A box arrived on my doorstep on a sunny Saturday afternoon. A light tap on the door gave me notice and I opened it wide to find a large package I wasn’t expecting wrapped in golden brown tape with my new Texas address written in thick black sharpie.
“It’s still hard to even believe I live here,” I thought as I dragged the box inside.
I soon remembered that a dear family friend had messaged me for a way to get us some of her mother’s things that were left for us when she passed away last year.
I remember the last time I saw Leta, her mom, sitting in her chair in her living room, dressed in purple (a woman always dressed in purple). My sister and I brought my niece to meet her, a visit we knew my mother would have cherished.
She beamed at the site of her, immediately jogging down memory lane to the days when my mom was pregnant with my sister and sitting with her in their living room in the old Holy Cross neighborhood of Chicago.
The old days. The before.
It’s hard sometimes to imagine my mother the woman. The young woman. The woman navigating things, for the first time, fumbling, scared, perhaps even overwhelmed—baby in tow wondering how to be the good mother.
Did she even worry about that?
We knew Leta wasn’t feeling well and that perhaps this was our last visit. This made me sad. I felt like we should never leave. I hate last visits. I wanted to sit with her forever, listen to her tell me stories about the before. Drink her coffee and pet her dog and watch her smile.
She had, in her very unique and beautiful way, lived an extremely full life. Family and friends had an open invitation to her home. As a matter of fact we had spent many Thanksgivings and Halloweens and New Years Eves sleeping in the front room of their house, the one with the three twin beds, built perfectly for three young girls.
I can remember one New Years Eve we spent in their basement and the way we curled our hair and fell over each other getting ready in their beautiful guest bathroom.
I remember thinking, “There are so many people here, how did we get so lucky to be the ones that get to stay over?”
The morning after was always the best part.
I wore a black striped dress I found at Forever 21. It came with a red rose that I pinned to my front left shoulder.
My parents danced all night.
Their home was one of those homes that was immediately your home, the minute that you arrive. What was theirs was yours and they made sure you longed for nothing. Uncle Julio would greet you with a gourmet breakfast and Aunt Leta would turn the center table just right so it delivered what you needed to you without you lifting a finger.
We were family…in that Chicago kind of way you only understand if you are from Chicago.
In the box were photographs from over the years, baby photos, dinner snapshots, my mother pregnant in a long dress with her leather brown boots that my sister now wears. A time capsule of memories, some I wasn’t even alive to witness.
A letter dropped from one envelope. My mother’s handwriting, I catch my breath.
Are there answers there perhaps? Answers to the things I would ask her if she were here?
Sorry for the belated birthday card. Everything went well with the surgery, so I am on my way to being good as new, maybe better.
The amount of hope in my mother’s words cut me like a knife. I remember having that much hope too.
“Yesterday I went to my class without wig or hat! I gave no explanation so many of my classmates were curious. I think they thought I was making a fashion statement. I can’t believe my adventure is over. I’m so happy. Today I get my stitches out. I was thinking how much fun you’re having with everyone in the house. I wish I could live there for awhile anyway. Can you imagine?”
I hesitate to keep reading but I my eyes are glued to her words.
She goes on to update about each of us, one sister at a time—in order of age, just the way she used to call to us in the house. She laments about how Leta taught me about Voodoo dolls and I requested one for my mean teacher.
Leta made very powerful voodoo dolls.
She ends it with, “See you as soon as I can.”
I can’t help but wish this letter was written last week and that my mother was on her way to see me soon.
It’s still hard to even believe how much time has passed.
One of the photos catches my attention. My mother is smiling leaning over to my dad with her silver fox hair. I can’t place the timing of her letter to Leta but I imagine it had to be her first cancer surgery and her first time going out in public without her wig or her hat. Or maybe it was the third surgery, or the fourth round of chemo.
My mom was stunning with no hair.
And in this photo she is sporting the short post-chemotherapy hair and she looks so damn happy.
Dad is next to her laughing so hard he almost looks funny.
This moment. Can we just freeze there for a moment or for forever?
Why does the past so often feel more magical than the present?
My parents were always the first on the dance floor. My dad could make my mother laugh, the lean over hold your stomach kind of laughing.
My dad loved to do the twist.
My mom loved to watch him.
I wonder to myself if I will ever find a love like that.
I think about who must have gone through all of Leta and Julios photos to find the ones for our family. Was it Miriam?
How lucky we are to know them, to have this time capsule.
I read the letter three more times looking for more clues. I touch each photo slowly, taking in the memories.
One of my mom and my Granny from that same New Years party.
Take me back.
Another small note falls out of the pile. It’s my sister’s handwriting.
As you know my mother loved pears because of the memory of her father’s pear trees. Over the years she put together a small collection, and when she died my sisters and I decided to share her collection with those people who were most special to her.
We are certain you were one of those people.
Please accept this part of her collection and think of her.
We love you,
Catherine, Julia & Teresa
I fold the note and put it back.
I wipe a hot tear from my cheek and I vow to work to make the present feel as magical as the past.