A story from my life
I'd like to write about an unassuming jewelry box filled with gravel and tiny bones. I left California for Montana a week after my tenth birthday. Just before my birthday, my mother had given me a little beige jewelry box identical to this one:
In the week before I Ieft, I filled the box with the treasures I had so far: the green metallic shell of a dead japanese beetle, a nearly complete mouse skeleton from the field near my school and a tiny silver heart on a chain that I had won at the carnival when I was a "little girl" of six. My dad and I had gone to the San Diego zoo on my birthday so I put the little copper zebra and tiger he bought me in there as well. The trip went very badly indeed. About a year into the experience I developed gangrene and ended up in foster care. Although the foster family's daughter, Lisa, was my best friend and everyone was incredibly kind; I repeatedly ran back to the relatives who had abused me. At the time I had no understanding of traumatic bonding or Stockholm Syndrome; what I knew was that the relatives were a link to my father and without that connection I would be utterly and irrevocably lost. It was late at night when the social worker returned me yet again; everyone but my foster father had gone to bed. I felt ashamed and ungrateful. I remember that I wouldn't look at him. I was afraid he would yell at me or worse. Instead he told me to sit at the kitchen table then he made two mugs of hot chocolate and joined me. I remember that the kitchen was lit by the stove light, and I could hear the tick of the clock. After a long silence he said, "No one is listening to you." I said, "I want to go home." He said, "You want to go home and no one is listening to you. We're adults and we think we know what's best for you. No one is listening to you because you're a kid, and I know it feels horrible, but you won't be a kid forever. I need you to hang in there with us, and I promise we adults will figure out how to help you, but I want you to promise me something." I thought he would make me promise to not run away again, but he didn't. He said something that changed the course of my life. He said, "You won't be a kid forever. When you grow up I want you to remember how it feels to not be listened to. When you grow up you can remember to listen. Do you think you can do that?" I promised. After that I didn't run away anymore. My foster family lived next to the railroad tracks in Big Timber, Montana. Some of the trains would barrel through so fast that Lisa and I made a game of grabbing onto a pole and letting the speeding train lift our feet off the ground. One afternoon Lisa's mother sat in her truck and watched in horror between passing freight cars as a speeding train sucked at her daughter's life. There was an enormous fight that night between my foster parents. I was allowed to stay, but Lisa spent her afternoons at her mother's work until they both came home for dinner. Without my dog, or my family or my friend I would wander along the train tracks alone. When I got tired I would sit on the tracks, and rest my hand against the steel, which would buzz and let me know I needed to move when a train was coming. Sweet Grass County, Montana is agate country. One day on the tracks I must have noticed an especially pretty piece, polished by 100 years of trains and decided to take it home for my treasure box. Soon finding the prettiest piece of agate became what I did after school. I would allow myself only one piece per day. About a mile out from town, I would sit down at a spot that gave me a good view of both directions and pick up a handful of rocks. I'd scan it for the prettiest piece and then carefully set the rejects on the other side of the track. The first candidate I would set on the track beside me. I'd pick up a second handful, and get a second candidate. Then I would have to decide which one was a reject and which one would stay on the rail. I would do this for hours, refining each selection - sometimes letting two or three stunning pieces stay in contention until I could decide. Like Vasalisa sorting through a pile of rice, I didn't know it, but I was learning to discern. Even though I limited myself to one a day, soon my little jewelry box was too full. So I changed the rules. Each stone could be no larger than a single pea. I dumped the bigger stones out and began again. I became a connoisseur, literally seeing the world in a grain of sand. I would notice that this one had a jagged edge between the colors that resembled a cityscape, or this one a streak of blue against beige like a river through the desert, or this one touched by saliva from my fingertip shimmered opalescent in the sun. It was well and good that the spot I chose was exposed - there were times when I was so absorbed in my "work" that I didn't notice an approaching train till the conductor blew the whistle and jolted me to my feet. What happened to the box is in some ways a story of holding on and letting go and how things don't always resolve neatly. When my father finally came to rescue me and drive me back to California the box was the only thing I carried. It went with me back to my mother's home, where I stayed feral and unmanageable for half a year till she sent me to live with my father. He and I lasted almost a year before my inexplicable (to him) defiance made him lose his cool and knock me down a flight of stairs - I think he had intended to slap my face but I fell backward and down. So at 13 I left home for the first time, and the box went with me to a sleazy apartment where management didn't check IDs. It traveled to Hawaii and back and, more than once, it was the only thing I reclaimed from surrendered storage units. By the late 90s the latch was broken and the velvet lining was half detached. I met a woman at a 12 Step meeting who restored antique luggage - after explaining its value I transferred the treasures to a big cut-glass vase and gave it to her to restore. She disappeared. The vase moved with me several more times. It ended up in the garage of a too big home in San Clemente. I was with a man who loved my body much more than my soul and one day when he was cleaning out the garage he asked me why we kept a jar of junk. I started to tell him, but something distracted him in the middle and we never got back to the story. When I was moving out, he was moving the next woman in. I held the vase in my hands for a long time. My ability to discern was in shambles. I was numb, my friends and step kids were all around me helping, and... Here's the thing. I don't know what happened next. I think I may have thrown it away, but I'm not sure. My attic is full of things - christmas ornaments and expensive gifts, recipe books and photographs - hastily stashed from that move. There's a fifty-fifty chance I may put up a Christmas tree this year which means going up there for the first time in five years and finding out. If it's there, I'll let you know.