Before I go, I have something to say

One Girl’s Treasure

I was looking for old things, things that meant a lot to me. Because I do this more often than I ought to, at some point I typed up a list, a house inventory, so I would know without looking which closet holds my old English papers, which boxes under the bed protect the quilts my mom and her mom made. My old scrapbooks are housed in archival acid-free boxes in my husband’s closet (yes, he’s a saint) and the baby books I kept for my kids, in fits and starts, sit next to my own in the upstairs study where I’m writing this. But there is so much more.

It was a long, messy search for carefully saved, and misplaced, mementos that inspired me to make the list. But nowhere on that list is a clue to the whereabouts of the polka-dot onesie in which I dressed both my girl baby and my boy baby for the ride home from the hospital, nor the films from their ultrasounds. Since I’m going to be a grandma soon, that’s what I was trying to find. Instead, I found other things, among them my sister’s jewelry box.

It’s a smallish wooden box, enlivened with a ballerina who should twirl at the turn of a key. Alas, she no longer dances, and is caught mid-twirl for the ages. The drawers, though, were still stuffed with necklaces, buttons, pins, and earrings, some of which Bonnie had made herself.

My sister is neither “normal” nor “average,” having been saddled since birth with developmental delays and psychiatric diagnoses. She lives now in a special nursing home three hours south of Dubuque, one of only two in the state designed to care for people who are both physically and mentally debilitated. The bodily woes she brought on herself, refusing to do any physical therapy that might have kept her joints working. In her not surprising way, she had been wanting a wheelchair for years, and was jealous of the other residents who were confined to one. That was a battle I was sorry to see her win.

Since she lives with some thirty or so people like her – not that, as anyone who knows her would agree, there is anyone just like Bonnie – she worries that someone, whether a roommate or staff member, might steal her things. Never mind the many times her only niece, my daughter Allison, has tracked down the “stolen” item in an overstuffed drawer or basket, or under the bed. She still wants me to keep at my house anything of great value to her. So this is where her favorite stuffed animal, and her jewelry box, are kept.

Sliding open the drawers of the box, I expected to find only junk. But after painstakingly untangling a maddening nest of chains, and discarding things like buttons proclaiming “I {heart} Roy Clark,” I discovered a few pieces of great value, the kind you can’t put a price on.

First I found a bracelet, one of those narrow metal cuffs that people back home wore in support of our (mostly) boys over in Vietnam, back in the early seventies. I never had one, but she did, and it reads, “SGT. CHARLES FELLENZ” and “11-24-69.” I had no idea who this man was, or what the date might mean. It was surely not his birth date, since the U.S. was already mired in that polarizing conflict by 1969.

I found him on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall page, and learned that this was, instead, the date his tour began, or, as the soldiers put it, the date he went “in country.” Air Force Sgt. Fellenz died June 29, 1978, three years and two months after the fall of Saigon. The plane carrying 40-year-old Fellenz, a native of Marshfield, Wisconsin, and seven others was shot down over Laos. There were no survivors.

I won’t tell Bonnie this; it would only make her sad.

Then I found her ID bracelet. Not unlike the dog tags of soldiers, it was something lots of kids wore in the early sixties. (I still have mine.) It reads:

Bonnie Kress

628 E. Dover Ct.

Davenport, Iowa

% Harold Kress

Blood Type A Neg.   P

The “P” meant Protestant, a handy thing to know, I guess, in an emergency. These days, parents might worry too much about identity theft to fasten one of these around their children’s wrists. Back then, we thought they were cool, even if they didn’t give our mothers even a footnote.

Finally, I found a silver bracelet, heavily laden with ten carefully chosen charms. A car. President Kennedy’s profile, etched with his famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” quote. A red-and-white enameled West High banner, and a replica class ring with a shiny red stone. A piece cut in the shape of Minnesota, and a blue enameled picture of Paul Bunyan, from his amusement park east of Brainerd. The number 65, and a silver diploma. A fat book decorated with a tiny purple jewel, titled “Holy Bible.” Finally, a ballet toe shoe, on point.

My sister earned her driver’s license, though she never drove after that. She was eighteen when JFK was shot. (I was ten.) She graduated from the same high school as me, though on the “special” track. She sang in the church choir and, for a time, took dance lessons. Our family vacationed in Minnesota.

I went looking for souvenirs from my children’s lives but found, instead, clues to the things my sister cared about and was proud of, and the family to which she belonged. I’ll bring them down the next time we visit. Then I’ll take them back, to safeguard her keepsakes a while longer.

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