Boxes of Very Important Things

Visually-deemphasized, marginally-interesting note: This is’s 500th post! As if you cared! Woohoo!

Felt-lined wooden boxAs I recall, it was the early ’90s, I was somewhere between age 10 and the threshold of teen-aged, and was developing an appreciation for the value of loose change. Loose change could buy you baseball cards or candy at the corner store. Loose change could be hooked to batteries with alligator clips in glasses of salt water (wait…don’t all tween males at some point attempt to electrodeposit copper onto paperclips?!). Loose change could be used to test out the snack vending machine you just built out of Construx. Most importantly, loose change could be found between couch cushions, wedged into car seats, rolled beneath appliances and dropped under beds.

And so, on the occasion that my Mom ducked outside to work in her gardens or complete some manner of seemingly-boring, adult, home-ownerly task, if the thought occurred to me, I’d roam around the house collecting change. My brother’s room wasn’t very productive – he had just finished potty-training, after all – and our guest bedroom was occupied far too rarely to be much of a coin-magnet. The couch and easy-chair in our family room were convenient targets, but once in a while, when everyplace else left me empty-handed, I’d head for my parents’ room. It wasn’t off-limits or anything; heck, the door stood open unless they got tired of finding cat hair on their bedspread. And, on occasion, I’d find a coin or two hiding behind the ruffles of their bedskirt, or under the recliner in the corner, or peeking out from the gap between the carpet and the bottom drawers of each dresser.

On these occasions, and indeed any occasion that I had to visit my parents’ bedroom, I noticed that they each had a small wooden box on their dressers. The boxes weren’t the same shape, nor were they the same size, or correlated in any way other than that both parents had one. I noticed the boxes during my covert change-collecting missions. I noticed the boxes when I’d sit with my Dad, listening to TalkNet on his clock radio while he flipped through Corvette magazines. I noticed the boxes when, as a refugee of malfunctioning plumbing, I had to use the master bathroom in the mornings before school for a month or so. And I noticed the boxes when I’d sit with my Mom, talking little but experiencing much, during her final battle with breast cancer in 1998.

Every time I noticed the boxes, I came to the same conclusion: They must be for storing Very Important Things.

Just what Very Important Things were stored in my parents’ wooden boxes wasn’t terribly concerning to me. I didn’t bother looking inside, having already concluded that whatever Very Important Things were there would probably be boring adult things, things that I either didn’t understand or wouldn’t find all that interesting. I memorized the boxes from the outside – Dad’s was a smooth, dovetail-jointed oak box, stained reddish brown, while Mom’s was traditional maple, with an overhanging hinged lid, a yellowish finish and a texture that revealed the roughness of the wood’s grain. I’m sure neither box contained anything unseemly, because neither box bore a lock, and I’m sure my parents would have happily shared the contents with Andy or me had we so much as expressed an interest.

As children tend to do, though, I grew up and moved out. I lived at RIT for five years, my dresser topped only with framed photos, an alarm clock and – in most cases – a few dirty dishes or half-finished electronic projects. Self-absorbed in the process of becoming an adult myself, I didn’t give the boxes any thought, and somewhere along the line moved into an apartment in Rochester, lived there for three years, got married and bought a 3-bedroom postwar-era house in suburbia. It wasn’t until a month or so before our marriage, when I considered what I might want to give Kelly as a wedding gift, that I recalled those constant wooden boxes. After a trip to Craft Company Number 6, I made my decision, and upon our return home the day after our wedding, I gave Kelly a hand-made maple jewelery box, expressly for the purpose of storing whatever Very Important Things our life together might produce.

My wooden box had arrived a few weeks earlier, when I traveled to Pennsylvania over Fathers’ Day weekend to retrieve some of my late Grandfather’s furniture and personal effects. Looking through it today, I suspect I finally understand the sorts of Very Important Things that my parents stored in the boxes I observed so many times as a child. As you go through life, and growing up, and all of the experiences and impracticalities and profundities that inevitably accompany the process of living, you inevitably accumulate Things that have immense value to you, almost no value to anyone else, and no other proper storage place. These are the Things that inhabit the keepsake box on your dresser – sometimes they’re Things you consciously decide to save, and other times they’re Things that only become Very Important by virtue of their deposition in that wooden keepsake box on your dresser, to be rediscovered years later, waiting to help you relive some experience or time or feeling.

Often, I think we inadvertently confuse very important things with Very Important Things. We panic when we misplace our cell phone, we throw a fit when the twenty-something barista uses half-and-half instead of skim in our coffee, or we expend precious frustration on situations we cannot control. We confuse the tools of a life lived effectively with the artifacts of a life lived richly, not realizing that these two mutually-exclusive collections can – and must, but often don’t – coexist in proper proportion. Perhaps these are the times when we ought to pay a visit to those small wood boxes that witness the beginnings and ends of each of our days, for a reminder of what really matters.

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