The White Box

Photo credit: qragon via / CC BY

Growing up I had two grandmothers, my grandmother Margharite who lived with us and  my grandmother Anna, (Mamae) who lived with my aunt Mary.

After my aunt Mary got married and moved out, my grandmother Mamae was left all alone.  Mamae was busy enough during the day, but my mother was concerned about the nights.  She was getting older and my mom thought it would be a good idea if I would go over there and spend nights with her.

As a “mobile” fifteen year old who was out and about with her girlfriends most evenings my poor grandmother would wait up for me to come home before retiring for the night.

She didn’t do it out of concern for my welfare, nor was she afraid to go to sleep on her own.  The neighborhood couldn’t be safer what with everyone sitting out on their porches, strangers never drove by and the unofficial neighborhood guardians, the Dago Bombers, were there to keep watch.

No, my grandmother would wait up for me out of ritual and superstition.  Every night she reenacted the same routine.

“Louisa” she would call to me when she heard me come home. All of this was done in her local dialect.

“Vieni qua/Come here.”

And then she’d ask me to take the white box out from under her bed.  After I gave her the long white box, she laid it lovingly on the bed and then lifted the lid.  She opened the white tissue paper and carefully removed the contents.

“M’uarda, (but look)  E cosi bell’ (it’s so beautiful).”

She would say as she held up her new girdle with attached garters and admired it.  Next she laid out her new, white, and never worn Playtex bra; the cotton was so stiff it practically stood at attention.   Then she pulled out a pair of silk stockings, followed by her most beautiful dress, a hat and a string of pearls. The entire process took twenty minutes!

She looked at me expectantly as I dutifully admired her treasure.  And then she looked me in the eyes and say, “Remember, you take this box to the funeral home when I die. Do you promise?”

The first time she said it I was appalled by the thought. In my young mind, there was something rather ghoulish about it.   Round about the fourth or fifth night I had gotten used to the idea.

After a week I asked her why she took out her clothes every night. I would be shocked if she worried about somebody stealing them.  But that wasn’t the case.

She told me, “I take them out to show God because I want him to recognize me when he calls me home.”

I couldn’t argue with that logic but I was getting tired of spending all that time every night making sure God recognized my grandmother.

Once, twice, ten times…I wondered if my Aunt Mary participated in the box ritual every night.

After about ten days, I convinced her to leave the box under the bed.

So I asked her, “It’s God, right?  I’m sure he has a good memory.”

She had to agree with that logic.

I shuddered at the thought of all of my unconfessed sins and God’s memory.

She was a little leery at first but I also told her it was for the good of the fabric. After all, she didn’t want to arrive in front of St. Peter all wrinkled, right? So she seemed satisfied with that and I made a mental note to go to confession.

It wasn’t long before her health started to fail and her daughters thought it best to move her in with my Aunt Rosie.  A couple of years later my grandmother had died and I went to the funeral home expecting to see her laid out in all her finery.  The day she had been preparing for had finally arrived.

You can imagine my shock and dismay when she was dressed in an outfit I didn’t recognize and I’m sure she didn’t pick.

When I asked my Aunt Rosie what happened to the white box, she looked at me with a strange look on her face.

“What white box?” she asked.

“The box that was under her bed,” I said.

“I never saw any box,” my Aunt Rosie said truly puzzled.

My Aunt Mary, my mother and I all looked at each other.  We knew the importance of that box.

I could read the concern on their faces and see their thoughts battling with their logic.  It was after all a silly, superstitious question in this modern age in the new world.

“How was God going to recognize their mother?”

I looked at my grandmother lying peacefully in her box and I said to my mother and my aunts.

“M’uarda (but look) Come e bell’ lei (how beautiful she is). Who could forget that face?”

They had to agree!

To this day I have an aversion to white boxes.  And I now put everything in gift bags!



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