Originally published in Caelum Et Terra, Winter 1994
This text is the author's copy and may vary slightly from the publisher's copy.
"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang oft a-gley" -- Burns
I live in New York City in the Bronx, which has a reputation worse than reality. People seem to think that if you even walk within its precincts, you'll immediately be caught in crossfire between drug gangs. And when the police come to cart off your body, your pockets will be empty. But it's not quite as bad as that.
My car's gotten broken into twice since I've been here to join a Franciscan lay community working with the homeless. The first time, the thieves smashed my front window, rifled through my glove compartment (ruining a lot of holy cards), and tried to wrench out my tape deck. Not succeeding, they tried and failed to get into my trunk, and tore off my pro-life bumper sticker instead. They took my small change, but missed the box of cash I keep beneath my seats for emergencies, which had $5.00 in it. All in all, I was pretty tickled by the episode. Especially since the tape deck still works, but now looks so smashed up that I doubt anyone will bother to try to steal it again.
Approaching marriage is a good time to reflect and survey the past and take stock of your resources. I had been sensing that this was where my relationship with Andrew was heading. He was, honestly, everything I'd ever wanted in a husband: a kind-hearted, earnest, free-spirited man who shared my three loves for art, family, and the Catholic Church. We had met in my sister's wedding party and had started a seemingly endless conversation, carried on through letters, phone calls, and visits, until we realized, simultaneously, where all this might be heading. Finally, during one belabored phone conversation, he brought up the "m" word, and I admitted it was in my thoughts as well. And the world spun around us for a bit as it all sank in.
So we made tentative plans: I'd take up a job offer in the Ohio area where he lives, and move out there so that we could be closer and see what would happen. In preparation, I would meet him in Harrisburg over a weekend and pass some of my belongings onto him, so that I would have less to move.
At the house, I'd pared down my possessions to a minimum, in keeping with the Franciscan rule of poverty I was trying to live out. However, at my office I guiltily hoarded my old booty: heirlooms, antiques and porcelain animals, all sorts of Things.
I have a deep affection for Things: soft, pretty, shiny, antiquated, odd-shaped, unique, dear Things. My bedroom used to be filled, embellished, and crammed with Things. I remember all the trinkets that festooned my old dresser: old shell necklaces, brass Victorian pins, a tiny china girl holding her sleeping doll, brightly colored wicker baskets, a linen cloth with my initials on it, a glittering flapper purse which added that fascinating hint of glamour.
Nowadays my dresser has a small basket for hair pins, a lamp, a votive candle on it, with a tiny image of our Lady of Guadalupe: a far cry from the old days, and an adjustment I'm still struggling to make. It goes against the grain of twenty-three years of collecting and decorating. At times I thought I would suffocate if I hadn't had a large and accommodating office at work I was free to adorn as I wished. And I did, extravagantly, stowing the excess in my big black steamer trunk.
Inside it were nestled and crammed Things from childhood, from high school, from college, from afterwards. This trunk would be the perfect item to move to Ohio first, I decided, and opened it up to take stock, re-kindle the old affections that kept me hanging onto the contents, and added some Things from the walls and nooks of my office. Such as my stained-glass suncatcher and my plaque with a quote from Jeremiah: "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for good and not evil, to give you a future and a hope."
At the bottom of the trunk I found old posters and blank paper I intended to use for painting. There was a poster from The Cocktail Party, my favorite T.S. Eliot play, a few Impressionist prints, a photo of the Veteran's Memorial Bridge, and a large, treasured poster of the Unicorn Tapestry exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I've always been strongly attached to the unicorn as a symbol of Christ, and of that elusive, mysterious longing within each of our hearts, the longing C.S. Lewis says we feel for heaven. The unicorn tapestries stirred up that longing in me when I first saw them, that desire for something more, perhaps to be found in that calm, enflowered world of the medievals. When I saw this tattered poster hanging up in the copier room at my work, I begged to have it, and hung it in my bedroom for a while. Until that inexplicable call to poverty came and I decided to follow it, and I put away some of my Things...
Like a Victorian purse I had sewed myself for my part in the play Hedda Gabbler, now residing in the trunk. Inside it I kept some choice fabric scraps I had plans for, and a silk rabbit, with silver sequins for eyes that I'd stitched myself at the tender age of ten. That rabbit and I had shared many secrets, despite his asymmetrical and lumpy appearance, and I carried him everywhere, almost superstitiously. At one time he had a name, but I've long forgotten what it was.
This was not the case with Shasta, my black stuffed cat, also a trunk resident. Once as a child, I was en route to summer camp, which my parents assured me I would love and which I dreaded. On the way, we stopped at a rest stop, and in the gift shop on a high shelf I saw this dark grey cat with green eyes and a wide, stitched-on smile. Desperately I pointed at it. "Daddy, please buy me that cat." My parents seldom bought me anything on request, and never from rest-stop gift stores, but an angel must have moved my father, and he bought it for me. I think it was seven dollars. I loved cats and had never had a stuffed one before, so I clung to this little black feline the whole rest of the trip.
