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My Turn: Family heirloom cedar chest waits to give up its last secret

It was strategically positioned in the eaves of the attic, wedged between rafters, yet easily accessible to the adjoining rooms of the center hall Cape Cod, the beloved childhood home built by my father in 1953. It was far more than a mere storage box for blankets, sweaters and rarely used tablecloths. It was majestic in size, handcrafted from oak with a heavy hinged lid finished with lacquer. Embellished with an antique keyhole, lined in a dark navy-blue fabric, with its accordion shelves and zippered compartments, the cedar chest served for well over half a century as an archive of precious moments lived. Within its wooden confines accumulated what appeared to be random items, but upon closer observation shared a commonality: Each item was tethered to a milestone, a celebration or, sadly, the loss of a loved one. Collectively these items wove a tapestry of memories, a threaded recollection of days gone by. When delegated as a child to place an item in the chest, I was honored and took my chore seriously, for even I knew at an early age that placing an item in the cedar chest meant it had earned significance worthy of preservation. With all my strength, I would open the chest lid and just as the sweet smell of cedar wafted through the attic I would gingerly place the item in the chest.

When my childhood home was sold, the intact cedar chest was relocated to my home, where it became a fixture. With rapid succession the months tumbled into decades, the pendulum of time swayed and clanged, rhythmically moving forward — and so too has my need to downsize. Hence the recurring conundrum, what to do with the cedar chest and its enormous consumption of space? The items within it are tangible, their noteworthiness indelibly etched in the cobwebbed corners of my mind.

After much deliberation I reach an internal compromise, doused in a philanthropic gesture: Retain the myriad articles in the chest, then donate it to a worthy nonprofit seeking furniture. My search begins. As I reach out to not-for-profits I envision a young family using the massive chest in the manner of my family, filling its vastness over the course of a lifetime with meaningful articles. For a brief moment I conjure the image and likeness of myself from decades ago: a dark-haired petite ponytailed girl climbing into an attic with treasured objects in hand to place carefully into the cedar chest.

My inquiry ends when I find a gracious nonprofit delighted to take the chest. I finalize arrangements for pickup and begin the daunting task of combing through the chest’s colossal collection. Certain items barely jar the memory; others stir the soul, resurrecting particular events, detailed conversations from years ago. A christening gown, pressed flowers, baby shoes, vintage birthday cards, letters, postcards, a wedding dress, rosary beads, a crucifix, vintage sewing patterns, an unfinished embroidered doily, black-and-white photos in scalloped frames. Each cherished item has marked the passage of time in its own way. Collectively, the items paint an emotional canvas with brushstrokes of happiness, sadness and regret.

Suddenly I am ridden with guilt: Have I made the right choice? Weighing heavy on my heart, the thought casts a shadow on my benevolent quest to donate the chest. I begin to contemplate whether I am making the right choice, or haphazardly, fueled by selfishness, discarding a family heirloom? My mind wanders back to the detailed sketch of the little girl placing keepsakes in the cedar chest.

With hesitation, I proceed with the donation. When pickup day arrives, I wait in the driveway, still vacillating. I open the lid one last time, my fingers caress the soft cedar lining and unexpectedly stumble across a bulge beneath the zippered compartment. I pull back the zipper to reveal additional storage space. Deep within this hidden pocket, I discover my father’s World War II naval uniform.

Over the years I had seen a plethora of pictures and heard detailed accounts of my father’s service in the Navy. I tightly clutch the uniform, its dangling brass buttons and medals still neatly pinned on its rolled sleeves. Just then the pickup truck arrives, the huge white lettering on its side proclaiming “We Help Veterans.”

Unexpectedly, my decision to donate the chest is validated by a strong belief that this final sequence of events was not merely coincidental. For sure, the cedar chest is where it belongs, so too is my father’s Naval uniform, in my arms as a remembrance of his days bravely defending America.

Patricia Sorrentino,

Merrick

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