She Put Her Unspent Love in a Cardboard Box

She Put Her Unspent Love in a Cardboard Box


On the morning of my high school graduation, a strand of pearls made a sound like a maraca as I drew them from the box. Her note read: “There seemed to be a tradition in my family that when girls graduated from high school, they received a string of pearls. Well, my string of pearls never arrived.”

That’s because my mother, bound for adventure, skipped her senior year, and bought herself these pearls when she finished business school. She wanted me to know there was more than one path to walk through the world, and that I deserved to be celebrated. I wore the pearls that afternoon as I crossed the football field to accept my diploma.

Year after year, my mother traveled forward in time to meet me, always in the guise of a little package with a pink ribbon and a little white notecard: “Happy 15th!” “Happy 16th!” “Congratulations on your driver’s license!” “You’re a college girl!” “Happy 21st!” “Happy birthday, darling girl! Love, your Mommy.”

Each time I opened the box, I could, for the briefest moment, inhabit a shared reality, something she imagined for us many years ago. It was like a half-remembered scent, the first notes of a familiar song, each time, a tiny glimpse of her.

When I was a child, opening the next package felt like a treasure hunt. As I grew older, it began to feel like something far more fundamental, like air or community, something like prayer. Her messages met me like guideposts in a dark forest; if her words couldn’t point the way, at least they offered the comfort of knowing someone had been there before.

A decade after I lost my mother, my father followed suddenly. She had spent years preparing her exit, but with him I blinked, and he was gone. The morning of his memorial, the box stared back at me with nothing to say. There was no letter for this.


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