The Treasure in the Attic — A Priceless Find
This is a story originally published on Vocal. I submitted it to one of their contests, Challenges they call them. Out of 13,000 entries, they chose 1025 as finalists. This was one of them. In the end, this was not one of the winners, but I am still proud of it and would be honored if you would read it.
“$500,000 for an old blanket??????,” Angie shrieked at her husband as they sat on the couch watching the ever-popular, always perplexing Antiques Roadshow. “It’s not even attractive. It’s beige and bland. How could that ugly thing be worth half a million dollars?” Without giving him a chance to answer, she launched into a streaming tirade. “We have lived in this house for over 40 years; we have accumulated piles upon piles of “stuff”; dead relatives’ stuff ; our kids’ stuff; and stuff that has simply bred by itself in the cellar and attic. You can’t tell me that in the midst of all the antique china; silver; 1970’s toys; vinyl record albums; collectible remote control cars; vintage telephones; books; and long-dead aunts’ jewelry, that there isn’t SOMETHING worth a lot of money.”
Frank figured the time, effort, muscle power, and sweat required to clean up an attic and basement filled from top to bottom and side to side with 40 years of “stuff” definitely was not going to reap enough money to make it worth his while. As he tried to explain this to Angie, she countered with her own brand of reasoning. “Look”, she said, “we’ve already made the decision to sell the house next year, so we need to start cleaning it out now.” Well, yeah, he agreed about the cleaning out part, but his idea was to hire one of those “We Haul it Away” companies and let them do the dirty work.
After 45 years of marriage, Frank knew he was no match for the determined look on Angie’s face. When she got an idea into her head, there was no use arguing. He either went along with it or was dragged through it moaning and complaining.
“Here’s what we’ll do”, Angie, the organized planner of the family, explained. “At our age, we don’t have the stamina to go at this every day, so we’ll set aside 3 days a week for the next three months for the job. First, we’ll throw out the broken and unusable, donate functional items to the homeless shelter, and organize everything else into categories. Next, we’ll call dealers who specialize in each of the categories and make appointments for appraisals.”
Drilling without Novocain sounded more appealing to Frank, and a lot less work. For one brief moment, the idea of asking their two tall, strong adult sons to do the work flitted through his head, but he knew their enthusiastic agreements would turn into months of excuses. Busy with work. Busy with kids’ athletic games. Busy with their own household tasks. All legitimate issues, so in the interest of getting the deed done, he begrudgingly agreed with his wife to do the job.
By the time dusk crept in at the end of the first 3 days of the project, both Angie and Frank, with clothes and hands covered in grit and grime, lungs coughing up dust, muscles aching, and arthritic bodies stuck in neutral, even Angie was questioning the wisdom of her “treasure hunt”. All they had managed to do in 3 days of physical torture was clear enough debris to reveal a cellar floor.
Week after week, they cleaned, sorted, swept, and organized, until five weeks later, both attic and cellar rivaled the best of the behemoth warehouse retailers in merchandise stacked in categories on rows and rows of shelves.
Unfortunately, after another 3 weeks of phone calls, at-home appraisal appointments, and in-store appraisals — meaning Frank and Angie had to lift, drag, and haul their prized possessions to the appraisal shops -they had amassed a grand total of $324. Angie was bewildered. The Frank Sinatra albums, the unopened Kiss albums, the 45rpm records, the Watergate Newsweek magazines, all rejected by every collector she contacted. Someone actually bought Aunt Esther’s 1940’s rhinestoned bedecked costume jewelry, which was now considered “vintage”, but no one would pay anything for Great Grandmother’s 125 year-old china.
On week 6, as they were sitting on the floor of the attic, Angie, physically, exhausted, emotionally drained, and hugely disappointed in not having uncovered a financial bonanza, finally relented. “I guess it’s time to call the “Haul Away” guys, Frank”, she muttered dejectedly. As they pushed themselves up from the floor and turned to climb down the ladder, Frank spotted a semi-crushed box in the far corner of the attic that he had somehow missed cataloging. “Might as well check this out before we call it a day,” he said. He pulled open the flaps and started pulling out old cookbooks and scrapbooks. Not recognizing any of them, he asked Angie, “Where are these from?”
Her interest piqued, Angie walked over and took the books from Frank. “Oh, I remember these,” she said. “They were my mother’s cookbooks. She was a terrific cook and baker — everything from scratch.” Memories of her mother, hands covered in flour, calling to her, “Come into the kitchen and watch me, Angie, watch and learn. You’ll need to know this someday”, danced across her mind. I never listened, she murmured quietly. Probably why her own kids thought home cooking meant warming up a Rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.
