cambridge book review

Things Too Good to Use

Norma Gay Prewett

It was years before my sisters and I put our heads together and figured out that Mama was regifting and squirreling things away (an appropriate trope, “squirrel,” as Mama collected odd animals once in a while—once a squirrel called Jill whom Mama saved from a cut-down tree and who used to terrorize us all by leaping onto our heads). Anyhow, Mama saved every nice thing in the pine box made for her as a “hope chest” by her brothers Harold and Ansel from the pine (a kind of cedar probably) surrounding their homeplace in the Big Woods in Arkansas. (Not to go too “Little House” on you, but it really was a big dark woods where once in a while in summer, a kid could hear a panther scream at night when the kid was supposedly asleep in the back bedroom with the pounded dirt floor—the room with the high iron bed frame and really nice featherticks that smelled of, no trope here, all your relations but in a comforting way.)

Mama would not allow herself the rose perfume in the beautiful bottle I gave her, for example, and so passed it on to my sister Donna, who tried to pass it back to me before I had a fit and told Ma she needed to keep it or give it back to me. (The theory here was that most people don’t give gifts they don’t themselves like, I guess, though this was a particularly pungent essence of rose perfume I’m not sure anybody could have used much of.)

But mostly, our gifts of large fuzzy towels, linens with good thread count, and pretty dishes—meant to replace the sad gray thin towels, the scratchy cheap sheets, and the mismatched cookware she endured, had gone straight into the smallish, mysterious, very plain striped wooden foot locker-sized box—to be exhumed in full only after her death. I had once knitted her a shawl in a lovely soft pink acrylic and tassled it in a tweedy soft grey and white. When I showed it to her, she exclaimed over it, then mentioned how hot it was in their apartment, leaving me to put together the pieces. I think I saw it on her shoulders once or twice. But at least she didn’t give it to one of my sisters, though possibly, it might have arrived back with me sooner if she had. Last week, I wore it to school and it was sort of like a hug from Mama—though it smelled more of my Coco perfume.

I think Mama considered herself not worthy of nice things, which makes me sad. I know the tendency. Maybe all of us have it with gift towels and a couple of tablecloths? But that falls more into the realm of ritual—like keeping Baptist kosher—so that the celebratory is enhanced by the rarity of bringing out the talismanic objects—the special stuff. Mom had little “special” stuff and what she did have, she gave us early. In a burst of fine rationalism and common sense, when she and Daddy moved from the house they built in Steward, the “new house” that was by then 45 years old or so because neither was safe on even the seven-mile stretch of backroads drive any longer (Dad was nearly deaf and blind—Mom had a dangerous heart condition) Mom convened us kids (don’t think Marx had returned from his wandering days yet) and posted numbers on the few good things she had—a plated “silver” tea set we had given her and Dad for a twenty-first anniversary, a few quilt tops from our grandmother Addie and maybe our great aunt Ruby, pairs of embroidered pillow cases, crocheted things from who knows where (Mama only made 1,000 pairs of “booties”—drawstring slippery slippers I could not wear, knowing not only there would be no more after a while, but that I could kill myself slipping downstairs in them—so had stashed in my version of the cedar chest). We then were instructed to draw numbers from a hat and so she dispersed her little fortune. We were told we could make swaps among ourselves but that she did not want to hear any fussing before the fact. Marx gave me his crocheted things with some kind of derisive comment, I’m afraid. He was a lot like Mom—so sensitive that he had to cover it up with a brusqueness bordering on cruelty at times—or vanish into the threatening maelstrom of emotions which were his artistic due.

The most touching thing of all: my sisters determined that I was the most deserving of the battered little cedar chest itself. Tears spring to my eyes now as I recall the graciousness. Being sweet, they all said things like, “I don’t really have a place for it,” but I wonder if all of them craved it as much as I did. As kids, my sister Donna and I sometimes sneaked in, emptied the contents, and played “casket” with it, maybe leaving some blanket with the satin edging to lay our play dead heads upon. I could smell Arkansas in that small box—and yes, hope. So the message du jour to anyone reading this—use your nice stuff. Wear it, flaunt it, realize you are worth it. (But if you really can’t bring yourself to do that—save it for me.)

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April 1, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | Leave a comment