A battered cardboard box arrived by mail a few weeks after my grandfather’s death, postmarked from the small West Texas town where he lived most of his years, the town where a crumbling cemetery now cradled his remains.
Inside the box, suspended in weightless drifts of white Styrofoam, a smaller, more pungent box was buried. An old cigar box.
Like young Jem Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, I lifted the lid of my newly arrived treasure chest in private. But instead of carved soap figures, marbles, and other childhood collectibles, I saw a handwritten note: “Here are some of Pepaw’s things.” Then, in an obvious afterthought: “He kept these.”
The well-meaning aunt who sent this shipment must have intended to place some final mark of punctuation on my grandfather’s interrupted ninth decade, but for his youngest daughter’s youngest daughter, the box formed not a period but a colon. Meet your grandfather, it seemed to say. Maybe you didn’t know him so well after all.
If I had expected some sort of inventoried order, I would have been disappointed. It looked as if Willis Smith had simply emptied his pockets on his last day, filling the cigar box with the contents of his neatly creased khakis, as if to say, There you go. That ’bout does it.
I lowered my face and inhaled deeply, breathing in the last, elusive fragrance of a man I had adored. Nothing in the box could have been worth more than a few dollars, and there was not a single keepsake that might be considered suitable for display. But every small scrap it contained told a story—his story.
A stiff-bristled shaving brush sported a worn wooden handle with lettering that had long ago faded into hieroglyphics. I held it with thumb and forefinger and stroked it down my jawbone from cheek to chin. It still smelled faintly sweet. Willis’s face was always clean-shaven and splashed liberally with Old Spice. He was an outdoor man who cleaned up well and wore his hat to town.
Near the brush was a polished nickel lighter—its top hinged back with a click, releasing the tinny aroma of lighter fluid. I tried to ignite a flame, brushing the striker wheel smartly with my thumb, but there was no juice left, not even the tiniest glimmer of a spark.
Next, I fingered a small leather coin purse with a doll-sized zipper. It contained a little more than a dollar in loose change. Cradling the coins in my palm, I imagined my grandfather standing with them at the cash register in Keel Drug Store and buying…what? A roll of butterscotch disks? A package of Swisher Sweets? I wasn’t sure. But at Keel’s they would know, because nearly every day for at least twenty-five years, he had ambled in there for a sandwich, a prescription, or a few minutes of friendly speculation about the size of the current maize crop, or the weather, or both.
His battered brown wallet with a single fold contained no driver’s license (failing eyesight meant he hadn’t driven legally for years), but it yielded up a Social Security card that looked newer than my own, along with a Medicare ID and a printed business card—mine, from my first job out of college. He hadn’t said a word when I shyly handed it to him, but he apparently deemed it important enough to keep. I remembered him introducing me once to a crony of his with this preamble: “This is my daughter Muriel’s youngest girl. She’s an old maid.” I was twenty-one at the time. But maybe he hadn’t been so disappointed in me after all.
Next to the wallet were two identical, palm-sized Bible promise books filled with predictable but encouraging words from the King James Version: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). And, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). I had never once seen Willis read the Bible, never gone with him to church. I imagined the tiny books propped up on his meal tray at the nursing home, maybe as a special gift to residents on Easter or Christmas. Did he finally help himself to the great “whosoever” invitation of God?
I never knew for certain. One day I will.
Two matching cuff links and a tie tack told me that my grandfather had dressed at least once for something more formal than an afternoon at the domino hall, although I couldn’t imagine what. A court date? A friend’s funeral? At my high-school graduation he wore a neatly pressed dress shirt with the top button buttoned...but no tie. That was as gussied up as I had ever seen him.
Last, I fingered a single key ring with two keys. To what? What did he open in the end that he might have locked? He’d experienced the indignity of aging, the sort of dependency that invites access. After a while everyone comes in, and hardly anyone knocks. Independence becomes a distant memory, privacy a mirage. But to his dying day my grandfather apparently carried keys...even if they hadn’t opened anything in years.
As I held the contents of that box in my lap, I felt grateful, and powerfully connected—not just to the Willis I knew, but to the life that was his before I was born, and to the angles and edges of him that I had never seen with my own eyes. He came alive for me through the contents of one small box in a way he never had before, with his mystery, his sweetness, and his scars. Now he would exist for me not in flesh and bone but through the tangible scraps of memory he left behind, things that painted for me a fresh, new picture of the man.
I’ve known God longer than I ever knew my grandfather, although I have never seen Him. I’ve not once touched His face or heard His voice or felt the weight of His hand on my own. Still, I suspect that He has left more than a few scattered bits of His rich and mysterious identity for me to examine, tucked away deep in the pages of His Word. An olive branch here. A golden bell there. A faded strip of fabric, spotted brown with blood. A length of scarlet thread. A few grains of barley. These keepsakes tell His story, and they help me to understand my own.
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