“How did we end up with these?” Frank asked. “ I don’t remember this box at all.” “Years after Mom died, when Pop was getting remarried and moving to a new apartment, he packed some of her things and brought them here for us to store. I guess this was one of the boxes. I don’t remember it either. Look….these are all of my birthday cards from age one to four,” she said. “Mom was big on saving cards.” Frank dug deeper and handed her a big, old scrapbook tied tightly with dirty, brittle string.”What’s this?”, he asked. Angie knew every picture album and scrapbook that had been in her parent’s home. She had thumbed through all of them countless times. She knew the scrapbook that contained the souvenirs from every nightclub her parents had attended in the 1940’s. She knew by heart every picture in the thick albums with the black pages from the 1940’s. She knew every black and white picture in the yellow albums from the 1950’s. But she had never laid eyes on this scrapbook. “What could this be?”, she murmured more to herself than Frank.
The book was dusty, smelled of mold, and she could see the yellowing, brittle pages would crumble at a touch. She carried the book downstairs and laid it on newspaper on the kitchen table. She took scissors, cut the dried out string, and slowly, apprehensively, opened the book.
“Oh, my God,” she gasped, hands trembling. There on the first page were the train tickets, dated July 1942. The story flashed into Angie’s mind. Her aunt telling her how her father had been stationed in Spokane, Washington before he was to go overseas. Your mother wanted to go visit him, but your grandmother told her that nice girls didn’t travel across the country to stay with men they were not married to. “If you go, you go to get married,” she said.
So your mother took the train from Providence to Spokane, and when she arrived, she and your father got married. Angie remembered the picture in one of the old albums of her newly married parents holding hands on the steps of City Hall. The handsome young soldier in uniform, and the tiny, dark haired young girl, both looking light hearted and happy, despite the World War raging in Europe. The war into which that young soldier was soon to be thrust.
Carefully glued onto the next page were the train schedules and the train menus. What courage it must have taken for a 21 year-old, uneducated girl, who had never left Providence, RI, to travel alone across the country on trains filled with strangers. Funny, I never thought about it that way before, Angie thought. Mom and I never talked much about who she was before she was “Mom”. She must have been strong and independent, and maybe even a little rebellious to have made that trip. Like me, thought Angie. I never remember not being fiercely independent. I never remember a time when we weren’t at odds about my independent streak. I always thought we were so different, but maybe we were more alike than I ever realized. I never took the time to talk to her and get to know her, Angie thought sadly.
Angie carefully turned the yellowed, brittle, crumbling pages of the 70+ year-old album. There were all of the wedding cards sent to the young couple, with handwritten messages from the long deceased aunts and uncles Angie wistfully remembered from childhood through adulthood. All wishing the “kids” good luck and a long, happy life together. Telegram after telegram of congratulations. How odd to think of her parents as “kids”. She felt a familiar pain when recalling that the long, happy, life only lasted another 28 years, as that young girl, full of hope and promise, would never live to see her 50th birthday. Angie blocked out the memories of the lung cancer and turned another page.
There was the small, two-inch square wedding announcement that Nana had placed in the Providence paper. There were Pop’s military commendation announcements and medals. Wow, thought Angie. Neither Mom nor Pop ever mentioned that he was so honored. Come to think about it, neither one of them ever mentioned the war years at all, except an occasional reference to the shortage of silk stockings in the US and food ration coupons. She must have been so proud of him to carefully and lovingly cut out and paste each announcement.
Angie cautiously turned page after page to find the handwritten letter from Auntie Fran detailing the death of Pop’s father; Pop’s pay stubs from the army; Mom’s pass to shop in the base PX; hotel bills from her visits to Pop when he was on leave; the newspaper obituary for her beloved grandmother, Angie’s great grandmother.
There were copies of army newspapers with articles about Pearl Harbor; Iwo Jima; D-Day. I never knew, thought Angie, that Mom had such a sense of history — that she would keep newspapers that would eventually have so much historical value.
The last page of the album contained menus and newspaper articles dated 1945. The end of the war. The end of that chapter of Mom’s life. Apparently, she closed the album, tied it up, put it away, and never spoke of it again. Pop came home, and they began the next phase of their lives — raising a family……..two baby boomer children.
As Angie’s mother’s life during the World War II years unfolded in front of her, tears fell silently and stained her face. Bittersweet tears of pain that she never really knew her mother at all, and tears of joy and thankfulness that this musty, crumbling old book was revealing the woman she had never taken the time to know — the independent spirit; the heart full of warmth and love; the pride in her new husband; the sense of history.
No, Angie thought, she had not found dishes, record albums, or an ugly blanket that would fetch thousands of dollars on Antiques Roadshow, but in this old scrapbook, she had found her own treasure in the attic. A treasure that was truly priceless — She had found the woman her mother had been.