Heart-Shaped Box

[9 minute read]

Content warning: death of a parent.

In the time it took for Peter, Paul, and Mary to croon 500 Miles on my mother’s dusty record player, I discovered that my entire life had been a lie.

It was a mundane Sunday morning at the homestretch of a relentless winter. I stomped the slush off my boots, unlocked the faded front door of my childhood home, and stepped inside. 

Besides the occasional packing box, and the blanket of dust that covered every surface like sprawling ivy, everything looked nearly the same as it did when my mother left her home for the final time. No matter how many times I returned to the empty house to sift through her possessions, I still expected her smiling face and outstretched arms to greet me. Instead, I was received by the soft ticking, rolling eyes, and swinging tail of Mom’s beloved Kit-Cat Klock mounted on the kitchen’s floral wallpaper.

Tick…tock. That cat had been creeping me out since childhood. Tick…tock. Its swaying eyes were always spying on my mischief. Tick…tock.

Why is this thing still haunting me? TICK…TOCK. Does it have nine lives or something? TICK…TOCK…TICK…TOCK. Make it stop. Please, God, make it stop. 

I charged forward and ripped the clock off the wall, peeling strips of wallpaper along with it. It stared up at me from my trembling hands, eyes still flicking, each second ringing out with a deafening chime. 

Time marches on, allowing us to return to the past only in our memories and suffer through the present as we brace for the future. 

I threw the clock on the floor and smashed it with a cast iron skillet until my arms grew weak. I collapsed over top of the shattered feline. My sobs echoed throughout the silent house that was once so full of life. 

Pull yourself together. This house isn’t going to clean itself.

I rubbed my wet puffy eyes, swallowed my guilt, and glanced around at the contents of our family’s historical museum, trying to decide what to sort through next. 

A shimmer caught my eye as the mid-morning sun slipped between the window blinds and stretched across the room glinting off one of the golden statues in the family trophy case. The cabinet was chock full of awards engraved with the names of my older brother and sister — a state champion wrestling trophy here, a National Honor Society certificate there.  If you squatted down and squinted into the back right corner of the bottom shelf, you could spot the one and only item bearing my name, a participation ribbon from the third-grade spelling bee. 

I’m not in the mood for reliving my childhood inadequacies today, I thought. I’ll dump all that crap into a box later for Seth and Rachel.

I wandered over to the family bookcase, dragging my feet on the brown shag carpet. My fingertips trailed lightly over the rows of books. The miniature library ranged from Dr. Seuss to Stephen King and everything in between. An entire shelf was dedicated to Mom’s collection of Good Housekeeping magazines, dating back to the late ’70s. I flipped through a few issues of the Pinterest predecessor and tried to imagine a younger version of my mother, sipping hot tea and dog-earring page after page of sewing patterns and holiday recipes while humming along with a vinyl. 

Her vinyls…. I have to find her vinyls.

Like a bee flitting from flower to flower in search of life-sustaining nectar, I meandered down the hallway. She moved her record player and vinyl collection to her bedroom a few years ago, retiring them from decades of dinner party entertainment duty. Tucked away in plastic totes under her bed, I found album after album of iconic folk and rock music: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young — all of the classics were there. The smiling faces of Peter, Paul and Mary stared at me from the cover of their debut album. I flipped it over to read the song list and fragmented memories flashed in my mind. My mother humming Lemon Tree over a skillet of sizzling bacon on Saturday mornings while I watched cartoons. Her face illuminated by firelight as she sang If I Had a Hammer on summer nights while I chased fireflies. 

The record player on her dresser opened with a slow creak and I blew the dust out of it like it was a Nintendo game cartridge. Squinting against the plume of soot, I gingerly slid the vintage vinyl out of the sleeve, put it in place, fired up the player, and lowered the needle. The harmonious voices of the folk trio melded together like the ingredients in Mom’s homemade fudge recipe and filled the room with a warm authentic sound that you only get from LPs.

I tugged one of Mom’s favorite blouses off a hanger in the closet. The silky fabric flowed between my fingers like her long sleek hair that tickled my cheek when she tucked me into bed as a child. I clutched it to my face and inhaled, soaking in her lingering signature aroma, an echo of who she was.

This is just a shirt. It’s only a shirt.

I dropped the blouse into a garbage bag destined for the thrift store. I stared at it briefly, crumpled and lifeless at the bottom of the bag, while grief and anger churned inside me. I ripped the remaining garments from the closet and thrust them into donation bags, blinking through tear-clouded vision as I went, leaving behind dozens of empty swaying hangers in the aftermath of my frenzy.

I was about to clear the closet floor of her orthopedic sneakers when I spotted something curious tucked away on the shelf above the clothing rod. I grabbed the antique stool from her vanity and carried it to the closet. It groaned under my weight and I prayed that it would hold me. I shoved a few hats and scarves out of the way and plucked the item off the shelf. It was a heart-shaped wooden box with my name engraved on the lid. Thoughts swirled through my head like the wood grain that rippled across the box. 

What is this? Why is my name on it? And why was it in Mom’s closet? 

I sat on my mother’s bed, cradling the ornate box in my hands, to examine it more closely. I traced the grooves of my name with a dusty fingertip — C-a-r-o-l-i-n-e. My name was surrounded by a symbol, a triangle intertwined with a heart. Mary started singing about a train whistle when I carefully removed the box lid, as if I was disarming a bomb, and laid it beside me on the threadbare quilt. 

