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The Red Velvet Box
By Christine Keleny
Published by CKBooks
Copyright 2012 Christine Keleny
To my Grandmothers: Dearie and Christine.
God rest their souls.
“Katherine Rosemary Gale, if you don’t get down here this instant…”
My mother’s voice was serious now. If the tone hadn’t convinced me that I couldn’t stall any longer then the use of my proper name did. “At least she didn’t call me Katie,” I said to myself. “Katie is so childish.”
I rolled my eyes, closed my newest issue of Seventeen Magazine, and stuffed it in my pink vinyl overnight bag, the one with the picture of the white poodle on one side being lead by the bottom half of a very fashionable girl in a dark-pink poodle skirt.
I wished with all my might that this was just an overnight trip, but it wasn’t; it was four whole days. Father had already taken my suitcase down to the car. It was an ugly, old brown cardboard thing that didn’t match anything I owned. Mother didn’t seem to realize the importance of matching accessories; they really made the woman. It is one of the first things I had promised myself I would get once I was on my own.
This trip was a Thanksgiving vacation ritual. When Dad made his annual fishing trip to the great north woods, mother and us kids went south to visit my mother’s mother, Grandma Blanche, in Galena, Illinois. It wasn’t until two years ago when Ronnie turned six and John was eight that my brothers got out of going with us to Grandma’s and started going fishing with Dad. Lucky ducks!
I had even tried to convince my parents that I needed to go with Dad this year to keep the boys from fighting. They were always fighting, and since I was the oldest and had just turned thirteen, I was the official babysitter. Unfortunately, neither of them had gone for it.
Every year I dreaded this trip out of my already short Thanksgiving vacation, but it was going to be even worse than usual this year. Grandma Blanche had turned eighty-four this last spring, and she was starting to forget things. Mom had decided that Grandma needed to move out of her small home of fifty years, so the main goal of our trip was to help Grandma go through her things. And she had a LOT of things. It wasn’t going to be fun.
Sitting on my bed I thought back to my attempt at getting out of this trip and tried to figure out where I had gone wrong. I started with what I thought was a very legitimate argument.
“I’ve never gotten to go fishing with Dad,” I said, putting on my best daddy’s-little-girl look.
But my mother came back with, “You don’t want to touch those slimy fish!”she said, knowing she was right.
“I don’t mind,” I lied. I knew Dad would bait the hook for me and take any fish I might catch off the line, being a novice and a girl and all.
My father ventured, “It’ll be cold!”
“I’ll wear a coat and slacks,” I countered, cringing at the thought of losing vital tanning time, but I knew what was at stake here.
Then Mother gave it her last best effort. “You don’t know how many more times you’ll get to see Grandma Blanche,” mother reminded me for the hundredth time, at least!
“Your mother needs you,” my father said, finally playing the guilt card. I knew then, my goose was cooked. In fact, it was boiled and falling off the bone, so I gave up.
I dragged myself out of bed, grabbed my case, and headed downstairs. I clomped down each step as if going to the gallows, my overnight bag thudding noisily on each step as I dragged it along.
“ʼBout time, young lady. We’re gonna miss our train if you don’t pick up the pace a bit here!” mother said, herding me out the door with a white gloved hand.
At least she’s got on a stylish traveling suit, I thought. Mother wore mostly fashionable things when she went out: to church every Sunday or when my parents went to card club once a month. But when she was at home, she wore the frumpiest things. I hated when my friends came over. I’d usher them as quickly as I could up to my room and barricade the door―locking the door wasn’t allowed―and not come out until they had to leave.
When we came outside father was standing with his arms crossed, propped up against the station wagon waiting for mother and me. Luckily he didn’t have the same perturbed look that mother wore. He stood and took my overnight bag with an almost apologetic smile on his face. He didn’t like going to Grandma Blanche’s any more than I did, so I think he felt guilty for making me go.
“I’ll take that, sweetheart,” he said, then added, “My, do you look nice!”
I looked down at my freshly pressed, white cotton blouse covered by a pink cashmere sweater and white and pink gingham skirt that filled out just right by the crinoline slip underneath and reflexively smoothed out my skirt with a smile. When I looked at myself in the car window I could see the chiffon pink polka-dot scarf I had expertly tied around my neck, just like they taught in Mademoiselle Magazine, and my mousy brown hair pulled back in a pony tail without a strand out of place. I had to hand it to my Dad, he didn’t dress the best himself, but he had an eye for a well-manicured lady.
