I got to spend a lot of time with my mother’s parents, growing up. My father’s parents, too, but it was different: my father’s parents would provide me with activities and then expect their space, my mother’s parents – especially her mother – would spend time with me. No structured activities, no timetable, just time with me.
I didn’t know enough to appreciate it at the time, but I’m glad I learned to do so in time to tell her.
My grandmother told stories about Rosina Rubylips, the witch that lived in the curve of the road on the way into town. (I was devastated when they excavated the area to create a wide-open highway in its place.) She would drive an extra few miles out of the way so that we could see the Door to Nowhere, a simple wooden door, painted white and stencilied, standing alone in someone’s backyard and opening directly onto a creek (pronounced, in upstate New York, “crick”). She would play hours’ worth of Uno in the garage, doors open to the one-car-an-hour traffic. She was just my Nonny, and I loved her.
One of our favorite activities was to spend time in her bedroom, just checking out her stuff. She had a low-quality reproduction of a little girl with long red hair, undoubtedly a reproduction of a masterpiece but, for us, just “Julia.” And she had a jewelry box. Actually, she had jewelry spread out across the top of her dresser, and I’ve never yet seen a box sufficient to contain it. But a core collection did live inside the box, which was wooden with mother-of-pearl and other stone inlays, creating a Chinese pond sort of scene. Much of it big and costumey – let’s face it, you can’t live that far out in the country and successfully avoid the “redneck” tinge – but all of it exquisite to a young girl. I would try it on, sort it out, just play with it. She never spent a single second cautioning me not to lose something or worrying about me being careful enough.
A few years ago – five? six? – my grandparents decided to sell the house on the hill and move into town. They wanted to be in a smaller, easier-to-maintain place, close to doctors and grocery stores and neighbors, before they couldn’t make the decision for themselves anymore. Once that process started, my grandmother got fired up about Getting Rid of Stuff. She wanted to make sure that her children and grandchildren got whatever knickknacks and doodads they enjoyed – “admired” would really be too strong a term – before the possibility of squabbles and grudges settled. Having watched my father’s family melt down repeatedly following those sorts of squabbles, I think this decision shows some prescience.
I didn’t want much; we already had a house full of stuff and not much storage. But I got the redhaired girl, and a promise to get their sleigh-style bedroom set when they’re done with it. And I got her jewelry box.
None of the jewelry is inside – she still wears it – and it had fallen into disrepair. The music stopped playing long enough ago that I can’t remember the tune, and a few of the hinges had broken. It was a risk just to open it, and soon enough it got buried under the miscellanious crap on my own dresser – future treasures for my own granddaughers, perhaps, but right now a hodgepodge of good pieces and plastic toys. Buried enough that I didn’t even notice, two or so years ago, when Willem quietly slipped it from my dresser to his, with plans of restoring it as a gift, and then promptly forgot about it, himself.
But, this year, for Christmas, I opened a package containing the jewelry box, cleaned up and restored and pretty. The music box still won’t play, because we live in Podunk, New Hampshire, and there’s no one within a reasonable drive that is willing to tinker with it. Someday.
Quite to my shock – again, redneck, costume jewelry, not a family of wealth – it turns out that the jewelry box is a pretty solid, high-quality piece. And quite old. My grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in December, and it was purchased on a honeymoon-ish sort of trip to New York City in early 1959. They had spent the day wandering around, seeing the sights, doing the touristy thing, and somehow ended up shopping in a small, crowded little shop in Chinatown. This music box came carefully home with them, and was used casually and comfortably as a daily, household sort of object, until it fell a bit by the wayside.
I’m so honored to have it, and would still love it if it had been branded a complete piece of junk with no more worth than the cleaning solution used to dust it off. But knowing it’s a solid little piece makes it that much more special, and somehow epitomizes the relationship of my grandparents: a bit homely on the outside, a little dinged and easily mistaken for simple, but with a heart of gold and strong bones.