The box was beautiful. My mother had bought it in Morocco many years ago, and as a child, I admired it in secret, stroking the tiny pieces of mother-of pearl inlay on the surface, dreaming child-dreams, Its ivory keyhole held a key with a striped ribbon attached. Turning the key always produced a soft pling-plong, but never opened the box. Tired of many Maine winters, my eighty-five-year-old mother was moving to Arizona and parceling out her possessions and the memories they held to her children. She now held the box out to me, saying simply: “Your father’s letters.”
I had always suspected that the box held them. Exotic and mysterious, it was the perfect receptacle for the treasured relics of a husband long dead and a father I had never known. It contained a chapter of my mother’s life that she had closed long since, one I was reluctant to reopen. The moment was freighted with feeling; her expression suggested things that I was afraid I could respond to only with tears. Neither of us felt comfortable in such emotional territory and we cut it short. I stowed the box tenderly in the car along with the other pieces of her life she had designated for me: a miscellany of books, pictures, rugs, silver. As the car pulled away, she stood, small and contained, the enormous firs by the garage dwarfing her as she waved good-bye. Behind her, morning sunlight skittered across the bay.
At home the box sat—still beautiful, but still steadfastly, stubbornly locked –keeping its secrets. I felt that breaking this family reliquary open by force was wrong. Besides, I was reluctant to discover what the box held. Inside was the person who had changed the shape of my mother’s life, whom my older brothers and sisters loved and remembered, a real person to everyone in the family except me, the youngest. For years his mythical presence had loomed large, but as an absence—an immense absence
My mother died about ten years after she gave me the box of letters, and not long after, turning the key opened it. Inexplicable, I thought, magical, until my husband confessed that he had tinkered with the lock.
After all these years he revealed himself quickly. The voice of my mother’s young lover, so long silent, emerged from his letters like a genie out of a bottle. From the pages of one letter slipped silken, nearly transparent poppy petals of the palest salmon pink—the tender gesture of a long-ago love.
So this was the person who had lurked inside the box all those years: no bland Hartford swain, no dull future captain of an insurance empire. Small wonder my mother was bouleversée when they met in Paris; more than seven decades later, he was charming me.
I began to read. As I came to grips with his loose, generous hand, the father I had never known came spectacularly, breathtakingly alive. Finding sleep after such an introduction was nearly impossible. In the dark I grappled with this vivid interloper I had known only as a kind of household god. His letters destroyed that status completely, shifting the emotional landscape I had established over a lifetime as the child of a single parent. This was the other side of the parental equation. It changed everything, demanding a revision of my views of my mother and a rearrangement of the family constellation.
One letter stood out. Postmarked London, February 11, 1928, it was addressed to my mother in Paris. Their young romance is blossoming quickly. If she will meet him,
“. . . your great wish will be fulfilled: You shall put on your best clothes . . . and we shall go and do something grand and brilliant. Do you insist on my wearing full dress? Won’t this be an historic night: Miss Mayflower flirting with the “Hun.”
Apart from shattering his remoteness completely, the letter put its finger squarely on my puzzling provenance. Clearly the man who had left me his name and his profile was no cliché Hun at all, no bellicose militarist with monocle and bristling mustache, not even absolutely German—as his Russian diary attested. Young, lively, fully aware of the label history had affixed to him, and with an acute sense of humor, he was demolishing all my preconceived notions. The Miss Mayflower he was referring to in impeccable English, though of Mayflower stock, was obviously not my worn, hard-pressed, ever-practical mother, but a carefree spirit, wanting, as she had written him, “to put on my best clothes and go on a bat with you,” adding, “It must be most romantic to have a young and ravishing female creature, head-over-heels in love and following you all over Europe.”