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My Secret Treasures, Unpacked

A cedar trunk holds the threads of a life's tapestry

EDITORIAL NOTE: I wrote this piece at a time in my life when my children consumed every waking moment and thought. I was far from a perfect mother - at times I wanted to escape as much I wanted to put us in a bubble and never let go. A rainy afternoon and the time to take stock of my life, with my children as witnesses turned into my salvation...This story was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor and a variety of regional publications throughout the US and Canada. And no, I still have not shared the journals with my kids...

The rain spattered mud across the windowpanes from the garden below. The kids and I, tired of one too many Scrabble games, bickered and snapped our way through lunch. There had to be something we could do together that didn't involve TV. I looked down the hall to my cedar chest sitting in the corner of the living room. Perfect.

family montagefamily montageThe musky sweet aroma of old cedar wafted up from hand-sewn quilts and tattered hankies as I drew back the lid. Little fingers poked and pulled the moment the lid began to creak. I gently, but firmly, pushed their hands back. The kids craned their necks and pushed one another as they waited for me to begin the unpacking, the revealing, the storytelling.

My Brownie badges, a twisted and bent orthodontic retainer, dried corsages, and wedding gloves nestled within, treasures from a journey I had taken long ago. A journey from childhood to adulthood, from girl to woman.

"Mommy, how old were you when you went to Brownies?" asked my 8-year-old.

"About the same age as you are now."

family storiesfamily stories"Did it hurt when you wore the 'retrainer'?" asked my 5-year-old.

I pulled out quilts their grandmother had made before each of their births. Grandpa, various aunts and uncles, and even a few neighbors had added their stitches, little prayers for the coming life. My daughter wrapped hers around her shoulders and began swaying to a silent lullaby. Long eyelashes rested dark on chubby cheeks as she danced around the room.

My oldest son ran his fingers along the stitching, mouthing the words stitched on the border. Maybe, just maybe, in a wordless way, they remembered being held and rocked in these quilts. Picture albums, baby shoes, christening gowns, and my journals lay at the bottom of the chest.

"Whose shoes were these?"

"Yours, honey. Can you believe you ever had feet that small?"

"Who wore that dress?"

"You did, Simon. You were beautiful."

"Whose pictures are these?"

Telling stories with pictures

moments from my childhoodmoments from my childhoodI ran my fingers across the brown leather photo album my grandfather had given me so many years ago. The black cardboard pages felt stiff and scratchy and corner holders fell out as I opened it. My children crowded around to see a young girl standing pigeon-toed in the snow beside her father. Her teeth shone like the tinsel from a Christmas tree as she giggled.

"Is that Grandpa?" asked my 9-year-old. "That isn't you, is it Mommy?"

I smiled and nodded. We flipped through the pages, pointing at their silly uncles and Grandma's pretty smile. They recognized the smiles, but not the people.

My 11-year-old drew a rusted metal box from beneath the baby bibs. He gingerly opened it and gently lifted a crocheted doily, a bracelet and a stack of journals. He looked at me with questions in his eyes.

The story of my life, hidden and protected

learning family storieslearning family storiesI took the journals and placed them back in the box. "I'll let you read those another day," I said. Nelson raised his eyebrows, clearly wanting an explanation.

Buried deep within those journals lie my real treasures, my journals, my secrets and my lies. And they aren't the stuff of bedtime reading for a child.

I don't know when I'll let my children read those journals because I'm more than a little afraid of being judged on the value of those words. My children may be able to reconcile the mother they knew with a wildly insecure teenager and lonely young mother but they might not either.

Looking back through the journals I've kept, I wonder about that girl who wrote about her life in such melodramatic prose. Her first journal entry is at twelve years old and her letters are big and fat and sit like balls of dough, ready for the baking, the transformiing into something real. At sixteen her free-spirited strokes sail across the page like toy boats in the bay.

Sometimes though, her writing resembles a soul searching desperately for a body as her words trail down the sides and across the bottom. It's as if she's afraid she'll run out of time and forget what it was that was so important. Nothing is written in passive tones - it's all emotion and angst and tears. The journal reads like a romance novel, not my ordinary, boring life.

So often I find myself being only a mother to them. "Wash your hands." "Do your homework." "Haven't I told you a million times?" My words get us through the day, but don't bring me closer to them. What if I had the courage to share these words with them? What would they think?

Sharing the story of me

sharing my storysharing my storyAll four children sat down, the urge to see it all quickly had eased. I told them about a family with three children and two parents who loved them very much. I told them about the middle child, a girl, who grew from ponytails and scraped knees to a wildly insecure teenager. They listened as I wove my tale through mud pies and singing in the choir to knitting layettes. No one yawned, pushed or interrupted as I spoke.

As we sat on the floor while thunder rumbled and lightning flashed in the background, they learned that I once made the same mistakes, felt the same loneliness they sometimes do now.

My children loved hearing about my childhood, the marriage that brought my husband and me together and their births. They held up their booties with bells on the toes and leafed through my old report cards, trying to make it all fit. Some stories never lose their luster, I thought, as I retold tales about my grandparents, aunts and uncles.

family love in a cedar chestfamily love in a cedar chestLater that evening, I wondered when the girl who became their mother disappeared. She once wiped greasy fingers on her pants at the movies and stuck bubble gum on her bedpost. She crawled under her covers with a flashlight to read just one more chapter of "Charlotte's Web," and sang off-key just to annoy her brothers in the back seat of the station wagon.

She's still here. Thanks to my children and a rainy afternoon, I found her again. I am more than a mother. I am a complicated tapestry of emotions, experiences and beauty that can't be realized with a cursory glance.

Like the underside of a tapestry, my cedar chest contains the loose threads of my life, the knots and lumps that explain the picture. They're my alibis, my secrets, and my truths. 

Do you have a hidden place where you store your treasures? I'd love to hear about it! Feel free to leave a comment below or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter.

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