Camp turned out to be as lonesome and as bleak as I imagined it would be, but that little cat comforted me the entire week by sitting on my bed and soaking in my homesick tears. That was a real bonding experience, and Shasta accompanied me perpetually from that time on, outlasting an entire stuffed animal collection. I should have left her in my cedar chest at home, where I'd been keeping my trousseau, but no, I had to have her with me, and so she had been living in the bottom of my black steamer trunk up until this point.
Along with my manger scene, the sole last collection I allowed myself to continue. The little figures were white porcelain children, dressed as Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, children deftly play-acting, children gathered around a sleeping baby. My aunt bought me the set as a confirmation present, long before children's manger scenes became in vogue. The set has been discontinued, and for a long time I've scoured antique shops with all the obsession of a professional collector. Once I offered a lady fifty dollars for an angel from the set which I didn't have (she turned me down).
Through the years I added colorful additions to the set: a dalmatian, a clown, a unicorn (of course), a white horse, a lamb, a squirrel, two dancing Spaniards, a Siamese cat. In Assisi, I was ecstatic to find three cows, all just the right size, which joined the manger scene this year. This year I set up my collection on a round table at the office for our Christmas party, and surrounded it by roots, dried flowers, shells, rocks, and interesting votive candles.
My christening cup of translucent white china with cloverleaves on it was packed among the candles. What does one do with a christening cup? I never figured out, but I held onto it, all the same, and I packed it in with my manger scene in the trunk.
So often we hold onto Things not because of what they are, but because of how we attained them. Such as the craggy tree roots I found during a depressing walk in the woods while I was unemployed last year. A colored candlestick I bought half-price because it was chipped on a "special" shopping trip with my kid sister, and a white lace angel my college friend made me. Also a dark, wildly colored oil painting my best friend made me, which I kept because of her, not because of the painting. And the Victorian whimsy box with the green tassel from another kindred spirit. And my favorite family picture, where all of us are up in a tree in our backyard. It was my mom's idea to climb the tree, and it turned out to be the most natural pose, with even the dog making an appearance, on the ground, of course.
What else was in that trunk? Old cheap books I'd just bought, keepsake jewelry, a dresser jewelry box, Things I planned on giving as gifts, Things I hoped to find a use for someday. Things I thought dreamily of handing on to my children, should I have any. An old lamp from my great-grandfather. Tablecloths from my mother. Curtains from the Dougherty's.
The curtains deserve an explanation. During my teenage years, a couple named the Dougherties became my first grown-up friends. In their small dining room they had these flowered curtains of old linen, with blue, red and green flowers. No, not just blue, red and green, but teal blue, burgundy red, and forest green, all of which are my favorite colors. At that time they had a deep green carpet in the room, and I loved the room, especially the curtains. Around the time I graduated from high school, they had to get a new carpet, and took down the curtains. When they came to my graduation party, they handed me a package, and inside I was dumbfounded to find the curtains. Never has anyone given me a gift that surprised and honored me more. It spoke of a parent's reassurance (for they were sort of substitute parents) that the teenager would become an adult and would someday have a home of her own. It was very grown-up gift. Yes, I hung those curtains everywhere I went. And when I lived in a place where I couldn't use them, I wore one of the ties as a headband. I think I have two school pictures wearing it.
Another treasure in the trunk was a rectangular wooden box with an owl's head on it, with tortoiseshell eyes, intricately carved. When I was in college, I went through a phase, a very healthy one, where I was memorizing Scripture verses. I made myself flash cards, and would shuffle through them in my spare time. A pile of flash cards still lies on my desk, but now I've included quotes from the saints among them. Anyhow, one spring morning I walked into an antique store and found this carved box. It was just the right size for my cards, but I was worried, because I wasn't sure if the carving on it was an owl's head or a devil's head -- I couldn't tell. On an impulse I bought it, but felt an eerie feeling whenever I looked at it. Was it a pagan symbol? I didn't know, so I confided my fears to my wise friend Joan. She said, "Regina, if it is a pagan box, then baptize it and make it Catholic!" "But suppose it's a demon head on the front?" I protested. "You can't baptize a demon!" "Let me see it," she ordered, and I went and got it for her. "Regina, that's an owl. And if you're going to use it to hold scripture verses, I can't see how God could object." So I kept it, and every time since then when I've looked at it, I've seen an owl's wise eyes looking back. Quite appropriate for Scripture too, Joan pointed out.
This is silly. In the trunk I also kept a maternity dress I bought once because it looked nice on me and I figured someday I could use it. Funny how we women plan ahead, isn't it?
