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Hope and Possibilities In the Old Family Trunk

NOW it's really the centerpiece, or heart, of my living room - the old trunk with its black hinges and pale yellow pigskin-covered wooden frame. Finally, after all these years, I have honored it, cared for it.

Its history is part of my history, but then it has other histories as well, ones that I can only guess at or imagine.

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I first saw the old trunk in the early 1950s. My parents had divorced, and my mother, my 11-year-old younger brother, and I were packing up to leave our small Oklahoma hometown and head west - as so many had done before us. California has a long history as a promised land. We left to be free of our small town - to see more of the world. For my mother, it was a chance to be free of my father and of a marriage that didn't work out, and to be more independent of her mother. At age 40, my mother was running away from home.

My mother sold most of our belongings, but the others she packed up in boxes and cartons to be shipped. Looking in a junk store one day, she came across a medium-sized black trunk. It would be better than cardboard cartons, she reasoned, for protecting some of our more fragile belongings.

I still remember it sitting in my uncle's house before he drove us and our luggage to the railway station. The trunk was full of framed family portraits, some special vases and dishes - all packed in yesterday's news, and padded with blankets.

Before long, the trunk, along with a few large boxes, was sitting in the living room of our new two-room apartment in Sacramento. We had arrived, and the boxes and trunk were opened to find light blankets. In California, it cools off at night even in August, something we could never imagine in sultry Oklahoma. We took the dishes from the trunk, and a few family photographs were set out to make this new place feel like home - Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles smiled at us from their wooden and brass frames.

Then the trunk fades from my memory. I suppose it eventually found its way to our garage, and my mother probably always had it packed with things she wasn't currently using - lace tablecloths and china that she didn't use as much in the casual California setting.

But, 15 years after our move west, when I was 28, married, and had a young child, my mother died, and I inherited the trunk, along with a few other family belongings.

My husband and I decided that rather than merely store the trunk in our garage we would paint it a bright color and use it as an unusual toybox for our toddler, Richard.

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We painted the wood bright yellow and the hinges a kind of copper color. We were proud of ourselves to have come up with this unique idea. Now the trunk was full of colored balls of all sizes, soft toys, wooden blocks, and various plastic playthings. I recall so many mornings when Richard ambled over to the box and began rummaging and tossing - to find whatever toy was special at that moment. And the evenings when we'd sit on the floor, putting Pooh Bear, the Scarecrow, and all the blocks to bed in the big yellow box.

After a few years of this sort of use, however, Richard was out of the toybox stage, and we moved to San Diego, so the trunk was ready for yet another kind of transformation.

It was moved to the living room, where, propped open and with wooden slats to create a false bottom, we put plants and a few framed small photos - of Richard, of ourselves, of our friends. The greenery now trailed over the edge of the open box, and a few leaves even reached the floor.

When later my young husband suddenly died, I moved with my son to a condominium on the north side of town, and the trunk went along with us. I stored household papers in it, kept the lid shut, and put a small maroon-and-black North African tapestry on top of it, with a few framed pictures - of my nieces, of Richard and his girlfriend - and several large art books. It served as a kind of end table, but it had lost its ``trunkness,'' covered now with two layers of paint and the small tapestry.

Like someone with a forgotten childhood, the trunk had lost its identity, its heritage.

Somewhere beneath the facade, I knew there was a special beauty in this trunk. I wanted its past to be part of its present. What stories were inside it? Whose treasures, dresses, and books had it carried before it came into my life? Whose lace shawls, baby clothes? Had it brought a settler from the East to the Oklahoma Territory? Was it carried by stagecoach or wagon? Was it part of someone's new beginning? Was that person running toward a new life, or away from an old one? Maybe it had several moves? Had it ever been on a ship or down a river?

One day in a junior-college class I was teaching, a young man wrote about restoring an antique boat. He spoke of using such care, and seemed to display such an obvious talent for fine craftsmanship, that I soon thought of the trunk.

I had not been looking for someone to restore it, but suddenly the idea struck me. So I inquired. And to my surprise, the answer was yes - in time - when other refinishing tasks were completed, he'd be glad to. I was elated. Before long the trunk was on a journey, taken in a camper truck to be renewed.

Then one proud day, it was returned, with a brief possible history. The craftsman who restored it said it had probably been a carriage trunk at one time. The plain, more rough-sawn wood was now covered in a pale soft pigskin. The oak portions were stripped and oiled. The hardware had a new coat of shiny black paint.

Now as the trunk sits on the carpet - with a Dickens biography, a flute, and a basket placed carefully on it. It is the heart of the room. It may hold only tax papers inside, but that's just the physical part. It holds all the places I've gone and would still like to go. It's freedom. It's journeys to be taken. Perhaps it is also full of unknown mysteries. It's a theatre trunk, full of all the roles we play in life, and our costumes from different ages, from infancy to old age - and a circus trunk, with pink feathers, balloons, and a folded trapeze.

Most of all, it's a sacred box, full of stories - not just my story, but my mother's story, and the unknown stories of the owners of the trunk who came before us. And I know it has a future someday with someone else. Most of all, it is, and probably always has been, a trunk of hopes and possibilities, of memories and dreams.

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