There is a small wooden spoon I painted in the tenth grade with the head of a typical peasant girl dressed in Romanian ethnic scarf. I saved it in memory of my grandmother whom I used to watch prepare food for our family with such a simple wooden spoon decorated with chiseled burns onto the handle.
I pulled out an intricately hand-made leather wallet. I opened the folds and the smell of leather wafted like a fine perfume. Dad gave it to my husband as a wedding present 40 years ago; it looks as it did the day my Dad purchased it. Bill never wore it because it was too big, it did not fit American dollars but I saved it. There are no slots for credit cards; back then, credit cards were unheard of. We conducted business with cash, personal checks, and traveler’s checks. Farmers used the old system of barter. People strapped for cash paid for the doctor’s visit with chicken or a dozen fresh eggs.
Dad used to order hand-made fine wool suits for his son-in-law but a gentleman farmer did not need such fancy clothes. We always gave them away to a Chinese friend who wore the same size. Dad never knew and he continued to order one new suit each year. I am sure, it cost him a pretty penny. I did not have the heart to tell him to stop; it made him happy to keep my ex well-suited. Dad’s cousin was a cobbler who made fine leather shoes to order. They were beautiful but very uncomfortable. Bill never wore those either. We gave those away too but we did tell Dad the truth about the shoes.
A delicate ladies watch, well-worn, was my gold watch I bought when I first started to work in the U.S. I am not sure why I bought a real gold Swiss watch for the grand sum of $150, my weekly pay. I wanted something that would last a long time, which it did, but also something valuable that no communist would ever confiscate just because they were in power. I was told Wyler Swiss watches are no longer made.
At the bottom of the box is an album which Mom assembled when Dad passed away. I opened a few pages and I realized that they are all photos from his funeral. So painful to look at his casket, the mourners, the flowers, his frozen face in death, barely recognizable after the long suffering in a hospital that gave him no food or fluid infusions for three weeks prior to his death. Aunt Marcella fed him droppers of liquid and kept him alive until he lost so much weight that his organs began to fail.
Aunt Marcella, now 92 years old, is still alive and, following a successful broken hip repair surgery, has been moved to a nursing home that caters to the elderly with special medical needs who have no immediate relatives. Such places did not exist under communism, families took care of the elderly. But families have split up all over the world now.
A sterling broach, now tarnished black, is my 1977 wedding present from Dad. He bought it in the Omnia department store in our home town for 900 lei, literally more than his entire month’s salary. He had seen me admire it in the window every time we strolled past the department store on weekends. It was such an extravagant gift! I cleaned it and the delicately woven silver looked brand new again. Tiny amethysts cabochons decorated the round surface. It must have been made in China because it was the only trading partner for fine jewelry during the communist era.
A silver fish pendant, covered in delicate cloisonné scales, was a gift which Mom brought back when she traveled to the home country in the mid-nineties. There is an old silver violin and a frog pin I collected from the early 1980s. They have oxidized as well, not having been touched in decades.
A beaded flower necklace I painstakingly strung bead by bead added color to the Memory Box. I was so homesick and lonely in 1978, I picked up the hobby from a craft book. An experimental artist at heart, I could not afford to paint or draw, materials were hard to find in the backwoods where we lived and probably expensive, way out of reach for our $200 per month income. But beads, a needle, scissors, and fishing nylon thread were cheap. And my eyes were sharp as an eagle’s back then. One solitaire gold earring, still shining, was stuck in the red velvet lining in the corner. I wondered who lost the other one.
A black-beaded and quite heavy evening bag, with its brass snaps and chain turned green from the passage of time, was not missing any of the intricate design opaque beads. Daddy gave it to me before my high school prom to match the red woven polyester dress. I have worn this black bag many times since to parties and held it close to my heart and wrist. It was something tangible from the Old World that I missed so much. And Daddy worked really hard to buy me this special gift.
The brass key to the Memory Box is still held by a red and white silk tassel. The beautiful mother of pearl inlay swirled delicate cranes. The box came all the way from Korea in our friend’s luggage who was assigned there on military duty. He had expensive taste and knew how to pick lasting gifts. The dark wood and lacquer stood the test of time quite well despite the humidity in the South.
What will happen to this box one day, who will throw its contents away and replace them with her cherished memories?