By Tina Ann Forkner
I watched her scatter her favorite seashells across the top of the hope chest. She added a silver framed photo of herself and her daddy, a few treasured jewelry boxes, her ceramic turtle, and a picture of the two of us smiling cheek to cheek. The combination of keepsakes made up the broken pieces of a life carefully arranged atop a hope chest full of memories and broken dreams.
Observing the way my daughter decorated the trunk reminded me of a promise I once made to my mother-in-law when she asked, “Will you make sure Hannah gets this hope chest if something happens to me?” I remember how softly she spoke the words, as if unsure how to speak to me anymore. We were still uncomfortable to be in the same room since my divorce, but I still cared about her. The promise seemed inadequate to express how sorry I was for her disappointment about the dissolved marriage.
“I promise,” I said, my voice catching with the knowledge that she had no reason to trust me, since I was technically no longer her daughter-in-law. A rare glimmer of what could almost be happiness lit her face. She had obviously put a lot of thought into the hope chest that would one day be my daughter’s. I listened respectfully as she talked about the trunk and how special she hoped it would be to my daughter someday; how it must be given to her and no one else. She smiled when she lifted the trunk’s lid and the aroma of cedar permeated the air around us.
“The scent will be there even when you open it years from now,” she explained.
My own mother was there, too, and she did her best to lighten a moment heavy with remorse. I remember looking down at my little girl playing at our feet and longing to kneel with her, just to escape the stilted conversation. She was oblivious to our words, but as I listened to the grandmothers with one ear, I saw her future in my mind’s eye. She would have a life of going back and forth between homes. Even these two grandmothers would have to share her.
I remember thinking, as I stared down at a smoothed dark circle on the hope chest, The branches in her family tree are broken. I reached down and touched the dark flat eye that might have once been a hard knot in a tree, and knew how rough the end of my marriage had been on the grandmothers. A shaky breath escaped my lips as I wondered again how my marriage could have broken apart. Or had we actually taken an axe to my daughter’s family tree, like the woodcutter who first cut down the cedar tree to fashion the trunk now sitting at our feet? I watched my daughter continue to play, her small hand slapping on the smooth grain of the surface. She was so innocent and inquisitive, I wondered how she would respond to the pruning we had given her family tree.
“Mommy, is this mine?”
She was older now; old enough to have already been traded back and forth between homes numerous times; old enough to arrange a collection of mementos in a semblance of order on top of the hope chest. Even though I had told her before, she had already forgotten where the hope chest came from. In fact, she had already forgotten the grandmother who gave it to her. Years had passed since either of us had seen her face or even talked to her on the phone. Looking back, I realize my mother-in-law, barely in her fifties, couldn’t have known her death was near, but it was such a strange twist of fate that only a few months after I made that promise, she passed away from natural causes.
To answer my daughter’s question, I removed the mementos she had so carefully arranged and flipped open the locks. With a crack of the lid, out drifted the aroma of cedar, and with it, memories of the woman who had once been my mother-in-law.
“Why does it smell so nice, Mommy?”
“It is made out of a cedar tree.”
“What’s in it?”
I pondered her question while I closed the lid and fastened the locks, deciding that the treasures within could wait until she was older. I thought of the dreams I had for my daughter: Dreams that she would flourish in spite of my mistakes, that she would be happy, and that she would never know the pain of divorce in her own marriage. I imagined all of the hopes that my mother-in-law must have had for her, as well, and I thought of them joining with my dreams for her and those of my own mother’s. Together, it seemed, these mother-dreams filled the trunk with hope.
“Dreams, Sweetie; dreams for you to be a big girl.”
“That’s silly, Mommy. I only dream when I sleep.”
“Not those kinds of dreams, Sweetie. This is a hope chest. Some dreams are like hope.”
“I hope I have good dreams, Mommy. I don’t like bad ones.”
I engulfed her little body in a hug and added my prayers to those of both her grandmothers. I prayed that she would have the best of our dreams and that they would flourish and branch out to create a canopy of hope and grace that would withstand even the severest pruning.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” -John 15:4
My daughter is a preteen now, and I’m not as worried as I once was. Our family tree has indeed been pruned and grafted, but each time I pass by my daughter’s hope chest decorated with her mementos and treasures that change over the years, I know she will be okay. The people who love her work hard to strengthen the branches of her family tree, and sometimes I have to look pretty close to see that the sheltering branches weren’t always there in the first place.