This is a story within a story about one of the few things saved from the fire.
A few years after college I moved from Savannah back to Virginia to look after my maternal grandmother. She was living alone and having heart and hip problems. I was still untethered enough I could pick up and move easily – all my possessions fit in Mr. Earl, a trusty old ’67 Ford LTD.
I moved into the basement where, like our basement, decades of life collected. Among the many things I found stored away was an old cedar lined blanket chest. It was in bad shape. Pieces had fallen off, veneer chipped, the varnish black and bubbled. I had nothing but time, so described it to her an asked about refinishing it. She couldn’t remember which one I meant, but said sure.
When the project was done, I brought it upstairs. She looked at it for a long time, remembering, and told me the story of the chest, and why it had been kept all these years.
She and my grandfather lived in Arkansas during the Depression. She was a young school teacher, and he pumped gas at the local Esso station.
As the Depression deepened, and became more dire, they were among the only people with a job, and they had two. What little money they had was the only money in their community. Sometimes men – formerly proud and skilled men – came to the door with things they had made, hoping to sell them for whatever they could, to buy food for their families. So they would buy these things when they could. She pointed to a tiny delicate side table that had been in their living room as long as I could remember. It had hand carved legs and parquet inlay. It had been made by one of the elders of their church.
On Christmas Eve it was cold and snowing. My grandfather was late coming home. They couldn’t afford a car then, so he walked home from the gas station. It grew dark, and she was worried, so walked out to the road to look. Finally she saw my grandfather walking down the road through the snow, struggling under something large and heavy. He carried this hand made blanket chest on his shoulder.
They set it down in the house and brushed off the snow. He would not say where he got it, only that this was their Christmas gift to each other this year. And it meant someone else got a Christmas, too.
The chest had been at the foot of our bed, piled high with folded clothes not yet put away. Those clothes protected the chest from the worst of the fire, so it can be saved.
Merry Christmas indeed.