A Chest Full of Hope
Linda Wheat O'Connell '67 lived in a remote Alaska frontier town, where free-roaming buffalo and moose outnumbered people. After living there for two years, she returned to St. Louis and reared two children. Linda is completing her twenty-ninth year as an early childhood educator and still considers teaching preschool her dream job. Linda lives in south St. Louis county and is a member of St. Louis Writers Guild. She is a freelance writer with articles, essays and poems published in various magazines, newspapers, anthologies, literary journals and local press. The ocean tugs at her Midwest soul and her grandchildren tickle her fancy. Linda enjoys writing, camping and traveling.

Recently I found a treasure chest from a different era, time, and place, when social mores were in flux, changing faster than the beat of Sonny and Cher’s latest song. Young people carried signs, marched for civil rights and protested the war. Life was full of uncertainties, but I was sure of one thing, I would move out of my parents’ house when I turned eighteen and control my own life.

In the mid-sixties, high school guidance counselors and door-to-door salesmen assumed that female graduates, who were not going on to college, were going on to become someone’s wife. Many upper-middle class girls customarily owned a hope chest filled with heirloom quilts and fine silver. Impoverished girls like me, would have been satisfied with a pine crate filled with a set of matching glasses. Instead, I piled household goods high on two shelves of our pantry, and hoped for the day that I would have my own pantry and enough food to stock all of the shelves.
During the month of May, salesmen visited graduating females. They came into my home and displayed fine silverware on our worn tablecloth. The pots and pans they were hawking shone brighter than the bare light bulb overhead. When the cutlery salesman demonstrated how his knives sliced a ripe tomato and mentioned a monthly payment plan, I decided two things. I could not afford the knives, and if he left the juicy fruit, I’d surely eat it. I said “NO” to the salesman and “YES” to the young man who courted me through high school.

On weekends I walked a mile to Cherokee Street, a five block long shopping district nestled in a residential area, where independent shopkeepers displayed their wares in storefront windows. Shoe salesmen fitted toddlers for their first pair of white high tops and old men for their first pair of Hush Puppies. The neighborhood bakery sold day-old goods, fresh pastries and sliced cream bread. Three ‘dime stores’ overloaded my senses with aromas of fresh popcorn, roasting peanuts and a variety of candies sold by the pound.

I could smell the spicy Sloppy Joe mixture before I reached the lunch counter and saw it simmering orange and greasy in a pan in clear view. Hotdogs plumped on rollers, and little glass cases displayed tiered slices of pie. Men’s and women’s apparel store proprietors made sure customer service was their top priority. I window-shopped at all the stores, spent a few dollars at the dime stores and Globe Drug, a haven of discount knick-knacks and odds and ends. I stocked my ‘hope shelves’ with eclectic items such as measuring cups, spoons, dish towels, pot holders and cheap steak knives. I yearned for a real hope chest.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when my mom handed me a postcard two weeks before graduation that stated that I had won a cedar chest from a fine furniture store in town. My fiance borrowed his dad’s car and we headed to the store. En route we stopped at Woolworth’s to purchase the first item that I would put in my hope chest, a downy pair of yellow booties for the baby we’d someday have. I chattered away about where we would place our hope chest; perhaps we’d use it for our coffee table, or place it at the foot of our bed. My imagination ran wild as I envisioned the intricate carvings. We entered the store, Southside Furniture on South Grand, and I handed the salesman my postcard and announced, “We’re driving a station wagon.”

That’s nice,” he smiled, and went to the rear of the store, came back and handed me a shoe box-sized replica of a Lane cedar chest, and said, “Here’s your free congratulatory gift. A senior, are you? Can I interest you in a full-sized chest? We have an easy payment plan.”

Bitter tears stung my eyes. I shook my head and walked out clutching my little cedar box. I placed the booties inside, and teardrops stained the top as we drove home. Shortly after graduation, like many other girls from dysfunctional families, I went off to start my own. I tucked the cedar box on a closet shelf of every house where we ever lived.

Recently, I found it again. Many transformations have taken place in the past forty years. The neighborhood and I have both changed. As I raise the hinged lid and look inside, I see the girl who married too young, loved her kids so much, survived divorce, and suffered unbearable anguish when her best friend died of lung cancer at age fifty-one.

Beyond the vision of the baby girl and boy who wore the booties, I see numerals etched inside the lid, simple addition and subtraction written in ink in my best friend’s handwriting. This little cedar box still retains the fragrance of the donor tree. The calculations remind me of the money we used to stash in it when it served as our yard sale cash box.

My little cedar chest represents a young girl’s hopes and dreams, a mother’s fond memories and a grown woman’s friendship cut short. It is chock full of reminders of the many blessings I have, the abundance of necessities that fill my pantry and luxuries that fill my life, not the least of which is good health, love and family.

Linda Wheat O'Connell '67
billin7@juno.com