My Mother's Treasures

They’re closing my mother’s bank, the one she went to before she died, just up the street from the condo she rented when she moved to Atlanta at the end of her life. She was meticulous, making the going-through of her things much easier than the going-through of my things will be, probably, since I am not at all meticulous. She had a safety deposit box.

I didn’t really remember what was in it. I never added anything to it, although I could have. I mean, it was in my name too. I just never felt I had anything important enough to warrant a safety deposit box, plus it was on the other side of town and the whole double key vault thing made me claustrophobic.

A few weeks ago, I got a letter from the bank, telling me they were closing and to come clear out the box, and I put it off for a while, but then the other day I found the key and went down to get her stuff.

The bank looked the same, except for the dearth of people. Wasted space, the manager said, sweeping his slender hand in the general direction of all the empty, glassed-in offices that used to be filled with efficient-looking bankers lurking behind their nameplates and thumbing through Things of Great Importance.

Together we tromped back to the vault, where he and his assistant swung open and then closed (to my discomfort) the door, and we scanned the boxes for number 601. When it was spotted, the two keys were simultaneously inserted, the metal door opened, the red box extracted and, with a little kerfuffle and glitz, set on a table for my perusal. I glanced at the manila envelope and two small jewelry boxes, stuck everything together, and headed for home with my mother’s treasures.

I brought the envelope upstairs. I shut the door and sat on the bed. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, pictured my mother sailing through a thousand different moments – in Michigan, Chicago, in Miami and lastly here in Atlanta, dressing up to go out with her friends, sitting on her flowered sofa in sturdy white SAS shoes, or walking me to the end of the hall, waving as I got on the elevator to leave.

I don’t know exactly what I expected to find when I emptied the contents onto the bed. There were a few papers in a smaller envelope marked Important Information, but it was mostly her living will and a bunch of signed testimonies to the fact that her birth certificate was lost in a Henry, North Dakota vital records fire a million years ago. The jewelry boxes held, respectively, one brooch and a tiny gold chain with two tiny pearls and a hand-written note that said my godmother had given this to me when I was born.

I sat for a while, staring at the contents of this space my mother felt compelled to rent, at the miniscule collection sitting in the middle of my bed. I thought about how big everything about my parents had seemed once, how vibrant and daunting, and I wondered at the shrinkage, at how small a life is really, like the two pearls strung along a tiny chain in a blue velvet box.

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