Chests of Hope

Avatar_IngridGabriel "Faith is the very first thing you should pack in a hope chest.'- Sarah Ban Breathnach

You don’t see them around much unless you are searching eBay or in a vintage shop. They start at around $25 if they are in good shape and not too gouged or cracked. But, they aren’t free like they used to be - obtained only with the effort it took to be a female and graduate from high school to earn your little cedar prize.

The Lane Miniature Cedar Jewelry and Trinket Chest of yesteryear was the aperitif offered to whet the young lady’s (and her mother’s) appetite for the full-on Lane Cedar Hope Chest. Back when there was still reason to believe that a nice set of tea towels and a stack of embroidered dresser runners carefully preserved in a padded chest portended future married fulfillment.

Where did the little chests of hope come from? And where did they go?

chestBack in my village, during the spring of a maiden’s senior year in high school, cards would arrive from a furniture store located in the nearest substantial town twenty-two miles away. The cards entitled the graduating addressee to claim a free Lane jewelry/trinket box from a furniture retailer that carried the complete and gargantuan line of Lane Hope chests. The not-too-subtle subtext being that cradling a tiny cedar box would inspire a yearning in the bosom that could only be satisfied by acquisition of the first twig for the future marital nest – that is, a mammoth cedar box.

It was a rite of passage, in a way, and we looked forward to the expedition. Although the little chest didn’t represent so much miniaturized hope for many of my college-bound classmates as much as it functioned as a very attractive container for zig-zag papers and a small rolling tray. No doubt, this must have been one of the reasons that Lane gave up on the give-away sometime after 1977 when a generation of women stopped using their boxes for love letters and charm bracelets and repurposed them as heirloom quality stash boxes. (There's a folksong in there somewhere – “Where have all the boxes gone? They’ve gone to dorm rooms, everyone.”)

I still have mine. Of course I do. I have a few others, too, skimmed from garage sales and junk stores over the intervening years before they were “vintage” enough to increase in value beyond “free” or almost free. Just last week, I saw one at the thrift store. When I opened the lid, it smelled like faded cedar and a wave of nostalgia washed over me.

My mother, too, kept a lot of hope for me in chests that were discarded along the way. Although, being a foreigner and prone to dropping in a French word whenever possible to remind anyone listening that she spoke some French and they, primitive Americans, likely did not, she called it my “trousseau.” The trousseau was the pile of domestic goods collected to attract a suitor and set me on a path of happy homemaking the instant my prince should turn his carriage up my drive.

Sadly, the trousseau was a bit on the pathetic side, and it wasn’t maintained in a glowing Lane Hope Chest, but in a stacked series of press-board WalMart footlockers. Nevertheless, my mother nurtured it with well-meaning, if misplaced attention.

First off, we were hardly Wedgewood or sterling-flatware sort of people. When I was about 20, my mother finally indulged herself and bought an $18, 20-piece set of Corelle to be used on Sundays for company. Even though CorningWare makes their dishes nearly indestructible, she treated her set like fine bone china. Each plate and saucer was nestled in the cupboard in its unique paper-towel cozy to keep it safe from scratches and chipping. She would often say to me in a tone usually reserved for bequeathing the family Lalique or Lennox, “Someday, I will pass these dishes down to your daughter."

stampSo, given the rather bargain-value threshold, my accumulated trousseau was not exactly representative of the Neiman or Tiffany bridal catalogue. No silver-plate coffee services, no handmade lace-edged linen sheets, no copper, no crystal, no class. Many of items came courtesy of the generous trading stamp policies of our local grocery stores. H.E.Butts gave S&H Green Stamps; Piggly Wiggly issued Gold Stamps and it took pretty much forever to gather enough stamps for a Pyrex mixing bowl, let alone the entire nested set. Goblets and glasses were collected via boxes of Duz laundry detergent, and sort-of-china was purchased piece by piece and very slowly for $1 each at Dooley’s 5 and 10.

Unfortunately, there were practical limits to how much detergent we could use and how many trading stamps we could save so both the glasses and dishware changed styles or became obsolete over time. Mom started her gathering in the 60s. By the time I was of marriageable age, my trousseau spanned not only a couple of decades worth of color and style trends, but several foot lockers of containment. Nothing came close to matching or even coordinating, moving across the color spectrum from purple to paisley, avocado to almond.

Those chests of hope really represented my mother’s hopes rather than my own, and I took almost nothing from them. Flower-power wrinkle-free polyester sheets bought on sale in 1968 for a double bed didn’t translate to a king-size 1980s futon. Doilies and cross-stitched tea cozies had gone the way of my ’63 Studebaker and I had moved high enough on the prosperity ladder to buy matching dishes and cotton sheets from a department store with a genuine escalator and a housewares "mezzanine."

3Still, when I hold the little cedar chest, I remember what their larger glamorous cousins represented to my mother and other mothers of her generation and circumstances. The chests of hope weren’t really about sending me into marriage with enough bath towels for my entire life.

A hope chest was that last act of nurturing that she could offer me. The last effort she made to see me out into the world with the hope that I would live a materially richer life and have a happier marriage than she. She hoped that I would be loved and that I wouldn’t have to struggle to make a home.

And it worked out pretty well. I am loved. I have a happy home. And I still use those Corelle dishes which will, indeed, go off to my daughter’s first home with all of the hope that I have for her.


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