I asked my mother what was in her mother’s cedar chest when she gave it to me.

English: Doroteo Arango Arámbula (June 5, 1878...

Doroteo Arango Arámbula (June 5, 1878 – July 23, 1923), better known as Francisco or “Pancho” Villa, a Mexican Revolutionary general. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’ve never opened it.”

This is as close as my mother ever came to admitting she had emotions.

Over the years, I’ve taken a few things out.

My grandmother’s wedding dress was packed away carefully. I took it out to wear to my mother’s 80th birthday and it now hangs in a closet.

A poster my grandfather had translated and annotated with his notes about his first years as a customs agent in Nogales, Arizona, where my mother was born, I gave to a nephew last year at a family reunion. He is now a customs agent on the Mexican border.

My grandmother’s diploma from the University of Kansas, in 1907, I took out to show an author at her book-launch party recently, as she had written about pioneer days in Kansas and her daughter had graduated from the University of Kansas.

My grandfather’s diploma from the University of Chicago, majoring in Philosophy, is there, too. My son graduated from the University of Chicago graduate school of Computer Science. His undergraduate degree, from the University of Virginia, is in Philosophy and Math.

A gold-painted box contains my grandmother’s mother’s breast pin, empty, with a hand-written note that it used to contain a picture of my great-grandfather.

There is also a rolled-up faded ribbon with a note from my grandmother that it had been on my mother’s wedding bouquet.

A pair of soft, yellow woolen booties.

Three fans, one a beautiful ivory. Delicate, fingerless long, organza summer gloves.

My grandmother had kept a poem from a newspaper clipping that I suppose summed up her thinking on letting a baby get dirty every now and then:

The Antiseptic Baby

The antiseptic baby and the prophylactic pup

Were playing in the garden when the bunny gamboled up

They looked upon the creature with a loathing undisguised

It wasn’t disinfected and it wasn’t sterilized!


They said it was a microbe, and a hotbed of disease

They steamed it in a vapor of a hundred odd degrees,

They froze it in a freezer that was cold as banished hope,

And washed it in permanganate with carbolated soap.


In sulphurated hydrogen they steeped its wiggley ears.

They trimmed its frisky whiskers with a pair of hard-boiled shears.

They donned their rubber mittens and took it by the hand,

And ‘elected it a member of the fumigated band.


There’s not a micrococcus in the garden where they play.

They swim in pure idioform a dozen times a day;

And each imbibes his rations from a hygienic cup,

The bunny and the baby and the prophylactic pup.


She kept the paper I wrote after interviewing her about her time as a teacher in Valdez, Alaska and her adventures in Nogales, Arizona, when Pancho Villa used to come through and shoot up the town. I must have sent it to her to  show that I got an A+.

She kept a letter she wrote me about her ancestors, one of whom had founded the town of Bremen, Ohio, in 1834, now a suburb of Columbus.

It was named after Bremen, Germany, where his wife was from.

And, of course, the photos – of my grandmother as a young teacher, of my mother and uncle as toddlers.

There is my mother’s baby book and my grandmother’s wedding book.

There is a card from the Daughters of the American Revolution, accepting my grandmother’s application to join.

There are papers my grandmother wrote, such as the undated term paper, “Individual Instruction for Socially Unadjusted Children,” for which she received an A.

And, there was a 1946 paper “Academic Instruction for Emotionally Disturbed Children,” which must have been written while she was Principal of the University of Michigan hospital school, citing “Four Case Studies of Adolescent Girls Under Treatment in the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University Hospital.”

There is much more in this time capsule, telling me what my grandmother held most precious, family, education, work, roots.

The next time one of my grandchildren asks to look inside this mysterious cedar chest, we will explore it together.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers



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