And there was this green and blue plaid jumper which was once the property of my friends Stacey and Karen. In college I found myself part of a trio for the first time in my life. Karen, Stacey, and I formed a tri-part alliance of companionship and craziness unlike anything I'd ever experienced in my past life of solitude and very private friendships. Stacey gave this jumper of hers to Karen, who wore it out, and she was throwing it away when I saw it. "Oh, give it to me!" I exclaimed, foreseeing a time when each of us would move on and away and mementoes would be precious. So I wore this plaid jumper, although I hate plaid, because my two kindred spirits had worn it before me.
Today Stacey is far off, in a convent in Illinois. She gave away all her clothes before she left, and I still wear two of her old sweaters. Karen and I still keep in touch -- she's going to be a bridesmaid in my wedding. Stacey's parting gift to me were her two Victorian tea cups, gilded and flowered, with matching saucers. When we were sad, or distracted, or wanted to celebrate, we'd dress up like the girls in Anne of Green Gables and spread out a tablecloth on our dormitory desks and drink tea from these cups, along with Karen, usually. There was a third cup she gave me, which one day she accidentally knocked of the shelf and shattered. I remember her tears and apologies, and I remember looking at the cup, shrugging, and hugging her. I always kept a fragment of that cup, in remembrance of her love of pretty things, and her love for me. The cups were in the bottom of my trunk, never used, since my call to simplifying my life came at the same time as hers. Friendship is a sacred thing: it might have profaned these cups of friendship to have used them casually, those cups which we only used when the two or three of us were gathered.
One other Thing of special love was a double picture frame containing two black-and-white pictures of each of my parents as children, each photo taken miles and years apart, but still mysteriously like the other. My mom stands on a sidewalk in Greenwich Village in her Sunday coat with her doll, a satisfied smile on her chubby three-year-old face, framed with a bonnet. And my father, in enormous overalls and tight short coat, his head bald beneath a flat baby cap, a worried toddler expression, is balancing himself on the running board of an enormous parked Oldsmobile. When my dad was four, my mother was a newborn. When my dad was seven and my mother was three, when he was ten and she was six, when he was fifteen and she was eleven, when he was twenty and she was sixteen, they never dreamed that in a few years they'd be meeting and marrying each other. In those pictures of long ago, you can see the plan of God already at work, and I reflected that I would like to see pictures of Andrew from long ago, since we are the same distance apart as my parents.
O Things! Dear precious expendable Things! Things I so carefully packed in a trunk and squeezed into the back of my car, not knowing they would exit my life that very night in the Bronx through a broken window!
I went outside the next morning and noticed that my car window was broken, again. And then I noticed that the back seat was bare. "Oh look!" I called to my roommates. "I've been robbed again!"
They came and were horrified. I stared at the back seat, and chuckled. I though of how my co-worker and I had struggled to fit that huge, heavy trunk into the back seat, and how those thieves must have cursed and swore as they tried to get it out. What did they do when they found out all their trouble had gained them was a box of china animals wrapped in fabric remnants and tattered books?
"What are you going to do?" my distraught roommate asked.
"Oh, fix the window. And go down to file a police report," I shrugged. What else could be done? C'est la vie.
An odd nonchalance had a hold over me, Obviously, I thought to myself, opening the car door and gingerly sweeping up the glass, God had thought that I could do without all the Things in that trunk. Obviously they were not necessary to my future happiness in Ohio. It was an odd, carefree feeling. Perhaps that's what they call grace.
For, after all, what had the thieves left me? A car, for one, so that I could go to Harrisburg to see the man who really mattered in my life. The spring-weather day. My health. And my tape deck, which, as I had gambled, was so deceptively battered that the thieves hadn't bothered with it.
And they had even left me some Things which, since they couldn't fit in the trunk, I left at work: my books of Anderson's and Grimm's Fairy Tales, my photo albums, my pewter-framed picture of Karen and Stacey and I, my San Damiano crucifix, and one black glass unicorn from Venice which, mysteriously, never got packed. Oh, and I still have lots of other Things which don't deserve a requiem. I'm grateful for what I have left, and lately, upon noticing a Thing that wasn't stolen, I thank the Lord for its prolonged existence.
So I have lost my trunk and those bits and pieces of my past, but having lost them, I find that I have more with less. That's the mysterious side effect of striving to be poor in spirit. I've been trying to understand the mystery of poverty for the past two years with minute success. But when I saw that bare back seat, I think I understood.
A day later, in Harrisburg, Andrew unexpectedly asked me to marry him, and I gasped and assented. In that rush of surprise, I think I understood a little more. Gifts are truly gifts when they take you by surprise -- they are less likely to be mistaken for just rewards. Surprise keeps you safely in gratitude in a way that planned recompense simply doesn't. Losing a trunk and gaining a fiancee both came one swoop of a weekend, and each, ironically, made me deeply grateful.
How strange it is to live on the providence of God, on the toss of the daily bread. When I get married, I won't have a maternity dress ready to be unpacked in my trunk. But, I have a feeling, I'll be far more ready.
copyright Regina Doman, 1999. This document is available for republishing only after the author's permission has been obtained. Click the top button for an email link to the author.