| “What are you doing in that ice box?” my mother’s voice rang out, her tone more a warning than question. I froze, but managed to answer as she approached with hands on hips.
“Just getting some fishing gear for Blackjack Creek.” I was puzzled. The old refrigerator hadn’t worked in years. We used it as a storage cabinet in the utility shed next to our house.
“Go ahead. Get all the fishing gear you need, but don’t touch anything else, especially that metal box. It’s none of your business. Don’t ever open it! Do you understand me – it’s private!”
The metal box sat on the top shelf. It was old, scratched up, and the lock was broken – the lid held shut by a thick, red rubber band. What could be so private about an old metal box?
I picked out some sinkers, hooks, and extra line for the day’s fishing expedition and left. Later that day I returned with a small stringer of trout. I rinsed them in cold water in the galvanized metal sink and, needing a knife to clean them, opened the old fridge. There, the forbidden box beckoned; my eleven-year-old eyes locked onto it. Recalling my mother’s warning, I stepped outside to look around. Ah, no one in sight; a quick peek wouldn’t hurt.
I carefully slid off the rubber band, opened the lid, and peered inside. A brown, cloth pouch took up most of the space supporting a stack of official-looking government documents with one single airmail letter perched on top – unopened – and addressed to Mr. Donald Denton. My mother’s name appeared in the upper left corner of the envelope.
Donald, my oldest brother, died five years ago. I hardly knew him; he was fourteen years older. Two photographs contained my image of him – one taken in uniform with his wavy, dark hair, Army issue eyeglasses, and reticent smile. The other photo, in front of his 1938 Plymouth, showed Donald sporting a bomber jacket and holding his bowling ball bag.
Memories remained just as sketchy, but my parents said he ran away from home once. They thought the Army would shape him up. I also remembered him as a good bowler who worked at a bowling alley in Tacoma for a while. When I was four, I struggled to carry his new bowling ball out to his car after a family Sunday dinner. The heavy ball nearly overpowered me, and he rescued me by hoisting it onto the front floorboards.
He had been a private in the U.S. Army stationed in Alaska. At the time, my father took leave from his shipyard job in Bremerton to work on the Alaskan Railroad. He and Donald shared a small apartment in Anchorage. My dad’s story remained consistent: “Donald was cleaning his rifle one night at the kitchen table when it accidentally discharged.” Dad said he jumped out of bed and reached Donald’s side “before he hit the floor”.
My father was scheduled to return home before Donald’s death. Dad had fallen in love with Alaska and said he wanted to move the whole family to Anchorage. But Mom “put her foot down.” She wasn’t leaving “God’s country.” They already owned a house located on a beautiful half acre near Puget Sound. Plus, they belonged to a church and enjoyed plenty of friends “to boot.” So, Dad gave in to my mother’s demands, gave up his dream, and returned home, flying on the same plane with Donald’s body.
Not many memories of a brother dying young. I sighed and returned the unopened letter to the box, closed the lid, and slipped the rubber band back in place. No one ever found out.
* * * * *
Thirty years later my parents died within six weeks of each other. A massive heart attack struck down my father without warning. However, my mother had been ill for a number of years – ever since Donald’s death. Since my father was her caretaker, it surprised no one when Mom followed him so closely in death.
My sister, brother, and I sifted through the stuff that years are made of – for my parents, a lifetime of memories. However, only some things held meaning for us. Most didn’t. We arranged for the sale of the home, claimed the things we wanted, organized an estate sale, and gave the rest away. Neither my sister nor brother knew nothing of the metal box and its contents . . . so, I claimed it.
Two weeks or more elapsed before I decided to deal with the box. Finally, one evening I lowered the box from the top shelf of my linen closet, red rubber band still intact, and carried it to the kitchen table. My eyes examined the old steel container unchanged with broken lock and scratches. I still felt the apprehension that lingered from my mother’s warning, “Don’t ever open it! It’s private!” The passing of so many years could not mute my mother’s voice or lessen its intensity.
When I started to slide the rubber band, brittle with age, off the box, it parted and fell unresisting to the table. Opening the lid wide, I stared at the contents undisturbed from the first time I had seen them. I removed the unopened airmail letter from my mother and placed it to one side. I scanned the official letters written by the commander and other officers of the Army base in Alaska quickly realizing they were letters of condolence and inquiry concerning Donald’s death. One read, “He was pronounced dead on arrival at 3:00 a.m., 22 March, 1951 . . . following a gunshot wound in the right temple.” Those words, oddly enough, did not surprise me. No matter what my father had said, Donald’s death was no accident. A rifle shot to the right temple meant only one thing – my brother had taken his own life. The commanding officers ruled that his death was “accidental and occurred in the line of duty”. Their ruling allowed my brother's body to be flown home at government expense and buried with military honors – a kind, simple gift granted to my parents.
Next, I pulled out the pouch. Lying on the table, it remained rectangular in shape from so many years encased in the box. Unfastening its drawstring, I released the contents one by one. A stainless steel cigarette case. A wallet containing a photo. A lump formed in my throat because the person in the photo was me – my first grade school picture taken when I was six years old. The two small cardboard boxes contained U.S Army issue belt buckles, cuff links, tie tacks, and his eyeglasses – the left lens broken when he fell. The meager sum of Donald’s personal effects.
Last, my eyes moved toward the unopened letter mother addressed to Donald, the words “RETURN TO SENDER” stamped in red ink on the front. I noticed the postmark dated March 20, 1951 – two days before his death. He was dead by the time of delivery. That’s why it was left unopened. I sliced it open and unfolded the letter.
My gaze fell on my mother's familiar handwriting. Most of the letter was newsy – telling about us kids and the weather. Some of it told what Donald’s friends were doing. And some made an attempt at humor: “Been thinking that you would write but came to the conclusion that you have the writers cramp.” Then I read the haunting lines that opened a window into my mother’s heart: I’m glad your Dad is finally coming home. Wonder how long it will be before he gets itchy feet and wants to be on the move again. Not for a long time I’ll bet. Just hope I’m doing the right thing about him quitting (the job in Alaska) and coming home. I just couldn’t see selling the house and moving up there. We have just the kind of place we have wanted all our lives – a place to raise chickens and a lovely garden spot. And you know how your Dad loves to fiddle around in the garden and yard. . . . Well Honey work hard and make good. Your Daddy wrote (that) you were doing fine and he was very pleased. Bye now, Love, Mom.
A sigh escaped after finishing her letter. I now realized my mother blamed herself for Donald’s death. I could hear her question: what could I have done differently? Followed by her answer: I could have moved the family to Alaska.
I knew my mother’s choice to stay in Port Orchard did not cause Donald’s death. She loved her children with her whole heart, simply hoping we’d become decent, happy human beings. Three of us satisfied that hope. Her oldest child shot himself in the head.
Oh, how I wish she would have shared her feelings with one of her friends! Mom would have heard that it wasn’t her fault. That she could have changed nothing by moving to Alaska.
Instead, she allowed guilt to haunt the rest of her years – neatly packaged and kept hidden inside the metal box.