folded in the corner of the chest was a handmade bedspread and a tarnished letter opener. Letters tied with a yellow ribbon, paper soft like cloth, were tucked beneath. Correspondence between Mother and Dad during the Korean War. Love letters. A newly married couple waiting to begin their future, a future already tarnished with trying circumstances and mood swings. 

My Mother’s girlish hopes for life, a love, her most treasured things were packed away, saved. This chest had been intended to go with Mother when Dad came home from the war but never left her childhood home. Her precious belongings and dreams were too cumbersome to be included in their travels. Mother’s hopes were wrapped in moth balls. The vacant desires were buried away. I closed the lid to the chest and never told Mother I looked inside. Maybe she would have told me stories of her wedding and honeymoon, but I didn’t want to know. It scared me that something so loved could fall apart. Instead, I began to tell my own stories about the items inside. And so my writing routine began. Each evening as Mother sat at the kitchen table staring outside, I wrote stories. These feeble attempts at a literary life gave me belief that one day I would step outside of the walls of the home forced upon me.

I survived those years and went on to forge my own writing life. Mother slowly lost her battle with the voices that battered her reality. In one of my wedding photos, Mother stands beside me, gripping my hand. I’m smiling. She looks stunned, as if she might evaporate into the emotions of the day.

But if I look really hard, I can see her young face, the woman who put her love on her sleeve. The woman who stitched the delicate flowers on pillowcases. And if I concentrate, I can see my father’s smile when she said something funny. I can remember some of the good times. Expectations entwined in these memories lace together my stories into choices, hopes that I sometimes take out and embrace. Stories that gave me an identity hope in my own creative life. 

Ann Hite has written short stories, personal essays, and book reviews for numerous publications and anthologies. Ghost On Black Mountain, published by Gallery Books, is inspired by generations of stories handed down through her family. She lives just north of Atlanta. www.annhite.com


  1. Ann, this is wonderful, and moving, and very forgiving. Well done!

  2. Wow, Ann! What a story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you for this. Now I want to read more .... and more....about you and your mother's.

  4. Very sweet story. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Loved your writing here, Ann. Will definitely check out your book, too.

  6. Ann
    Thank you for sharing this story. The writing is lovely--and the story so touching and moving and personal.

  7. This was just gorgeous. Thanks, Ann.

  8. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing yourself so generously.