A familiar face stared up at me from within the box. The wallet-sized photo had a faded vintage look to it that Instagramers try to replicate. I instantly recognized the duplicate, its clone is in a family album I haven’t flipped through in years. I was pretty unremarkable in my standard-issue hospital swaddle and expressionless chubby-cheeked face. But my hair, thick tousled tangerine tufts, had been making a statement since the day I was born. 

I glanced in the vanity mirror across the room searching for a resemblance to the blank slate version of myself in the photo, but even my hair had dulled to a murky amber. 

My pruny little fingers rested on my lap as the rhythmic tugging of my mother braiding my hair nearly lulled me to sleep. I raised my droopy eyelids to our reflection in her vanity mirror and studied her obsidian locks. 

“Mommy,” I said with a yawn. “How come I got red hair but Seth and Rachel got black hair like you and Daddy?”

She hesitated, fingers frozen mid-braid, then put on a reassuring smile and directed her answer to my reflection in the mirror like a salon hairdresser. 

“It’s one of those traits that skip a few generations,” She resumed braiding. “I think there’s some Irish on Daddy’s side of the family so he probably had a great-great-great-someone-or-other with red hair.” 

She secured the braid with a hair tie and gently lifted my chin to meet her gaze. 

“You’re the lucky one, pumpkin. Most girls would love to have hair like yours.”

The memory vanished and the room came back into focus. I set the baby photo aside to inspect the remaining contents of the box, two folded documents. I unfolded the first one, my birth certificate, and laid it aside.

I guess this is like a baby keepsake box. There’s probably one for Seth and Rachel somewhere too. I’m surprised theirs weren’t displayed in the trophy case. 

The second document was made from a similar type of blue paper. It was a birth certificate for a Bridget Murphy. That name didn’t ring a bell, nor did Carolyn Murphy, the name of Bridget’s mother, and no father was listed. The date of birth, however, was the same as mine.

“How come I got red hair but Seth and Rachel got black hair like you and Daddy?”

Once again I stared at my reflection in the vanity mirror and, not for the first time in my life, had the niggling feeling that a stranger was staring back at me. The room started spinning around me and I felt lost, like an intruder in that house, that family, that life. Questions bubbled up in my mind until they rumbled and overflowed like a pot of boiling water.

“Who are you?” I screamed at my reflection, tears raining down my cheeks. “Who am I?”

I launched the box of deceit across the room, shattering the mirror and everything I thought I knew about myself, leaving behind only a broken reflection. Pieces of me were missing and yet, for the first time, I truly saw myself.

I rapped my dry knuckles on the open door of room fifteen at the Bridgehaven Senior Living facility. Mom was asleep in the corner rocking chair despite the Price is Right theme song blaring from the TV. I turned off the TV and gently nudged her awake.

“Is it time for my meds already?” She asked, her voice sluggish. As the fog of sleep lifted, she looked me over. There was a brief flash of recognition in her eyes and then her face hardened. “What are you doing here? Who let you in?” Her voice was laced with paranoia as her eyes darted around the room.

I reached an arm out to touch her hand. “It’s me, Carol—”

“I know who you are. I thought I’d never see you again.” Her gaze shifted to the heart-shaped box tucked in the crook of my other arm. “What is that?” 

I held the box out to her and rested it on her lap as she drew her hands away. “I found it in your closet. Why didn’t you—”

She shoved the box off her lap. The lid popped off as it landed and wobbled across the linoleum floor, scattering its contents. Her slippered foot stomped on the baby photo as she stood up from the rocking chair.

I watched her, speechless, as she hobbled to the bed where she pressed the red button on the wall above the headboard. 

She turned on me, eyes fierce like a lioness protecting her cub. “I knew you would come looking for her someday.” She jabbed the red button repeatedly. “You didn’t deserve her then and you never will. Bridget is our daughter now. We raised her and loved her in a way that you never could. You stay away from her.”

A nurse frantically rushed into the room, glancing quickly between us and the items scattered on the floor. “Is everything ok here, Mrs. Jackson?”

“No, it’s not. This woman needs to leave.” Mom shouted, pointing a trembling finger at me.

A day will come when she won’t remember you. Don’t take it personally. Try to control your emotions.

“I’m sorry, I think I triggered her,” I whispered to the nurse, choking back tears. “I didn’t think she would…I just needed to….”

“Ma’am, I don’t think Mrs. Jackson is in the mood for visitors right now.” The nurse said loudly for Mom to hear as she escorted me toward the doorway. “Maybe you can visit another time.” 

“No, don’t you ever come back.” Mom roared. “Do you hear me, Carolyn? Stay away from Bridget.” She gasped and her voice became manic. “Don’t you dare tell her the truth. Did you tell her? She was never supposed to know. Carolyn! Did you tell her?”

I grabbed the nurse’s arm and pleaded, “You have to save that box for me, please.” She nodded, ever so slightly. 

I slipped into the hallway where I waited and listened, out of sight, stifling sobs as the nurse calmed my mother down.

A train whistled nearby.

“Is it time for my meds already?” Mom asked from within the room.

I stole one last glance from the doorway before I left. I saw her, resting peacefully on the bed — the woman who raised me with so much love that I never doubted that she brought me into this world. She was locked away again, lost in her broken mind, and somewhere in that abyss of forgotten memories were the secrets behind the heart-shaped box. She took those secrets to the grave and I chose the path of blissful ignorance.

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2023


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