Some twenty years ago, Maggie had stood in her storage locker sorting what stuff she would drag to California with her and what was headed to Goodwill. She had sorted out the books, CDs and cassettes, tools, legal documents and had some family knickknacks carefully wrapped and packed. The still, hot, humid air of a typical summer day in North Carolina had a suffocating effect in the aluminum 8 x 10 unit. Add dust, mold and a healthy set of ragged nerves. Not the best day.
Maggie took a swig of water from her canteen and a few deep breaths. Damn. It was hot.
“Ok,” she muttered to herself as she leaned over to pick up the big, primary blue, plastic storage tub she had lugged around for a decade. “Bend with the knees…” she recited, then lifted the tub on top of a large cardboard box, using it as a workbench. She stood back for a second with her hands on her hips and pronounced with a thick slur of sarcasm, “The Box of Hurt!” Every time she moved, she swore to herself that she was going to unpack this stupid thing immediately upon arrival and deal with it. And every time she moved, she would shake her head at herself. Unread. Untouched.
“Damn. Here we were again.”
The Box of Hurt. She had given it that snarky name some years ago when she was packing it in her trunk. It was a waterproof Tupperware tub that contained an archive of documents of various types. She had grabbed a handful of papers from her childhood home the morning after her mother died and, luckily, a couple of days before her father, and his new woman, changed the locks. Maggie had some of her legal papers in there. Her birth certificate, First Grade report card, passport, her medical records and some documentation about her open-heart surgery. So, you know, she told herself, my little Box of Hurt: things that make you say “ouch.” It was funny, irreverent, yet remained true to the name.
But in The Box, besides all the detritus of an abusive and chaotic upbringing, there were also some letters, and clippings, and seemingly random Xerox copies. Among the documents were letters written by her mother and her mother’s mother, the Phillips’ side of the family. Scanning quickly, she could see there were references to some sort of difficulty between brothers and sisters. Something about money owed, lawyers and a place called the Lower Forty. Growing up she had always overheard conversations about the big family brouhaha, but she never had any appetite for all of that. The family lore bored her so terribly and sounded very mean. She tried very hard at the once-every-year-or-so-mandatory visit to Dalton to not allow any of the pain or boredom to leak through the contorted smile she erected across her face for such events. Like a fence, her aloof behavior was meant to keep away any unwanted hugs and kisses. All she wanted to do was to return to her aunt’s kitchen and take a closer look at how the toaster actually worked.
Standing there in the heat and with a car trunk full of books already, she asked herself why had she had been lugging around this tub with her for more than a decade now. How did she know she even cared about its contents? Yet she refused to abandon this tub of musty, yellowed papers. She didn’t know her own self at times. But she was pretty sure she didn’t want to throw away any more of them. She had already tossed some of the archive into a dumpster and she deeply regretted it.
She stood there for a bit staring at the tub, feeling the perspiration running down her back, her face, well, pretty much everywhere. She rolled her head around on her shoulders, stretched her back and took another deep breath before opening the tub for a peek at what was in there. Sitting on the very top of the stack was a number of Manilla folders, discolored, squashed and a little moldy after years in a plastic tub. She picked the first one up and opened it to take a quick look. It was a relatively recent Xerox copy of a much older, typewritten letter. Obviously, a manual type like from her grandfather’s time.
The letter was three pages long. Not particularly well typed, it was single spaced and dense with typos and misspellings. The author had XXXX’d over words to strike them out in multiple places. Despite all that, the author’s voice was clear, and his message couldn’t be mistaken. Standing in the heat of July, holding the letter carefully, so as to not drip sweat all over it, Maggie read the rather lengthy first paragraph. Without any context, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense at first. She started over again and tried to get the sense of what the author was saying. She read it once more. Then a fourth time. Just that first paragraph. When she had finished, she took a quick look at the rest of the document. There was some reference to some amounts of money, to the Great Depression, to a medical career. All of this was new material to her. She checked the last page. Who was this written by exactly? She tried to make out the name as those lines had been overexposed by the Xerox machine. She closed her eyes and lifted her face up to the aluminum roof to keep the sweat rolling away from her face, trying to remember. To think back. And as she stood there, trying to recall the bits and pieces that she might have picked up during those summer family gatherings while maintaining her carefully constructed smile, she realized she was very sorry she had tossed any of those other folders into the dumpster years ago. An unfortunate decision. She also realized, at that moment, that if she ever had the chance, if life ever gave her the opportunity, she would open The Box of Hurt again and finish reading that letter. And then she would tell the story she had finally understood it contained.
That had been roughly twenty years ago. Today, Maggie sat on her deck. It was about 70 degrees with a very pleasant breeze from the Bay as it moved across the Oakland hills and spilled up to the top of the hillside where her house stood like a watchtower. The Sauvignon Blanc was a pleasant reminder of her friend’s recent visit and their day trip to wine country. She took a sip of the cool wine and let the sun hit her face for a few moments.
It was time. She carefully put her big sun hat back on, found her reading glasses and got them settled. She opened the big, dusty, blue Tupperware tub in front of her. She took the folder on top and picked up the first three pages, closed the folder, then the lid. Then Maggie sat back in her deck chair, under the blooming dahlias and jasmine, and finished reading that letter.