Anna pulled up to the curb in front of her grandmother’s house. She glanced at the clock on the dash. It would be another fifteen minutes before her mother arrived. Anna shivered. It was a chilly morning, and she was trying to decide if she wanted to wait for her mother or go in. Her grandmother had died suddenly and quietly in her sleep a month ago on Valentine’s Day. Oddly, there had been an old heart shaped chocolate box laying on the pillow beside her. It still did not seem real. Anna was the only grandchild and exceptionally close to her grandmother. Anna’s mother had often said that she and Grandmama had been the mutual adoration club members. She was not wrong. Anna had so many sweet, happy memories with Grandmama. She turned up the heat and looked at her grandmother's house as wave after wave of memories flooded her mind. Anna had lived with her grandmother last summer. It was her final semester of college, she could not find affordable off-campus housing, and there was no one she wanted to share an apartment with. None of her close friends were attending college over the summer. Her friends' thought Anna was crazy to spend the summer going to college. But she was on a mission to graduate, and the sooner, the better. Anna signed up for online classes. She would need to go to campus from time to time during the summer for special guest lectures and proctored testing. Then at a family dinner, when Anna shared her plans for the summer, Grandmama invited Anna to live with her during the summer. It was a 22-minute drive from Grandmama's to the campus instead of a 42-minute drive from home. Anna said yes without even thinking about it.
The guest bedroom that Anna always stayed in was immaculate. The room was freshly painted butter yellow, Anna’s favorite color. Grandmama had taken Anna shopping for new bedding. The bench with the gold velvet seat that Anna loved now sat at the foot of her bed. The antique secretary desk had moved from the living room and was directly underneath the window in Anna's room. The desk had been her great-grandmother's desk. Grandmama had restored it and stained it at some point in a shade of cream, with understated gold accents. Her grandfather's maple office chair sat in front of it, with cushions coordinating with the bedding. The overall effect was like a picture from a home magazine. The bedroom was a perfect balance of cozy and utilitarian. Grandmama had also scrubbed the guest bath until it was gleaming, cleaned out the vanity and every drawer, and even replaced the shower curtain, rug, and towels. And last but not least, her grandmother had the internet upgraded to high speed to ensure Anna's success with her online classes. Grandmama had thought of everything. Anna felt like she was staying in a boutique hotel. It had been a perfect summer. Anna had been a little anxious about establishing ground rules, but she need not have worried. They alternated cooking and take-out and sometimes went out to dinner. Sundays were for family dinner. Anna's parents arrived around 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, and all of them gathered in the kitchen to prepare dinner as they talked and laughed.
The summer had culminated in Anna graduating college and getting the gray Ford escort she was sitting in. There had been a small family dinner following the graduation ceremony. There were oohs and aahs as Anna opened gifts and cards. When she came to the card with her name in her grandmother's distinctive, curly, cursive writing, she expected just a card or money. Instead, there was a piece of thick paper folded in half. To her surprise, when she unfolded it, it was the title of Grandmama’s Ford Escort. She looked at Grandmama with tears in her eyes. Anna stood, walked around the table, leaned down, hugged her grandmother, and whispered “I do not know what to say except I love you so much, and I do not know what I would do without you”. Her grandmother smiled and said, “you are welcome sweet girl; I love you right back”. When Anna’s mother realized what was in the envelope, her brow furrowed. She asked Grandmama why she would give her car away and how she would get groceries, go to the doctor, or anywhere else? Anna knew that her mother was thinking about taking on the responsibility to drive Grandmama to appointments in addition to the long hours she worked. Grandmama replied, “grocery stores deliver, and I can call a taxi or uber anywhere else I want to go. And, on occasion, perhaps my beautiful daughter or granddaughter will come to chauffeur me around”. The next day she and her grandmother went to transfer the title. Anna loved the car. It was seven years old, with only 55000 miles on it. Her grandmother had been diligent about oil changes and service. The car was in pristine condition, inside and out. The ding of a text shook Anna out of her sweet, summer memories. It was her mother. She was running late. Anna decided to go inside and wait for her mother.
