A cigar box.
It is quite old now. Once it smelt of tobacco. Now it smells of almond and beeswax polish.
Once it held cigars. Now it holds memories: memories which are mine and memories which are mysteries.
This box, new and full of cigars, was once a Christmas present for my father. Our family never gave big presents. Mostly Dad bought me books, mostly I bought Dad cigars. I seem to remember that it was still legal, when I was a child, for me to buy them myself from the tobacco counter in Woolworths, but I may be wrong.
I don’t know why the box itself was kept. I imagine my mother thought it was too nice to throw away. I understand that. I can never throw away a good box either. There is something hopeful about a box, perfect, with its snugly fitting lid, waiting to be filled.
Then one day, my mother sanded, polished and varnished the cigar box and gave it to me for trinkets. I have kept it ever since, popping inside odds and ends from time to time.
The newest thing inside is perhaps twelve years old. The oldest is from 1926, long before even my parents were born.
Each thing has its own story.
The things at the top remind of being a young adult: single, unattached and time-rich. My ID card from when I volunteered in Romania in 1992; a thank-you letter from a child in a holiday club.
Lifting those aside, here are things from my teens. My Girl-Guide promise badge. My Robin patrol and three challenge badges. I ducked out of Guides quite early, never finding a kindred spirit. I wanted to build shelters and make fires. The other girls wanted to talk about pop stars. I gained my accident prevention badge, my cook’s badge and my writer’s badge. I remember the last two. I wrote a poem about washing dishes for the former and a heavily plagiarised novella uncannily similar to ‘The Secret Garden’ for the latter. Here is my fifth year* prefect badge. I loathed being a prefect and spent my duties chasing second years** out of the ‘old’ block at lunch time (which we all enjoyed) and ignoring the bad girls who were smoking in the toilets because, frankly, I preferred to stay in one piece. And here’s my ‘Young Enterprise’ badge from when I had my first ‘secretarial’ role. I learnt at seventeen that I hated taking minutes and yet, here I am, all these years later, still doing it from time to time. At least I get paid for it now.
Here are random bits of costume jewellery from my late teens and some little glass ornaments bought for me in Tenby by children (with some help from Daddy) twelve years or so ago. I want a little glass cabinet to put them in where they can mingle with the tiny glass animals my grandmother collected and which currently live in another box, wrapped individually in yellowing tissue.
Here are some 1928 German Reichbanknotes. Both sets of my grandparents married in 1929, but as far as I know, none had German connections at the time. I have absolutely no idea why I have them, why anyone in my family had them. One of them is a 100,000 mark note. In 1928, at the end of a period of hyperinflation in Germany and shortly before the Great Depression, I believe it had relatively little buying potential. I would be interested to know.
Then there is a little box with coins inside. These are all pfennigs, pre-euro German pennies. The oldest of these is from the 1950s and I assume that they were brought back by mother when she went to visit a new penfriend. My mind boggles to think of my shy mother travelling alone as a teenager, to stay with someone she’d never met before in a country which, less than ten years earlier had been enemy territory. Some of the pfennigs are ones I brought back from visiting my own German penfriend in the early 1980s, and tucked in amongst them is a letter ‘a’ from a printing press which I was given in a museum on my first visit. I can’t remember now whether I chose the ‘a’ (and if so why) or whether I was given it.
Last but not least is a box of medals and badges, none of which are mine. Many of them are my paternal grandfather’s motorcycling medals. My grandmother said he only stopped racing when he broke an arm and she begged him to stop. I think she always felt guilty afterwards, but on the other hand, after marriage, when a motor-cycle was their only means of transport, she used to sit in a side-car, knitting, completely blasé. I seem to be descended from insanely calm women, without having inherited the calmness.
One of the medals is from WWI and Canadian. For years and years, it baffled me, as I was unaware of any Canadian connection. And then, when my daughter was doing research for history, I found out. My paternal grandmother was the youngest of four children. Her eldest brother Reginald flew for the Royal Flying Corps and is on the Virtual Canadian War Memorial. I haven’t quite worked out the link, but I do know that he was in 39 Squadron and an observer in a Bristol F.2 which was shot down on 25th September 1918. He was 21. The pilot was 19. My grandmother would have been 10. My father said that one of his abiding memories was, as a small child, seeing his grandfather (Reginald’s father) sitting with a fragment of propeller, turning it over and over in his hands in silence.
This is a cigar box. It no longer holds cigars. It contains nothing of value to anyone but me. It contains memories, some of which aren’t mine.
It is a box full of treasure.
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission
*Fifth year – equivalent to year 11 now or 10th grade – the year at school when you are usually 15-16 and in UK take the first set of public exams.
**Second year – equivalent year 8 now or 7th grade (my school had the first years/year 7s in a separate building and we didn’t have a sixth form/yrs 12 & 13. Therefore the fifth years were the eldest hence being prefects. Much to my relief, when I went to another school for sixth form, I wasn’t selected as prefect).