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An old wooden box

By Jefferson Weaver

Miss Lois, her hands shaking, handed me the wooden box. “It’s yours now,” she said.

Mother gave the Old Man the box when they were first married; I think she bought it as a surprise when they got their new furniture, shortly before or after I was born. It sat upon the matching dresser for years, then took the same place when they got new furniture, 30 years later.

The velvet in the compartmented drawer is worn smooth, and in all the time I can remember, one has always had to pull the drawer just so to make it open properly. It fascinated me from the time I was a child. It was a box of history, my father’s history.

Barlow pocketknives—not the cheap, imported stainless blades with plastic
handles, but the real item by Bluegrass, Case and Imperial – were carefully retired in one section. Most of the knives have been sharpened so many times that they could no longer be carried, since the tips are unforgiving of pockets. There were a couple of fancy folders there as well, the Sunday knives with bone handles. As the name implies, they were only carried on special occasions, but they are just as sharp as their workaday counterparts.

Another compartment held pocketwatches. Papa never wore a wristwatch, and
mourned the day that the last true watch repairman he knew could no longer bring any life to the Waltham carried by my great-grandfather. It has an everyday chain for when Papa didn’t wear a vest, and another, larger chain for other times. The latter is a heavy gold chain, itself a hand-me-down from two more generations back. The fob is a pencil that would still work if one could find the right size lead.

I remember once when we were in an old store in a crossroads community when the owner spotted the Old Man’s watch chain, and casually mentioned that he had a few leads that might fit.

In a dusty box buried in a glass display case, he had three, maybe four of the leads, that he sold Papa for the princely sum of a dollar. Little things like that made Tom Weaver happier than many folks would be over a brand new car. I was too young to understand at the time, but if my father was happy, so was I.

There are other watches, even one from before the War Between the States, but
none had the beauty and class of the one Papa taught me had to be wound 25 times in one direction, then three in reverse, every day.

There are tie clasps, old and new cuff links, and pins of a dozen varieties in there, too. Kiwanis and Rotary buttons jockey for space with American flags crossed with Confederate banners, as well as buttons for long-forgotten politicians. There are pins from the Depression, tiny logos of the National Relief Act and the Works Progress Administration. Oddly enough, Papa had the pins but never worked for the government programs.

It was out of that section that Papa once loaned me a tie clasp when I was about 10. It was silver, with a tiny engraving of a horse behind a domed piece of glass. He said he’d bought it before World War II, after he’d gone back to work for the family’s hardware store.

I was proud as a king to be wearing it, and horrified when I somehow lost it
between church and home one Sunday. Papa and I searched for it, retracing my
steps, but it never turned up. I was scared he would never forgive me, but there was never a word of condemnation or reproof. He would, however, make sure I put any future tie clasp in my pocket if there was a chance it might slide off.

Another section had several silver dollars, none newer than 1928, a few smooth
coins from the same era, and a French franc. The franc was brought home by my grandfather from World War I, and carried as a good luck piece more than anything. He had it in his pocket when he was killed by a trolley car in Washington City, so I question its efficacy as a lucky charm, but it fascinated a nosy little boy.

Papa carried the “newest” silver dollar sometimes; I never knew why it was special, and he never volunteered. He had it when he came back from a 1930s road trip to California looking for work, but never provided any details about why it was special, or why he had held onto it through even those tough times.

Another side had photos and cards; I never knew til he died that he had a school
picture of me from every year, kindergarten through graduation, hidden in there, along with pictures of my sister and her children.

Like every other “gentleman’s assistant” or “organizer” or whatever you wish to call it, the long, wide box has recessed areas on top. Papa always kept his change in the left side, and the pocketknife and watch on the right. His keys slept beside the pocketknife. His wallet was dropped in between, with a checkbook and usually an inkpen or two. Notes or business cards would be placed upright between the brass rods in the center.

Many, many was the time when we would be leaving early, trying not to awaken
Mother on a Saturday, and I watched him fill his pockets for the day, or empty them at night. I wish that my own morning loadout was as organized or methodical. The box was a basic, utilitarian item that never really stood out. I’ve seen plenty of them in antique stores and yard sales, and you can find them in any store where people desperately search for gifts for fathers and husbands.

To many people, there is nothing special about the box. To me, it’s a reminder of my father. It’s half-filled with pieces of my father’s life, little lessons passed down from a father to a son, like sharpening a pocketknife, winding a watch, tying a necktie and making sure that times past are not forgotten. There’s history and heritage in that box, reminders of where he had been and what he had done.

Mother gave me the box a couple months after Tom Weaver, hurting and miserable in his hospital bed, said he was tired, and wanted to take a nap. He woke up in Heaven that day, having filed two small crime stories by telephone that morning before I was even through my second cup of coffee.

We had said our goodbyes and settled what we needed to (which wasn’t much). He instructed me to look after Mother, be a good husband, and remember the things he’d taught me, from writing a lead sentence to hanging a door, tying a necktie and sharpening a pocketknife. As he always did, he worried many of the things he’d taught me would no longer be of use, what with computers taking over the news business, watches that didn’t need winding and nobody carrying a pocketknife or seemingly even wearing a tie anymore. I promised him that would not be the case, at least with me.

My watch doesn’t need winding, and my pocketknife is usually something other than a Barlow. I don’t often wear a tie clasp, and I can’t recall the last time I wore
cufflinks. I’m not one for good luck charms, so those silver dollars and their French cousin rarely see the light of day. Even if I rarely carry any of those artifacts, 18 years after he said goodbye, I try my best to carry a piece of him with me every day. Whether it’s holding a door, knotting a tie, writing a sentence or sharpening a knife, I try never to let the things my father taught me lay forgotten in an old wooden box.

Note: The other day, my column was a promise I kept to my father, who died in 2001. The same day I told him I would do my best, I made another vow – to myself. This is that promise.

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