“You look nice, too,” he said to my mother, giving her a peck on the cheek. Then he took her black patent-leather overnight bag and placed it next to my pink one in the back of the car.
Black and pink; those two colors go nicely together. I’ll have to make a note of that in my journal―diaries were so fifth grade―so I can use it later.
Just then I remembered, I was supposed to be mad. I slumped up against the side of the car and stuck out my lower lip, waiting for mother to corral my brothers into the back seat. I was also waiting for my best friend and next door neighbor, Tracy. She had promised to come over and say goodbye. Plus she was bringing me her latest Nancy Drew, and I desperately needed something interesting to read while I was at Grandma’s. Tracy’s mother worked part-time at Pearl Street Book Store down town, so she got a discount on all the books. Tracy and I were Carolyn Keene’s biggest fans, so we got the new editions the minute they came into the store. It was the best.
“Ronnie, John, in the car, please,” mother ordered politely. “You too, Katherine.”
The boys came closer to the car with their game of tag but didn’t manage to get in.
“I can’t!” I lamented. “Tracy’s not here yet.”
And as if on cue, a freckled-faced, strawberry-blond haired girl pushed her way through the opening in the shrubs with book in hand. I let out a large sigh and ran up to her to meet her halfway.
“Geez, I thought you’d never come! We’re about to leave!” I said in a whisper.
“Sorry, I had to clean up my room before my mom would let me out of the house, and you know what a big job that is!”
I did! Tracy was a real slob. I tried to set a good example for her, using the handy organizational tips in my mother’s Ladies Home Journal for my own room, but after repeated hints and what I thought were very good suggestions for her own room, I gave up.
“Send me a post-card or something, okay?”
“I can write you a whole book, as boring as it’s gonna to be down there,” I said with my best pout.
“Well, I remembered the book!” Tracy said beaming, handing the colorful book out to me. It was titled The Clue of the Black Keys. “It’s really good, at least the first half. That’s as far as I got last night.”
“Thanks, Trace. It’s sure swell of you to loan it to me before you even finished it.”
“You need it more than me!” she said, putting her arm around my shoulders.
I nodded in agreement and hugged the book to my chest.
My father closed the garage door, and with a sharp commanding “Let’s go!” he sat behind the wheel. Both my brothers bolted for the car.
“I better get going,” I whispered and gave Tracy a super strong hug to try and hold me over for the long weekend.
Tracy stood in our driveway and waved me off to my doom.
I was sitting in the back seat clutching my book, trying to ignore the pests that were buzzing annoyingly next to me, when the noise started to pick up. I knew what was coming next. My mother, with her little bow hat with the spotted netting, turned around in her seat and pleaded softly to me. “Katie, please.”
I closed my eyes at the use of that name, not to mention the request I knew she was making.
“I’m sorry. Kate,” she corrected herself.
“Oh, come on, Mom,” I whined, giving her an Are you kidding me? look, hoping because it was only a short trip to the train station, she wouldn’t make me do it.
“It’s only to the station,” she said. Then she turned back around, as if that was the end of it.
It was, of course, so I pried my knucklehead brothers apart and sat between them, looking as disgusted as I could, just to make sure my parents knew what an imposition this was. Unfortunately, this was lost on my mother; she had her compact open and was touching up her lipstick in the small oval mirror. My father looked at me in the rearview mirror and gave me a wink. I hated when he did that; it made me feel so guilty for making a fuss.
I sat stewing, swatting at the flies that kept trying to get at each other through me, and realized I really didn’t want to spend three full days with these cretins, but Grandma Blanche’s…? I was in what my father would call a lose-lose situation.
When we pulled into the train station, a sleek, silver-sided train engine sat just past the train platform in front of a row of equally sleek train cars. It was the Burlington Zephyr, and just by its appearance it seemed to promise adventure of the Flash Gordon kind. I had ridden it at least five times already, and had to admit, it was kind of fun. Its best feature was a train car they called the Vista-Dome. The Vista-Dome had an upper seating area for twenty-four and was made mostly of glass. The light was great for reading, and it allowed you to see some pretty interesting sights.
The rail line we took from my hometown of LaCrosse ran along the Mississippi, so we always saw eagles, snow white cranes, and even the odd looking black cormorants. These bird sightings were lost on my mother, of course. She either dozed in her seat or read her Life Magazine. I only knew the birds because of the boat trips I used to take on the river with my Dad before my brothers were old enough to go and before I got interested in more womanly matters.
“Don’t forget to take out the casseroles I made up. They’re in the freezer,” my mother said, taking her overnight bag from my father. “And the boy’s handkerchiefs are in the drier. I didn’t get a chance to put them in their suitcases.”
