Though I grew up in a tiny house with many people, I had a big backyard in which to play, and an alley in which the neighborhood kids gathered for kickball, and a huge freaky dry wash that gave me nightmares, and two neighborhood school yards, not to mention vast expanses of desert, all of which presented endless opportunities for adventure and getting into trouble.
But what I really wanted? An attic. A basement. A place for old trunks that would hold moldering clothes from a bygone era, photos of people I didn't know, the bric-a-brac of other times.
Tucked up in the corner windowseat of the neighborhood library, I plowed through the shelves of the children's section, and trust me, all the lucky kids in those books had huge cobwebby attics and musty basements. Places to explore, places where ghosts lurked (at least until they were unveiled at the end of the story), clothes to dress up in, priceless family heirlooms.
Unlike most of the families in our neighborhood, we did have some unusual items in our house (including lots of books): heavy handloomed wool rugs instead of carpeting, wooden carvings from Africa, tiny storybook and Madame Alexander dolls that belonged to my mother as a child, a large Czech ceramic pot given to my father as a gift, a delicate set of silver demitasse spoons, a few bits of crystal. As well, I had a child's sari, another gift from another life, and a beautiful wooden doll cradle that had belonged to an aunt.
But these things only went so far as treasure.
One afternoon, hot and bored, I sat with my mother in her bedroom while she rested, heavily pregnant with my youngest sister. Her jewelry box, a pretty item covered in blue leather, caught my eye. I asked if I could wind up the music box, and listen. It played "Some Enchanted Evening" until the mechanism wound down.
She told me that would be alright, and I carefully turned the key at the back of the box, cautious not to overwind it and incur my mother's wrath. Then I lifted the lid.
The sweet tune poured out, a note at a time. Listening I gently touched the rings and earrings nestled in the blue velvet compartments in the box. Her class ring from high school, a tiny sapphire band, the diamond cocktail ring that had been made for her 16th birthday from a stone given to her father in payment by a patient. A sterling silver band carved with symbols of the Western U.S., alongside a silver and turquoise ring. A dainty golden circlet with three pearls that she often wore pinned on a scarf or the lapel of her coat. A lovely blue enameled Miraculous Medal and a St. Christopher Medal. Screw-back pearl earrings, and another pair with coiled seed pearls. I remember how elegant she used to look wearing those earrings and the matching necklace, a collar of heavy intertwined loops of seed pearls, never realizing it was a fleeting vision of the young woman lost to time and memory, uprooted from her family and her heritage, as trapped as I was in a small desert town.
Softly, so she wouldn't open her eyes, I lifted out the blue velvet tray that concealed the compartment below. Gently running my fingers over the necklaces, I removed one, slipping the long string of amber crystal beads over my head; this necklace was another gift from her father who died before I was born. There, too, was the traditional string of pearls that all young girls of her era were given, and these were beautiful, smooth and glossy and perfectly matched, large enough to be noticed, but not so large as to be immodest. Coiled in the bottom of the box was a cunning little accessory, a pink chiffon scarf pulled through a coil of artificial pearls and crystal. It could be tied around one's hair, or used as a choker necklace. There was also a white fur collar, the sort girls in the 1950s would wear with their sweaters, and it was soft to the touch, heavy on my shoulders, smelling ever so faintly of...must.
It never occurred to me to covet my mother's jewelry, a store of treasures that in retrospect seems so small for the cherished daughter of a well-to-do East Coast physician. My joy lay in examining them minutely, reading the tiny inscription of carats gold, a class year, a place of origin. I loved to twist the pearls in the afternoon light that filtered through the closed curtains, watching the iridescence slide across the curve of each little near-perfect sphere. The sparkle of her little diamond. The gleam of gold and sterling silver, the tiny chink of her charm bracelet, the kiss of cool rose quartz beads on the back of my neck.
Over time, my mother distributed some of these things. I have the silver rings and the pink chiffon scarf coiled in the artificial pearls and crystal, the latter given to me "because you always liked it." The rabbit fur collar has long since deteriorated, returned, in essence, to its original owner. I also have a few bits of my grandmother's costume jewelry. I have acquired little of my own costume jewelry over the years, most of it thoughtful gifts from friends and family, but I tend not to wear jewelry, so I see no need to buy myself any.
A few years ago, the daughter bemoaned the fact that we have neither attic nor basement.
"I want to look for treasure!" she cried.
"In my closet," I told her. "There's a shoebox."
Off she went, in search of, hot on the trail.
"This one?" she asked, returning a little later.
"Yup," I told her.
Almost shaking with anticipation, she gently set the box down, and slowly lifted the lid.
Go listen to some good music: "Some Enchanted Evening" from the album South Pacific (Original Broadway Cast Recording. And somehow you know, you know even then...