When my mother passed away, I inherited all of her belongings. Most of them are still in boxes in the garage because I still can’t bring myself to go through them. Mom’s “hope chest,” however, is special to me, and occupies a place of importance in my bedroom.

Growing up, I was always fascinated by this big, cedar box. I was sure that it contained treasures beyond my wildest imagination. I was never allowed to look inside, but every now and then I would catch a glimpse of my mother putting something in and closing the lid. The chest’s contents were a mystery that she promised to share with me… someday. When I was older.

Well, someday never came. I was 37 when she died… certainly old enough to appreciate the special items she’d saved. But sadly, we just never got around to having that conversation.


My daughter, showing off a button she found inside. What did it go to? I have no idea.

Inside the chest is a treasure trove of family heirlooms, most of which I will never be able to identify because everyone who knew what they were is dead. Some items I can figure out, such as my mother’s Bibles from her days at Catholic school, a few newspaper articles with familiar names, and other items that just happen to have names or dates on them.

There’s an envelope full of tiny teeth which I assume were (are) mine, as well as the hospital bracelet from the day I was born, and several articles of my baby clothes. Another envelope holds a lock of my grandfather’s hair (which I’m saving for the day that DNA testing is sophisticated enough to extract Y-DNA from hair). And my grandfather’s wallet looks like it hasn’t been touched since the day he died.


My great-grandmother’s coin purse catches my daughter’s eye.

There are even a few items I remember seeing as a child, such as some jewelry and coin purses left to my mother when my great-grandmother died.

But most items are still – and always will be – a mystery to me. For example, that set of steak knives, still in the box. Did they belong to someone special? Should I use them? I have absolutely no idea.


A few of my mother’s report cards from elementary school.

Someday (there’s that word again), I’ll have to empty the chest and archive it’s contents as best I can. Seven years after her death, it’s still extremely difficult for me to go through my mother’s belongings.

But I need to do this for my daughter.

I don’t want her to inherit an even bigger mystery, especially if I could have shed a twinkling of light upon it.

Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth O’Neal

Elizabeth is a professional genealogist, writer, and consultant. Likes: long walks in the cemetery, and the smell of old courthouse books. Dislikes: people who copy stuff off the internet without giving credit, and county clerks who can't tell the difference between Eastern and Pacific time zones. Secretly hopes her daughter will one day develop an interest in family history (but no luck so far).

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