My father just nodded his head with a smile and carried our cases to the porter standing next to one of the cars.
“Not this one, dad,” I said and ran down the platform, trying to find the car with the glass top.
My family dutifully followed me and stopped when I had found the right one.
“Now you be careful, dear,” mother said. She gave Dad a soft kiss on the lips, then tried to get hold of the boys to kiss each forehead in turn.
I sat watching and wondered if my parents ever REALLY kissed. I mean like in those old Bogart and Hepburn movies Tracy and I loved to watch. One of those long, take your breath away type kisses we’d pretend with our stuffed animals when we were fooling around.
I stepped up to Dad and gave him a kiss on the cheek. I mean, what if he drowned in the lake or something?
“Say hello to your Grandmother for me,” he said.
I nodded my head then waved to my brothers as mom and I stepped onto the train.
When we got off the train in Galena, Grandma’s neighbor was there to pick us up and take us to Grandma’s house on the other side of the Fever River. The river was actually called the Galena River, but Grandma called it the Fever River, which was the name of the river when Grandma first moved to town, so that is what I called it, too.
“Welcome Mrs. Gale!” the old neighbor said as he walked up to us. “And you’ve grown into to quite the young lady, Katherine.”
I couldn’t help myself; I blushed at the attention. I never could take a complement without blushing, especially from a stranger. I’ve tried, but I don’t seem to have any control over it.
“Here, let me take those,” he said and took the suitcase from my mother and me. For an old guy he was pretty strong.
“Thank you, Dwight,” my mother said. “And how’s Olivia doing?”
“Oh, she’s just fine, ma’am. She couldn’t come along because she was working on a nice dinner for you all, that is, if you’re interested.”
“That would be so nice, Dwight. Thank you! I know mother enjoys your wife’s cooking,” my mother said as we walked toward Dwight’s Cadillac, “and I certainly do.”
The car was a beautiful, black beauty that Dwight kept in mint condition. There was hardly a speck of dirt on it. It was much more stylish than the old wagon we had, and the trunk was so big you could hide a body in there without any trouble at all, maybe even two. “I don’t know what I’d do without you and Olivia,” mother said. “You do so much for mother.”
“It’s no problem,” Dwight said. He popped open the trunk of the car and set our suitcases and overnight bags inside it with room to spare. “But we’ve been a little worried about her of late,” he said with a small frown. “Blanche doesn’t come outside much, but a couple weeks ago she turned on the sprinkler to water her flowerbed, and when I came out that night to have a smoke, the sprinkler was still running.”
Mother shook her head. “I know. Her memory is getting so poor. She forgets what I tell her from one phone conversation to the next.”
Dwight opened the back door for me and tipped his hat with a bow, then he did the same for my mother. One thing about these old guys was they really know how to treat a lady.
“I guess we’ll all get there someday,” he said, sitting behind the wheel. Then he started up the car and we were off.
Someday? I thought, looking at the back of his full head of gray hair. Isn’t he already there? Mother told me later that Dwight and his wife were only fifty-something, though fifty-something is old enough! But when I caught sight of Grandma Blanche, I could see how much older eighty was than fifty. And Grandma seemed to have shrunk since the last time I had seen her. Can that even happen?
When I stepped in the door of Grandma’s small house, I was hit with the familiar smell that all old people seemed to have: the smell of moth balls and mold.
“Mother! We’re here!” my mother called out.
“I’m in the kitchen, Ruth,” came a small voice.
“I’ll put your cases in the bedroom,” Dwight said and headed to the back of the house.
Grandma’s house had only two bedrooms, so mom and I had to share a room. It was a little creepy sharing a room with your mother, but at least she understood a woman’s need for privacy, so both of us dressed and undressed in the one, small bathroom in the house.
Mother and I walked through the living room, small dining room, and into the kitchen where Grandmother sat at a small wooden dining table. Grandma had shrunk. I swear it. She was so thin her skin hung from her arms and her face like she had deflated or something. Mother didn’t seem shocked by how she looked, so I tried not to be, too. It wasn’t easy!
“Hello, dear,” Grandma said, leaning over so mother could give her a kiss on the cheek.
“And look at you! My, have you grown,” Grandma said, reaching out her arms for a hug and kiss.
I obliged but against my better judgment, and I was right; she smelled like baby powder, and kissing her was like kissing skimmed over mashed potatoes: all cold and mushy.
“You look so grown up!” she said when I pulled away. “What are you, sixteen now?”