She took the key from her purse and opened the door. There was a rush of warm air, fragrant with citrus and mint. Anna remembered the alarm just in time to enter the code and disarm it before the sixty-second countdown ended. She walked through the small foyer into the kitchen. The light was on, and music was playing on the small television in the kitchen. There was no doubt her mother had left the television on during the last visit. Anna, her mother, and father had been meeting at Grandmama's house to go through things. In truth, there had not been too much to go through. Grandmama had been going through drawers, closets, the attic, and the garage for years, thinning things out, or “dostadning," as she had referred to it. She had asked Grandmama what that word meant, and she had told her it was a Swedish term for death cleaning. Anna had no idea how her grandmother came to know this term, and she did not want to know, so the conversation ended.
Grandmama had left detailed instructions in her will. Anna was not sure of all the details. When she learned that Grandmama had taped post-it notes with the recipient's name on the bottom of certain pieces of furniture, Anna could not help herself from peeking underneath a few things. The oak table they had sat around to eat what must be thousands of meals had a note with her mother's name on it. She popped out the footrest on the leather recliner that her father favored and secretly coveted, and there was a note with his name on it. Grandmama had been a voracious reader. The floor-to-ceiling shelves lined one family room wall as a testament to my grandmother's love of books. Grandmama had cataloged all the books that filled the shelves in the family room. She had noted names beside many of the books on the list. For example, a first edition set of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder had my mother’s name beside it. My father’s name was written beside the complete set of Louis Lamour books that had belonged to my grandfather. And my name was written beside the cloth-bound set of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery that my grandmother and I had read together.
I made my way upstairs as the grandfather clock chimed the hour. I checked my phone, but there was no update from my mother. I walked to my bedroom door and smiled thinking of last summer. A rush of gratitude for that time with Grandmama made me feel warm. I walked into the room and ran my fingers along the top of the antique secretary desk. Impulsively, I glanced underneath the desk, and there was a note with my name on it. I knew my name would be on the maple bench I loved so much, but I looked anyway. And yes, there was Anna written in her grandmother's familiar writing. I walked out of the bedroom toward my grandmother's room. They had avoided this room for the last two weeks. She felt that she and her mother had forged a silent agreement to finish with her grandmother’s room. She opened the door to her grandmother's room. The faint, sweet smell of Grandmama’s perfume wafted out to meet her. Her eyes glistened, and a tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and turned on the bedside lamps.
The bed had been made with fresh sheets and the bedding laundered. Grandmama always made her bed, and it seemed as if she could be up and about, making breakfast in the kitchen or reading a book by the window in the family room. There was not much to do in her grandmother's bedroom. There would be miscellaneous things inside the bedside table, and the closet would need to be cleaned out, but again, her grandmother had left specific instructions about the clothes and shoes. The only other thing was the big, cedar hope chest that sat at the foot of the bed. The cedar chest had been there since Anna was a little girl. When she was young and stayed overnight with her grandparents, she had used the cedar chest to get on and off the bed. Later, Anna asked Grandmama about the chest. Her grandmother’s mother had given it to her grandmother when she had married her grandfather. Grandmama said it was full of everything needed to make a home. Anna had wondered exactly what that was but had never thought to ask her grandmother.
It was likely full of quilts and blankets now, she supposed, but all at once, she was curious. Anna stepped to the foot of the bed, removed the pillows and cushion, and lifted the lid. The lid resisted her efforts, so she sat on the floor to take a closer look. Just under the ledge of the cover, a small hasp fitted over a metal loop prevented the top from lifting. There was no pin or lock securing the loop closure, so she clicked the circle up with her thumb and stood to open the lid of the hope chest. As she opened the lid, Anna could see at once that it was not full of quilts and blankets. Instead, on top, there was a large gift box. She carefully lifted it out and placed it on the bed. Underneath the gift box was a large, craft cardboard box that was slightly shorter than the length of the chest. The package was at least 12 inches deep, maybe more. She was able to squeeze her right hand underneath the edge of the box. The box was surprisingly light, and she lifted it up a couple of inches until she could pick up the other end with her left hand. She set the box on the bed beside the large gift box. Nested on the bottom of the chest were stacks of photo albums. She left them inside the chest.
