My Mother’s Mysterious Hope Chest

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 genealogy and family history researcher, writer, and consultant. She is easily bribed with coffee and chocolate chip cookies.


  1. Elizabeth – what a beautiful chest! I never had a hope chest (like my sister has). My mom however has two steamer trunks – do they count?! Best wishes in documenting all the contents and locating more information on the items inside.

  2. It’s been almost 9 years for me and it is still hard to go through my mom’s things, too.


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