“Is there anything else you want?” my father asked.
There wasn’t, but I knew that no was not an acceptable answer.
“Take anything,” he insisted.
This was 1999. We were in the garage attic of my parent’s house, going through the trunk that held my grandmother’s belongings—my father’s mother, Alda.
I never knew her. She’d had rheumatic fever as a child, which left her with a weak heart. Alda died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1936 when my father was 10. He couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t sick.
Some pink Depression glasses—a few juice glasses and several larger water glasses—were wrapped in newspapers in a pile next to the trunk, ready for me to take home.
I picked up the girl doll with the porcelain head and cloth body. She was big, about two feet long, wit eye lids that opened and closed and dark hair that felt human. She wore a green velvet hat. If the hat were life-sized, I would have wanted it.
I knew if I took the doll it would just end up in a box in my basement. I also understood that the things before me were the few things that remained of my father’s mother and couldn’t be sold or thrown away.
“I think you should give this to Sarah,” I said. My brother’s daughter was nine and the only granddaughter. I wasn’t sure if she’d like the doll, but my father, I knew, would think I was being generous. I placed the doll face down on a pile of linens inside the trunk so she wouldn’t be looking up at the next person who opened the lid.
The big move to a much smaller place was hard for my parents. Like retirement, it was a diminution. The days of my father’s numerous accomplishments were over. Now he spent time serving on charitable boards, reading new books about the Civil War, and working in his garden.
I picked up a hand mirror from the trunk. It looked like a mirror you’d buy at Walmart, except it was made of wood rather than plastic.
“I’d like to have this,” I said, looking at myself in the mirror. The glass was clear and not cobwebby like some old mirrors.
“Certainly,” said my father. “Anything else?”
No matter how many things I took, I knew he’d keep asking that question until I said no.
“No,” I answered. “Thank you.”
I found an empty box for the mirror and pink glasses and took them out to the car with the other things my mother insisted I take.
That’s how I ended up with Alda’s mirror.
* * *
When I brought the mirror home, what struck me was not how it looked, but that Alda had looked into it. The glass that reflected her image back to her now reflected my image back to me. When Alda looked at herself in the mirror, she was younger than I am now.
Although she was my grandmother, I knew little about her. What I knew was that she taught in a one-room schoolhouse until she married my grandfather. The hand bell on the mantle of the house I grew up in was the bell she rang to call children into school at the start of the day.
When my father and I visited Viola a couple of years ago, the last time we saw her before she died, she mentioned something about the doctor cutting off Alda’s auburn hair when she was sick, because that’s what they did back then, and what a tragedy it was.
My father nodded, but said nothing. Alda must have looked in the mirror after her long auburn hair was cut short. I imagine she wept.
I keep the mirror in my top bureau drawer, along with a brushes, a comb, some necklaces in a small box, a thermometer, a pair of little scissors, a flashlight, and a box of matches. Some of these things I use every day, some hardly ever.
The truth is, I’m not positive this was my grandmother’s mirror. At the time I took it, my father said it was hers, and it came from the trunk of her possessions, but who knows. Things get moved around, mixed together.
I wrote to ask him and he wrote back, “Since the mirror was in that trunk, I am certain it was my mother’s and I am delighted you have it and are writing an essay about it.”
* * *
I started this essay fifteen years ago, a few months after my own mother’s death, then put it away. My father died two years ago at the age of 92.
I’m not sure why I want to finish this now. I’ve left so many things undone. Perhaps it’s a desire to correct that. Though some things don’t merit to or can’t be completed.
When I go to get Alda’s mirror out of the top bureau drawer, it isn’t there. Did I add it to one of the Goodwill bags I’ve packed off over the years as I pare down my possessions? Donating the mirror would have seemed like less of a desecration than tossing it into the trash.
The only other place it might be is on top of the medicine cabinet, the flat space where things collect dust and are forgotten. I reach my hand up to the dusty top and feel around. There is a mirror, and for a moment I’m happy, until I see that it’s a modern version of Alda’s mirror, round and black and about the same size, though this one is made of plastic. Something I probably ordered on Amazon. More useful, clearly, but from the dust, I can tell, something I seldom use.
Now, all that remains is the memory of my grandmother’s mirror, the memory and our shared reflections in the framed circle. If it was, indeed, my grandmother’s mirror. Or even if it wasn’t.
Feature image: Alda Goodell as a young woman, and her mirror image