Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Shoebox

In the back room of Helen Redleif’s nineteen fifties craftsman bungalow was a narrow linen closet. Thirty-four years’ worth of neatly folded beach towels, bath towels and wash clothes were stacked floor to ceiling, like a terry cloth filing cabinet.  On the top self, inconspicuously buried beneath an old pink towel was a shoe box sealed tight with aging yellow masking tape. Helen thought she had destroyed the little orange box years ago, after all, who needs evidence like that laying around? But nonetheless the box was there, on the self, undisturbed and forgotten. 

Helen’s daughter, Heather, drove sixteen hours over two days and through a severe thunderstorm to help her mother transition to a care facility where a woman her age would be more comfortable with others in her age group.  At least that’s how Heather explained it.  The reality was Heather saw her mother as slight and weak.  Where some might characterize Helen as eccentric and free-spirited, Heather thought her mother was silly, with a head full of nonsensical ideologies.  Heather wished her mother was more like her, level-headed and unwilling to take shit from the world. Her childhood was shaped by watching her mother fail over and over.  Helen amassed four failed marriages and dozens of broken noses and black eyes before Heather was out of grade school and still her mother kept falling for the same old paper-heart promises.  She knew by the time she entered high school her mother had a ‘type’ and she would have none of it.  

Heather loved her mother, she loved her more than anything.  Heather decided early on she could not watch her mother continue to fall in love and fail.  Her goal was to get as far away as possible.  It was her only chance to save her own sanity.  Heather worked tirelessly through high school.  She didn’t make time for silly teenage pomp and circumstance.  She was determined to break the cycle her mother started.  She wanted to get into a top ranked university and get far away from her mother’s madness, and that is exactly what she did. 

Helen was a victim in Heathers eyes.  She fell head first into every bad situation.  Her mother’s first husband, Heather’s father or sperm donor as Heather referred to him, was Helen’s first and truest love. However, unfortunately for Helen, she was not his truest or only love, if he ever really loved her at all.  They had met and things happened quickly.  Soon Helen found herself very pregnant and barely out of high school.  Plans began to circulate about a wedding and a house with pretty white shutters and a matching picket fence.  Helen’s head was so caught up in the fairytale she couldn’t believe her eyes when she walked in on her beloved with her best friend’s legs wrapped around his head.  Her world crumbled.  As quickly as it started she was left alone, penniless, and about to deliver.

For Heather, those first few years, home was a little portion of her grandparent’s basement.  Heather and Helen lived virtually out of sight. Despite it being the late seventies, a young, unwed mother was source of sinful shame for a hardworking, God-fearing couple of Midwesterners like Helens parents. They were rarely seen in public with their daughter and grandchild, except for Sunday’s.  Helen was expected to attend church services and baptize her child if she was to live in their house. They ate together and prayed together, but seldom did they speak beyond what was necessary. The subject of her father was never discussed under that roof and certainly never in front of her grandfather.  Heather saw the man who helped create her once when she was twelve.  By chance she and her mother were traveling though Pittsburgh and they happened to be in the same diner at the same time.  He sat with another woman and three young boys.  He stared across the room at them.  Heather remembered seeing her mother wave slightly at the man. She turned to see whom it was her mother was waving to so far from home.  Heather remembered locking eyes with him and knew instantly who he was.  Her mother said nothing to her until they were on the road again.  Heather watched the scenery pass out the passenger side of the old Oldsmobile station wagon. “The man, back there,” her mother paused, “was your father.” She finished matter-of-factly.  Heather stayed staring at the world passing by.  “I figured.” She replied and neither spoke of it again. 

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