It had taken Caroline almost forty-five minutes to get to the attic. Her arthritis had been acting up and pulling the stairs down from the ceiling had been chore enough, let alone making the climb. The pain forced her to pause after each step to let her knees rest, but her determination had paid off. She was now standing in a dusty, cobwebbed attic eyeing the many containers that caged the memories of her past.
She found an old chair once used in the kitchen, removed some frayed, dusty stuffed animals, and took a seat. She took a few minutes to catch her breath never removing her gaze from the boxes. To anyone else she would seem frozen in time other than the now slow and steady breath she was taking.
The boxes represented fifty-three years of a wonderful life with Frank. It had been almost two years since he had passed, and this was the first time she dared look upon the mementos of their life together.
Ignoring the pain in her knees and now elbows and hands, she grabbed a small box and sat it on her lap. Lightly dusting the top of the box, she pried it open. Inside were many objects of their first years together. She removed two ticket stubs for the movie, “Guess Who’s coming to Dinner.” She held the stubs close to her chest and closed her eyes. It was a cold, Saturday afternoon in December and Frank had surprised her with an afternoon date. They had both donned multiple layers before stepping out into the frigid weather.
They huddled tightly as they walked into the theater trying to share whatever warmth they had. Frank got them some popcorn and soda before finding their seats. After the movie they had stayed seated for a while as she went on and on about the movie, but mostly about Sidney Poitier.
Sighing, she let out, “That was my Frank. Always letting me talk away about anything.” Frank had always told her that he enjoyed hearing her voice and that the topic didn’t matter. She had doubted this was true but never argued the point.
After the movie she had gone to the restroom while Frank milled around the lobby. When she found him, he was reading information about a new western that was also playing at the theater, “The Good, the bad and the Ugly.” Frank loved westerns but he had never asked her to join him as she was not a fan.
As she came near, she hooked her arm into his and said, “Thank you Frank. That was a great movie.” A soft smile came over his face along with his reply, “You are absolutely welcome, my dear.” His response had caught her off guard and she snuggled into him even tighter. It was at that moment she knew they would be together forever.
Little did she know this would forever be Frank’s response to her anytime she showed him appreciation. A small tear ran down her cheek as she thought of their many years together. “Thank you, Frank,” she quietly said. She had heard those words a million times and though he was gone, she could still hear his quiet voice, “You are absolutely welcome, my dear.”
She wiped the tear and continued rummaging through the box. It contained many items from their years together but a specific few caught her eye. Birthday cards to her from him and some from him to her. Train ticket stubs from their trip to Florida. Some supposedly rare coins Frank had saved. A baby announcement from their first child, Frank Junior. She paused many times to read a card or study an object that had meant something to herself or Frank.
Without realizing, she found her smile again. She had no idea this one little, dusty box would bring her such joy. The gloom of the last couple years was lifting as each item delivered a visit to the past. A time travel experience she didn’t think was possible.
She carefully placed all the items back in the box and set it on the floor. She picked up a slightly larger box and sat it on the first one. It was too large for her to set on her lap though it was quite light. Ignoring the dust this time, she opened the box with childlike excitement. Before her were fifty-three valentine teddy bears.
Unable to control her emotions, both of her eyes filled with tears. She slowly wiped them from her face and began lifting the bears one by one from the box. All the bears were roughly the same except for color and slight variations in height. Ranging from four to five inches tall, they were plush and exceptionally soft, even after years of service.
She raised each one and held it to her face to feel the softness. After holding and brushing her skin with a bear, she sat it in her lap and moved on to the next. Not allowing one bear to fall, she artfully arranged them so they would stack, perfectly balanced. Using one arm to hold the pile in place she would slowly and blindly reach down and pull another bear from the box, study it, hold it against her cheek and then add it to the growing pile. This continued until all fifty-three bears were resting quietly on her lap.
