“Hope Chest: a chest used by a young woman for clothing and
household goods, such as linens and silver, in anticipation
of marriage.” The American Heritage Dictionary, 2009 ed.
My mother always intended for me to be the recipient of her hope chest “after I’m gone.” The Lane chest, its rich, dark, mahogany exterior and inner lining of cedar, had been a presence in our household all during my childhood. It stood in the living room, near the coat closet, topped with a hand-crocheted, blue and white runner made by my grandmother. Mom stored our winter sweaters, blankets and curtains in the chest during summer, and summer clothing went into it for the winter. After I married and left home in early 1960, without a hope chest of my own, my mother’s was always there when we came to visit.
None of my girlfriends had hope chests. By the time we were in our teens, in the late 1950s, hope chests were an old-fashioned idea. I never liked the strong scent that rose from the chest when it was opened – eastern red “aromatic” cedar, believed to repel moths. I was self-conscious when I had to wear a sweater that had been stored in the chest all summer on a suddenly cool day in fall. I reeked. The kids at school would make fun of me. This never actually happened that I recall, but I was sure it would.
When Mom moved from New York to Florida, she shipped some of her furniture down there, including the hope chest. She had bought a large trailer home, in the same trailer park where her sister and brother-in-law were living. My father had died several years earlier and, after living alone on Long Island for awhile, she opted for Florida to be near my aunt. When I visited Mom in her new home, I complimented her on how comfortably it was furnished, brushing my hand across the hope chest, now sporting a nautical-theme runner across the top.
Mom died suddenly of a heart attack in late December, 1989. She had visited us on Long Island — her four children and our families – to celebrate Christmas, then flew back to Florida. On December 30, at three o’clock in the morning, the call came from my oldest brother, Al, saying that our mother was dead. “Oh my God,” I kept shouting. “How is it possible?” She was only 71 years old. After speaking with Al, I spoke with my two other brothers — all three younger than me, the only girl in the family– until my voice weakened and I could talk no more.
We knew Mom had heart disease but had no idea how severe it was. She had been through breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. At a party early on the evening she died, she told someone at the trailer park that she was having “heartburn.”
Later, we learned that Mom had called for an ambulance around eleven o’clock. She didn’t want to disturb my aunt who was “probably asleep,” she said to the paramedics. Mom was in a lot of pain and was terrified, we found out, and she was alone. No one went to the hospital with her.
The alone part was what got to me.
Her body was shipped up to Long Island for a two-day wake, followed by a Mass for the Dead. Mom was to be buried at Calverton National Cemetery next to our father, a Navy veteran. Like so many couples who were married for a very long time, for better and for worse, their bones would now lie side by side through eternity.
In the Port Jefferson church, I was seated in the front, on the aisle, right next to Mom’s coffin. Just looking it at, knowing I’d never see her again, made me tearful and dizzy, and I thought I might keel over onto the flower-laden, dark, wide casket.
The deacon said prayers while the altar boys waved incense all around us, making me nauseous. I looked at the deacon, then at Mom’s coffin, and panicked. I rushed to the rear of the church and slipped outside. After breathing in some cold fresh air, I sat alone in the last pew, observing the ritual of the Mass but hoping it would end quickly.
At the funeral, we were all teary-eyed and exhausted as we said our farewells to Mom at the gravesite. Each of us placed a rose on top as we murmured our final prayers.
Al and I flew together to Florida two days later. There would be a ceremony at the trailer park for my mother so that my aunt, uncle, cousins, and the neighbors could attend and pay their respects. We would also go through Mom’s belongings in the trailer and arrange for their disposal.
“We’re so glad to see you,” my aunt said, her face red from crying. Everyone shared their condolences, and our relatives offered to help us empty the trailer, which would be sold, and ship my mother’s things to us. They would keep certain items for themselves, as we all decided, and discard the remainder.
And there it stood in the bedroom — the hope chest. “We can get rid of the other furniture in here,” I told my brother, “but not this. Not her hope chest. She wanted me to have it.”
“Do you want it?” my brother asked.
I wasn’t sure. “It has to go to New York,” I said. “That’s what Mom would want.”
We packed linens that our family members might like to have — hand crocheted blankets and scarves, embroidered pieces that Mom had planned to frame, knitted hats and gloves, a large, lace tablecloth, some doilies and linen hankies, and some cushions with covers she had needle-pointed. When the hope chest was solidly packed and ready for shipment, several cousins came inside to help lift it to a waiting van.
That’s when it hit me. A coffin. The chest looked exactly like a coffin, and with pallbearers no less. “Look,” I said to my brother, clutching his arm. “Look at that.”
“What?” He saw nothing unusual in what was going on. “Don’t worry. They won’t drop it.”
I knew right then that I could never display Mom’s hope chest in my house. Every time I saw it, I would think of a coffin — her coffin — and of the miserable, lonely death she had. No, I could not have that in my presence.
Two weeks later, the hope chest arrived. I moved it to the basement — where it remained in a corner, covered with boxes, for the next twelve years. I felt guilty at times; Mom wanted me to have her hope chest. I had it, but I wasn’t displaying it. It wasn’t part of my everyday life.
I took the boxes off the chest a few times, intending, what the heck, I’ll get someone to bring this thing upstairs; I’ll place it in a corner of the living room, or in my bedroom.
But I didn’t do it. Boxes were piled on once again – until the next time I encountered it and thought of Mom: she was gone, I was here, and I was not being a dutiful, respectful daughter. But looking at the hope chest under ground level, in the basement, always reminded me of Mom’s casket under the ground, in the cemetery. I couldn’t make this image go away.
Eventually, I asked my daughter to take the hope chest and give it a place in her own home. Suzanne was the oldest of my mother’s grandchildren; surely, my mother would be pleased. I’ll think about it,” Suzanne said. The following week she
decided she didn’t have room for it. “You keep it, Mom,” she told me.
More hibernation, more guilt for me until, one day, I spoke about the hope chest at a family gathering. “How about you?” I asked my eldest niece, the mother of four young children. “Grandma would be so happy if someone would give the chest some love and attention.”
Karen smiled, as did her husband, Tim and they immediately decided to take it for their own. She loved her grandmother, and this would honor her memory.
So at long last, the hope chest has a lovely home. My niece and her husband refurbished the chest inside and out; it is kept at the foot of the bed in their master bedroom. It was relined it with cedar, and the exterior wood has a glossy sheen, just as it did in the days when I was a child.
Finally, the chest is being used it as my mother wanted. It has a home, a purpose, and a whole new life. I couldn’t be happier and, I’ll bet, up there in heaven, Mom is, too.