Prompt: Inside the Old Box: You are at the neighborhood garage sale, looking for nothing in particular. Something inside an old, wooden box catches your eye. The old woman who is running the sale comes over to say something about the object. What is it? What did she say and why?
I waved at my husband and the kids as they pulled away from the curb. Kevin was so sweet to take them to the park so I could shop the neighborhood garage sales in peace. He knew how much I loved browsing through other people’s stuff and finding something fun or interesting to bring home.
I greeted a few neighbors as they walked down the street and caught up to them. We all made our way to Ms. Connie’s large house on the corner. I could see Ms. Connie stooped over, using her cane to help her as she slowly made her way through the residents who had come to consider her items for sale.
“Hi, Ms. Connie,” I greeted her with a friendly smile. “How are you today?”
“Just fine, dearie,” she said in a voice that quavered with her age. “Looking forward to moving to Florida with my sister. I’m just about done with this cold here.”
I glanced at the cloudless sky with its summer sun on its slow ascent and chuckled.
“Laugh all you want,” Ms. Connie said with a mischievous smile, “but when it’s December and the snow is falling in heaps and the wind is howling, I’ll be sunning myself on the beach in Florida. You can save your jealousy for then.”
I nodded indulgently and started rummaging through a few items on a nearby table. The entire neighborhood of our small Champaign, Illinois, community had scoffed when Ms. Connie had declared six months earlier that she wouldn’t spend another winter with us. Turns out we were all wrong to doubt her. She really did mean it, and this garage sale just gave us additional proof of her intentions.
“Let me know if you need anything, Sally, dear,” she said, patting my hand affectionately. She turned to leave me to search to my heart’s content.
Just then my attention went to a beautiful wooden box. It looked hand-carved, and something told me I should handle it with care. I picked it up carefully and realized someone had made this jewelry box with a great deal of love and thought. The intricate lid opened with miniature creaks from its hinges, but the velvet inside still felt soft to the touch.
I couldn’t stop running my fingers over the carvings on the lid and the sides. After a couple of moments my touch stopped at a tiny knob in the front of the jewelry box, and on instinct I pulled it. The drawer hesitated and didn’t want to follow my lead. Despite my desire to treat the box gently, I gave the drawer knob a good yank and it seemed to give a little. After the third tug it suddenly jerked open. Inside I saw a small book with a navy blue cover.
“Oh, dear, what is that doing in there?”
I jumped, not realizing when Ms. Connie had come back.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Connie, really I am. What is it?”
She took the jewelry box from me and took the little navy book out of the drawer. Putting the box back down on the table with barely a second glance, she held the book close to her heart and closed her eyes in reverence.
“It’s Gordon’s passport.”
“Gordon…,” I repeated slowly, blinking a few times with mixed feelings. I really didn’t know what to say.
“It came in the mail six months ago,” she said, speaking softly. “When Gordon was getting ready to retire from the post office, he said he was tired of helping other people process their passport applications and thinking about all the wonderful places they were going. He wanted to go someplace wonderful too.
“So he prepared his own passport application and on the day he finally retired, he marched right down to Nancy’s travel agency and started making plans for a special trip for us. Imagine that, Sally. He didn’t even tell me about it! He was going to drive us to the airport in Bloomington and then tell me there. Nancy said he was so excited about all the stamps he was going to get in the passport. He even told Nancy he felt sorry that the only time I had ever used my own passport was that one term I studied abroad because he knew how much I loved traveling and he hadn’t been able to give that to me during our entire married life.
“Of course, we didn’t know that we’d never get to use his passport at all,” Ms. Connie ended quietly, her eyes welling. “The cancer just came too fast.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. She took a few minutes to compose herself and swallow the tears that had threatened to fall yet again. We all knew that Ms. Connie and her husband had been high school sweethearts and shared that kind of storybook love that we all wanted to have in our own lives. I thought Kevin and I had a chance to build that kind of marriage, but we hadn’t been married for that many decades yet.
“The passport came two weeks after the funeral,” she said in an even softer voice. “I put it in there because Gordon made that jewelry box for me when we first got engaged—oh, ages ago it seems like now. At first I thought it made sense to put the last gift he gave me with the first gift he did. But then one day I—I felt like I couldn’t look at either of them anymore.”
At that she glanced back at the jewelry box and brushed it with her fingers, although somehow I got the feeling that the passport meant more to her. Nevertheless I picked up the jewelry box, took the passport from her, placed the slim volume in the drawer again, and put the box firmly back in her hand.
“Don’t you think both gifts should go with you to Florida?” I asked as gently as I could.
She looked down at the box for a minute and then looked at me with tears in her eyes again.
“Maybe you’re right, Sally. Thank you.”
I gave her a big hug and held her tightly, my words coming out in a whisper.