The comfort of the love Frank had shown her, not just once a year, but every day of their life together washed over her like a warm blanket. Reaching both arms under the teddy bear pile, she clasped her hands and brought the bears in for one more hug. Imagining the teddy bears were Frank, she squeezed with every ounce of love she had for him. The warmth now reaching her heart, she inhaled deeply and let out a longing sigh realizing she could not actually hug Frank as she wished.
She rose from her chair, intending to release the bears back into their cage. Leaning over the box she was about to let go when something caught her eye. It couldn’t be, she thought. At the bottom of the box lay a gold and red colored, heart shape chocolate box. Without thinking she released the bears to free fall into the box while at the same time reaching one hand down to snatch the heart shaped box before it was smothered.
Her heart fluttered and her breath left her as she stared at the box. Afraid of falling over, she sat back down, never releasing her eyes from the very first gift Frank had ever given her. The tears, unable to wait any longer, were released and ran down her face freely as the memory of that day flooded her mind.
Full of excitement, she ran to the door when she heard the car pull into the drive. She waited patiently to hear Frank walk up the sidewalk. Confident he was close, she flung open the door so hard it slammed against the wall leaving a small depression in the plaster. Frank was standing on the porch looking his usual dapper self.
She started to run towards him to receive her ritual afternoon hug when she noticed both of his hands were behind his back. Stopping, she grinned slightly and asked, “What are you hiding?” A large smile came over his face. “Oh, nothing. I just find this a comfortable position,” he said with a wink.
It was their first Valentine’s Day together since being married and she was looking forward to a special evening. She had spent most of the afternoon preparing a meal for them and had found her excitement growing as the day wore on.
Barely containing herself she asked slyly, “Is there something for me behind your back?” “First give me a kiss and then we’ll find out together,” he said playfully. Caroline leaned in a gave him the sweetest kiss she could. Separating her lips from his, she whispered, “Ok, what’s behind your back?”
Grinning from ear to ear, Frank swung his left arm around and revealed a large bouquet of white and red roses. Caroline squealed in delight as she moved close and breathed in the musky fruity smell of the flowers. A satisfied smile came over both their faces as she received his gift gratefully. “They are lovely. Thank you, Frank.” She told him in a flirty tone. “You are absolutely welcome, my dear,” he replied softly.
Her eyes locked with his as she tilted her head a couple times towards his other arm, still locked behind his back. Frank’s brow lowered and he tilted his head slightly as he asked, “What?” She raised her eyebrows and nudged her head more aggressively towards his right arm. “Oh, right,” he said slowly as if he had forgotten.
He swung his right arm around to reveal a red and gold heart shaped box. The words Be My Valentine written with calligraphy in large letters. Caroline’s shoulders slumped slightly as she reached out to receive the box.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Frank said with concern. “I…I’m allergic to chocolate,” she stuttered in a quiet voice. “I’m sure I told you about that.” Frank was stunned. He was sure she never mentioned her allergy. Of course, it was possible he forgot. No, he was sure she had never told him. “I am so, so sorry. I didn’t remember. What a fool I am. Please forgive me. I will return it immediately and replace it with whatever you wish.” The pain in Frank’s voice was overwhelming and her disappointment disappeared. “No. I am sorry for my reaction, Frank. It was uncalled for. Thank you for the flowers and the lovely box,” she said with a smile. Setting the gifts down, she reached out her arms and hugged the love of her life. “I don’t need anything else; I have all I need right here,” she said as she squeezed him tightly.
When Frank got home from work the next day, he was holding one hand behind his back as he walked into the kitchen. “Caroline, I felt so bad for giving you the chocolates yesterday, I decided there was only one thing I could do.” Moving his arm to his front he revealed a small, red, and white teddy bear with ‘Be My valentine” written on its chest. Caroline’s heart melted. He handed her the bear and her eyes widened. The fur was the softest she had ever felt. She held the bear to her cheek letting the sensation wash over her. “I love it, Frank. Thank you so much.” “You are absolutely welcome, my dear.”