Sparkling ribbons and paper swathed the holiday season with excitement, expectation and surprise. Tenderly, I removed each ribbon so that it could be reused–a sentimental and frugal habit. Then like my grandchildren, I ripped through the colorful wrap and held my breath anticipating the moment I would hold something special purchased or made for me by someone I love.
A gift card for my favorite clothier, grandchildren smiling in a framed photo, a box of French cookies, a book, fragrant lotions and a shiny scarf hid inside those boxes. They brightened these late December days. But a dusty, faded and unadorned brown cardboard box I opened yesterday– that lag time between Christmas and New Year’s Day– was an unheralded gift.
Frankly, the box was ugly. Yellowed packing tape sealed the long and narrow container. A Bekins moving tag adhered to the top. That meant this box was packed, moved, and unopened since August 1988. Circled and written by my hand was “Heeley” in red ink.
“I thought you might want to see what’s inside,” spouse encouraged last evening, after he unpacked the car from our stay in Santa Fe, where I stored the box.
Heeley was the last name of my godparents, Charlie and Marie. They rescued me time after time. The first rescue was after my mother’s untimely death in 1951. The second rescue came as a preteen when I escaped my nightmare life with my stepmother and father on a cold December night in 1960.
Charlie and Marie presented me with definition when confusion and dysfunction ruled my days. Example: “You’re an Irish Catholic Democrat,” Charlie explained to me when I was age three. I wore that with pride. It was a title that helped me through the dark days after my father remarried in 1955 and I lived with him and his new wife. She defined me as: “You’re a stupid whore.” I knew stupid, but I didn’t know the word whore—but gleaned that it was something really bad.
But enough of the ugly and back to this unheralded gift box.
I gingerly sliced through the layers of packing tape . A white ceramic angel that attached to a wall and held holy water for making the Sign of the Cross rested on top of tarnished envelopes. A King Edward cigar box and a Whitman’s Sampler box, and a popsicle stick craft I entered and won a blue ribbon for at our local fair in 1961, rested next to the envelopes. At the very bottom of the box were two framed 8×10 photos. One was my high school graduation photo from 1966. The other photo was one I’ve searched for and had given up for lost. It was the black and white photo of Charlie in his wool U.S. Navy uniform taken sometime during his World War II enlistment. This was the first thing I remembered seeing the day after my mother died when I woke up in Charlie and Marie’s bedroom.
I went for the envelopes next. Postmarked “Burbank, Calif, Nov. 16, 1948,” this Official Business envelope from the Navy Department held a treasure of history. It included a dozen Brownie camera shots from Charlie’s time as a Seabee In Tulagi in 1942. He, with his fellow Seabees are posed in front of “a tank for hospital,” “The mess hall and chow line…I’m in the picture but you’ll need a magnifying glass,” Charlie wrote, and another of two sailors and Charlie that reads on the back, “The kid in the center goes to Mass with me all the time. His name is Geo. Michaud. The other kid is Benny Mantier.”
Resting inside the Whitman’s box was a collection of Charlie’s wartime devotional books, including a Paulist Press “Novena for Peace and Victory,” and a Catholic Prayer Book with a note from President Franklin D. Roosevelt who stated on March 6, 1941, “As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve….”
Another envelope holds Charlie’s Honorable Discharge papers dated September 19, 1945.
But the deeper I went into the box I discovered even older books of prayer that Charlie kept from his school days in St. Louis: his grade school catechism from 1921, and his 1925 “Manual of Catholic Devotions,” given to him upon receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.
The cigar box secured more religious booklets, devotionals, and Charlie’s religious medals, and a broken rosary.
All these mementos revived the gift of faith and hope that Charlie portrayed and gave to me.
Finally, I opened Charlie’s Memorial Book. Reading the March 9, 1980 newspaper headline, “Charles Heeley, civic, political leader, dies,” returned me to the sad day when his heart quit. He died in the medical center that he helped establish in 1953. The obituary listed Charlie’s accomplishments: founder and first president of the Lancaster Democratic Club; State Assembly candidate; campaign manager for several state politicians; first director of the Feather River Project; founder and charter member of the local Grange; and member of a half-dozen civic organizations.
The obit didn’t list Charlie’s early career as a dancer and his dream of designing interiors. It didn’t list how he encouraged his troubled god-daughter to explore creativity and imagination. It didn’t list his heartfelt compassion for others and his respect and love of life.
But it did list me as his daughter and my two children as his granddaughters—even though he was not my birth father who lived 20 years beyond Charlie’s 1980 death.
Yesterday I understood how I became who and what I am. It was an amazing gift in an ugly box filled with beauty and love.