Its contents were unknown, until one Christmas Day
Christmas had never meant much to me growing up in South West City, MO. We had almost no extended family. My grandparents had died years earlier and my father was an only child. Though I had one sister, I felt rootless.
I also had no self-esteem. During class assignments I felt inferior to classmates who had so much to proclaim about their family histories. One boy proudly spoke of his father having fought in World War II, others told of ancesters arriving in covered wagons.
My taciturn parents had never had much to say about our heritage. All I knew was both of them worked very hard to provide for our meager existence. Father plowed all day behind mules just to feed us. So when my teacher called on me I slumped in my seat and let someone else tell of his or her relatives' accomplishments.
When class resumed after Christmas week and others excitedly spoke of their many gifts, I remained silent. For me Christmas meant only one gift. One year it was homemade candy, another it was a toy watch.
But when I was nine I was blessed with the gift that would sustain me for life. It was 1957 and that Christmas Eve we sat around our blazing cast-iron woodstove. I received my gift--a wool scarf--and Father read the Bible to us by the light of a kerosene lamp.
As the flickering lamp cast shadows about the room I found myself staring at the steamer trunk that sat in a corner, an embroidered scarf covering it's rounded lid. It was kept locked, safe from childish hands. I had long begged to look inside, but Father would shake his head.
"Nothing to play with, child," he said. "Just a lot of old stuff." That only whetted my curiosity, and I prayed God would somehow get my father to open it. On that Christmas I felt even more compelled to see what was inside. I clung to Mother's waist almost in tears, pleading for her to have Father open it.
Finally he got up and said, "Seeing it's Christmas and all, I guess it won't do any harm."
He took a key from a high shelf, knelt and unlocked the trunk. As the lid creaked open, the first thing I saw was an old tobacco can. Father showed me the blond curls inside it, saved from his first haircut. When he saw my delight it seemed to open some kind of emotional dam within him. He began telling about the other items he took out of the trunk. He proudly showed an old sepia-tinted picture of his father, George Washington McClellan Hudson, my circuit-riding preacher grandpa, born in 1865 in Indiana. In yellowed journals, in fine cursive script, my grandpa wrote how in 1888 he came to Licking, Mo., where he met Sarah Alice Ritz-Hudson, my namesake. Their wedding picture on stiff board showed a handsome couple.
I was thrilled and captivated all through Christmas Day as I studied the trunk's treasures. I found a tinytype of great-grandfather Ritz, who had emigrated to America from Bern, Switzerland, in 1851. His diary spoke of his despair of ever seeing land again as he spent three months crossing the Atlantic on a small sailing ship. I learned of my great-grandpa Hudson, who had brought the steamer trunk over from Hull, England, in 1830. And I was fascinated by my great-grandfather Morris, a doctor during the Civil War.
I fondly fingered great-grandmother Hudson's hand-carved wooden crochet hooks, and reverently touched hair and scraps of my great-grandmother Ritz's burial clothing that were mailed to my grandmother Hudson, who had been unable to attend the funeral.
I held the golden locket that contained the picture my mother cherished most--of her mother, who died of typhoid fever when Mother was only two. And I was told how my grandparents had raced their wagon in the Oklahoma land rush and how my mother was born in an underground Indian dwelling in 1906, about the time Oklahoma became a state.
The wonderful gifts in the old steamer trunk planted a seed of self-esteem that would blossom and grow, enriching my life. Not only did I feel pride in my ancestry, but I had ample stories to tell my schoolmates. Now I truly felt the richest girl in class.