Maybe Grandma had a bad memory, but she sure was a good judge of maturity! “Just thirteen, Grandma,” I admitted with regret. Mom was standing right there, so I couldn’t even inch it up to fourteen without being caught.
“You could ʼa fooled me.” Her eyes twinkled as she smiled.
“Dinner should be ready around six,” Dwight said, coming into the kitchen from the other direction. “Just walk on over, if it isn’t too far for you, Blanche.”
“I’d walk a mile backwards for one of Olivia’s meals!” Grandma joked.
A mile backwards? That’s funny, I thought, imagining my little old Granny walking backwards down the street. She’d probably need to wear a sign on her back that read, “Make way, old person coming through!”
But then I saw my Grandma Blanche try to stand, and I realized it really was a joke. “That leaves us plenty of time to start work on the attic,” my Grandmother said.
“We can start that anytime,” Mother said.
“No time like the present,” Grandma replied, and she pushed herself slowly up using the back of her chair and the table top for support.
My mother noticed how much effort it was for Grandma to stand and ran up next to her. “Let me help you, mother.”
Blanche stopped mid way up and scowled. “Let me be, Ruth. I have to do this myself when you’re not here.”
Mother went a little white and stiff and took a step back. I had never seen my mother stopped like that before, and she was just trying to help. I’m not one to take my mother’s side on things, but Grandma seemed like she was getting mean as well as forgetful.
Once Grandma stood, she reached for something hanging on the back of her chair. It was a cane. When I was here last year, Grandma didn’t have a cane, but when I saw her walk across the kitchen, I realized she probably needed it. She looked like one of those boxing clowns that are shaped like a bowling pin and has sand in the bottom to keep it from tipping over. But I think if I went over and pushed on Grandma Blanche, she’d fall right down, and she wouldn’t pop back up again. Mother must have had the same thought because she stood close behind her the whole way down the hall.
Grandma walked to just in front of her bedroom door and stopped.
“I thought we were going to the attic,” I said, stepping up next to my mother.
“We are,” Grandma said. “Or I should say, you are!” and she pointed a finger to the ceiling above her.
“Katherine, go get a chair out of the kitchen for me,” Grandma ordered.
Now this is what I remember about being at Grandma’s, always getting Grandma this or picking up that off the floor. It was worse than being at home. At least at home I could complain about it. If I complained to Grandma Blanche, I’d be in big trouble.
I ran and got a chair.
Do we have to stand on the chair to get through that trap door? We didn’t have an attic at home, so I had no way of knowing how this went. Maybe mom would stand on it and give me a boost up, I thought with excitement.
I set the chair down and to my surprise Grandma sat in it.
Well, that’s no fun.
But what mom did next was! Mom jumped up a foot or so and grabbed hold of the small rope that was hanging down from the rectangular door in the ceiling. She pulled it down and exposed a ladder that was attached to the door and that ran up into the attic space.
That’s cool, but how do we climb it? I thought. It’s up too high.
My mother answered my question by taking hold of the bottom of the ladder and pulling it straight down. The ladder came down in one whole piece out of the attic. I think it was on rollers or something.
“That’s cool!” I said out loud.
“Pretty nifty,” Grandma replied.
I ran up the ladder without waiting for an invitation.
“Now wait a minute, young lady,” my mother said, catching my saddle shoe. “You’re not going up there in that. We both need to change into work clothes.”
I gave mother my best whine, but secretly I had to agree with her. Mom had just made me this skirt, and my sweater was brand new. I didn’t want to spoil them in some dusty, dirty attic filled with spider webs and mice poop.
I crawled back down, and we both got into slacks and light cotton everyday shirts. I was done changing first, but mom made me hang everything up so I could put it right back on for dinner.
“Now, I’ll go up first and make sure everything is okay,” my mother said as we stood at the base of the ladder. Grandma Blanche was still sitting in her chair in the hall. She hadn’t moved an inch. Man, I’d hate to be old and not be able to go wherever I wanted.
“It’s fine, Ruth,” Grandma said. “Let the girl go.”
I looked at Grandma and smiled. There she goes, being nice again. It was hard to figure my Grandmother out. One minute she was snapping at my mother, the next minute she was taking my side.
Mother shook her head in defeat and let me go up first. I shimmied up the ladder and stood in the attic at the top of the opening. My mother followed close behind.
“Now step away from that hole,” mother ordered and pushed me further into the dark space.
The attic took up the whole floor space of the house, so it was pretty big, but there wasn’t a flat ceiling anywhere to be seen. There were four peaks (mom called them gables) that came off the main central peak, each with a large window in it.