Again, the grandfather clock chimed the hour. Where could her mother be? She checked her phone and saw that her mother had texted a half-hour earlier to say she would be there in an hour. How had she missed hearing the text alert? So, it would be another half hour before her mother arrived. Should she open the boxes or wait? Who was she kidding? She was dying of curiosity now, so she went to the large gift box. She gently lifted the box's lid that had yellowed slightly with age. Inside there was tissue paper which she slowly unfolded. She knew at once that it was Grandmama's wedding dress. She recognized the delicate lace inset in the bodice from the wedding photo of Grandmama and Grandpapa in the family room. She replaced the tissue paper and placed the lid back on the box. Then she lifted the lid on the large, sturdy cardboard box. There were layers of tissue paper, and the sweet smell from earlier quickly enveloped her. She started removing tissue paper and found heart-shaped candy boxes of all sizes.
There were dozens of them. Anna opened one of the boxes, and inside was a small note, "To D, the love of my life. The message was signed with the letter J, and the date, February 14, 1980, was written underneath the initial. Underneath the note was a glistening, crystal heart about the size of a dime. I carefully replaced the heart trinket and the letter. Next, I opened another heart-shaped box. I found another note, in the same handwriting, with the same message, and the same day but a different year. Inside this box was a porcelain heart-shaped box the size of a quarter. Again, I replaced the heart and the note in the box. I opened another box and there again, same message, same handwriting, same date but a different year, but nothing else was in the box. I shook the package to be sure, but there was nothing. Inside the next box, she found the same sweet note, in the same handwriting, but instead of a heart, there was a picture of a necklace. Dangling from the chain was a heart-shaped pearl. I replaced the note and the image in the box. Box after heart-shaped box, each held the beautiful, dated message and a heart in some form. By now, I realized that Grandpapa had written the letters. D was Grandmama's first initial, and J was Grandpapa's first initial. Anna had loved Grandpapa so much. He was kind and loving. He also told Grandpapa jokes, aka dad jokes, all the time. Who knew Grandpapa was such a romantic?
The chime signaling the door opening downstairs broke her trance. I rushed down to greet my mother. “You will never believe what I found”, I trilled as I gave her a squeeze. I nearly dragged her upstairs to my grandmother’s room despite her protests. My mother looked around where I had sorted the heart-shaped boxes into chronological order and said, "Oh my, what have we here?" All the details of the hope chest contents gushed out of me like water from a breaking dam. I told my mother about the wedding dress and then swept my arm grandly across the heart-shaped boxes stacked on the floor around my grandmother's bed.
I picked up a note and showed it to my mother as I explained that each box had held the same kind of chocolate along with a message and a heart. Other boxes had a photograph of an item with a heart. There were photographs of necklaces, bracelets, rings, and even a miniature painting. I went on to say that I had recognized one of the necklaces, so I looked in Grandmama’s jewelry armoire. "I even found the picture," I said as I pointed at the miniature painting of angel wings that arched into the shape of a heart. “There are 48 boxes including the one that was on Grandmama’s bed. I have accounted for a heart gift for every year except for the first six years”. "I cannot figure it out, I sighed”. It was apparent by her expression that my mother was unaware of the candy boxes. After a moment, my mother said, "Valentine's Day was their anniversary." How did I not know that I thought? "Young couples struggle; maybe they didn’t have money for valentine’s gifts in the early years," she said. “It is a mystery that will go unsolved”. Although I hated unsolved mysteries, I knew my mother was right. I mean, Grandmama and Grandpapa were no longer here to tell us about the missing gifts.
My mother looked tired. I hugged her, and we embraced for a long time. When we finally separated, we agreed that a cup of coffee would really hit the spot. My mother and I descended the stairs and headed into the kitchen. With hot coffee in hand, we walked into the family room. I gave the fireplace wide berth as always. On the mantle, there was a heart-shaped marble box. The box closed with a secure latch. Inside the box were my grandfather's ashes. My mother walked over to the mantle, sipped the coffee, and quietly said, "Let's call it a day”. When we finished our coffee, I took our cups to the kitchen, washed them out, and put them away. When I walked back into the family room, my mother looked up and said, "mystery solved." The heart-shaped box lay open, and there were five small, satin bags lying on the table beside it. I could see the outline of a note folded in each one and a heart laid beside each bag. "But there are six missing hearts," I said. My mother whispered, "Grandmama was wearing a necklace with a small heart-shaped out of iron. Iron is the traditional gift for the sixth wedding anniversary. Grandmama passed away on the sixth anniversary of Grandpapa's death."
By: Deborah Mullins Mosley
February 18, 2022