I ran to the closest one and looked out. Galena was built mostly on a hill, with Main Street on the bottom a couple streets off the Fever River. Each parallel street up from Main ran along the hill. Grandma lived on Prospect Street, on the very top, so from her attic I could see the whole town. It was pretty cool.
The sun was just going down so the homes below Grandma’s, the shops on Main Street, and the slope on the other side of the river were lit by a warm, orange color. It made the trees that still had colored leaves attached almost look like they were on fire.
Mom turned on the one light bulb in the whole place. It was hanging down from the ceiling by a thick, black wire but was still so high up it had a long string attached to it to turn it on. The light made the place more creepy than it was with just the light from the windows. It couldn’t light up everything so some things still hid in the shadows. I walked over to my mother, just to keep her company. Mother had both hands on her hips with a look of disgust on her face.
“Where do you want to start, Mother?” she yelled, startling me.
“How ʼbout with the Christmas decorations, since I need to put them up soon, anyway,” came the small, distant voice of Grandma Blanche from below. “They’re over on the north side.”
Mom looked around, not sure which way was north. I looked out of the window to our left and noticed the sun streaming in. I pointed straight in front of us. “That’s north,” I said and stepped forward.
I spied a box that had “Lights” written on the side. I opened it up and sure enough, it was Grandma’s Christmas tree lights. “Yup, this is it!”
I knew they were the ones Grandma used because Grandma’s lights were like no other lights I had seen before. Grandma’s lights had an oval, plastic base with a thin glass piece coming out of the top like a small candle. The neat thing about this glass piece was that it was filled with water, and when the light got hot, the water would bubble up in the glass. It was really cool.
Mother had joined me by then and was opening boxes of her own, mumbling, “I just don’t know where to start here.”
“I’ll take the lights down,” I said, trying to be helpful.
“Just put them at the top of the steps,” mother said quickly. “I’ll carry them down. It’s too dangerous for you.”
“I can do it.”
“Please don’t argue with me, Kate. I’m not in the mood for an argument right now.”
I dropped my shoulders in defeat and put the box of lights where I was told.
When I walked back to the Christmas things, I noticed a large dark-colored box sitting on top of a stack of boxes. It wasn’t a tall box, it was probably only about five inches high, but it was as wide as a drawer in my dresser back home. I could tell this box was different. It wasn’t made of cardboard like most of the other boxes, and as I got closer to it, I could tell it had a tassel hanging down from the lid. When I picked it up, I instantly knew something was different. This box was made out of something special. I took the box over to the light, blew the dust off the top, and sat cross-legged on the wood floor. I ran my hand over the top of the soft surface. It was covered in velvet, red velvet. My heart raced at the thought of the treasures that must be inside.
I tipped the box so the tassel side was up, slipped the loop the tassel was attached to over a clear sparkly button, and slowly lifted the lid. My imagination wasn’t disappointed.
The box was all red inside, too. It was made up of seven felt-lined compartments, six square ones and one longer one on the side and each compartment held the most amazing array of ornaments.
“Mom! You gotta come see this!” I said, not trying to hide my excitement.
Mother came over and squatted down next to me. She picked up one of the ornaments and held it for both of us to get a better look.
Slowly her face brightened. “I remember these!” she said. “Mother wouldn’t let us put them on the tree until we were in high school. She said they needed to be handled with respect because they were so old.”
She put the ornament delicately back in its place as if to illustrate her point.
“They are pretty, aren’t they?” she said.
We both sat looking at the colorful display of glass, feathers, and shinny materials that were nestled in crinkled tissue paper. You could tell they were special.
After a minute or so my mother stood. “Close that up, Kate. We need to keep going here, or we’ll never get done,” she said and moved back to the other boxes.
I reluctantly closed the top and fastened the lid. I set the box down next to the opening in the floor and went back to help my mother.
* * *
We worked for over two hours without stopping, opening boxes and shouting down to Grandma to see if she wanted to keep this or that thing. And as we progressed, we made two piles, one on each side of the opening. The left side was stuff to keep, the right side was stuff to give away. When we were finished, my mother wasn’t pleased that the left side was larger than the right. I wasn’t pleased that the red velvet box was on the bottom of that pile.
“Can we start taking stuff down?” I asked, wanting to uncover the red box so I could go through it myself.
Mother tipped her wrist to the light to see her watch. “It’s almost time to go over to the Peterson’s, dear. And we need time to change and clean up.”
I looked at the “to keep” pile, sighed, and followed my mother down the steps.
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