Grace Curtis has lived her entire life in southern Ohio and has finally come to appreciate how interwoven she is with its landscape. In 2010 she completed an MFA in poetry at Ashland University. In 2011 she took an early retirement from her long-time career in hospital administration to devote time to writing. Her chapbook, The Surly Bonds of Earth was selected by Stephen Dunn as the 2010 winner of the Lettre Sauvage contest. Grace’s work has appeared in The Chaffin Journal, Red River Review, Waccamaw Literary Journal, Scythe, Reprint Poetry, Phoebe Journal and others. Her website is www.N2Poetry.com.
The Shape of a Box as Appearing
the thought of packages only
I thought of boxes. Their tale as no tale. My hands, as containers. They push and shove until everything fits into them, then another, and another. Someone finds/receives an unexpected package. Candies, fruit, boxes tiered largest to smallest, bow tied. It arrives. At that moment, no one wants more than this.
the story as a package
A nursing attendant caring for an old woman lusted after a diamond ring the woman kept in a small burgundy ring box in her jewelry chest. The attendant found the ring box one day while cleaning. When the old woman napped, the attendant would take the ring out and look at it. She would try it on, polish it against her cardigan, make it sparkle in the sun that peeked into the room through the blind slats. One day the attendant made a decision. She removed the ring from the box and hid it in a pocket of one the old woman's dresses that hung in her closet. This way, she reasoned, if the old woman ever asked for it, she could retrieve it. She could show her that it was still there. But, if someone came to visit—though, no one ever did—they wouldn't even know the ring existed, and therefore not know it was missing after the old woman died.
For five more years, the attendant endured the ever-increasing harshness of an old woman fighting the inevitable. The ring stayed tucked away in the dress pocket all that time. When the old woman finally died the attendant decided to go and get the ring during the funeral. But, when she got to the old woman’s house, she couldn't find the dress. The old woman had been buried in it, the ring still safely hidden within the pocket.
Later, when the old woman’s lawyer read the will, the attendant learned that the old woman had left her the ring in exchange for all her years of service. The attendant kept the empty burgundy ring box.
trinkets as containers of myth
I dreamed bandits found not a diamond ring, but rather, a box of trinkets. They tied me to a chair and held each memento before my eyes. If the story was good enough, the item was placed back into the box. If not, it was smashed and burned. One by one the trinkets were destroyed until I became a better storyteller. Each item became a character; its flaws, a place. A map along a lifeline emerged, the trinkets illuminated as personal myth. Some things we keep because we dare not let go, because we’re not sure, or because we can spin a damn good story around them.
drawers as containers
They start as empty vessels like urns that hold clothes and trinkets. What if, like squirrels, we were to keep leaves, sticks, stones, in drawers, or acorns in drawers? Do squirrels open and close tiny plots of earth where nuts are folded and stacked—or, as mine would be, thrown in every which way and over-stuffed—into an enclosure of soil? And, if a squirrel digs down far enough, will he find a ring?
black trash bag receiving the surprise of a drawer
When our mother died, my sisters and I disassembled her stronghold of bureau drawers that gave in to us easily for the first time in our lives. Revealed were nests of buttons, zippers, snaps, six, soft ironed hankies—we each took two—toiletries, towels, slacks, stockings, receipts, ledgers, photos—her leaves, her sticks, her stones, her acorns. Finally, we took mother’s junk drawer all the way out and emptied it into a black trash bag, its contents too sacred to dissect. All the things that would have said aloud that she was really gone.
a check as a surprise package
In 1955, a man named Don Fedderson produced and aired a TV show called The Millionaire. The show explored what happens when people fall into sudden wealth. Each week, Michael Anthony, the millionaire’s assistant, delivered a check for $1,000,000 to a different person. Michael Anthony would go up to someone’s house, ring the bell, and hand them a check when they opened the door.
(as I am writing this, my doorbell rings)
It’s not Michael Anthony bringing me a million dollars. No. It’s one of the nine-year-old twins (I’m not sure which one) from next door bringing over a piece of our mail that the mailman put into their mailbox by accident. Who can blame him? He doesn’t look like Michael Anthony and neither does the twin. For a minute, I think of asking her if there might be a check for a million dollars in the envelope. All she wants to talk about is her rabbit.
“Would your rabbit happen to be John Beresford Tipton, Jr., the millionaire?” I ask.
“No, his name is Speckles,” she replies.
I think of telling her that when I was her age, every time I heard the doorbell, I thought it might be the millionaire’s delivery man bringing my family a check. I thought, if we had a million dollars, we could send the foster children back to the orphanage because we wouldn’t need the money the state gives to us to take care of them. We would all be happy again. I dreamed of my family, my real family—the one with a mother and father and only four children, not seven—packing our suitcases and driving to Disneyland.
A therapist once told me I learned to understand how tiny my notion, my voice, was in this matter, in the world, in fact. He said my parents told us to tell them if the arrangement was not working. I did. I learned they didn’t really want to hear that and nothing was going to change. I told him that everything I knew about the world, I learned from TV shows.
packages as numbered surprises that mean nothing to you until years later
1. I knew how to make up a good story.
2. I knew how to recognize failure better than adults did.
3. I could feel damage like a princess could feel a pea under a hundred mattresses.
4. I was a better-than-Houdini escape artist.
5. I was a world-creator.
6. I was a non-believer.
7. I knew it was better to step away from a problem if there was nothing you could do to fix it.
8. Otherwise, it would eventually bring you down hard.
the package as appropriation
If Susan Sontag was correct when she wrote “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” then I stuffed thousands of objects into vacancy. Surprise would be a package containing that which evolved from among the pictures I used as stand-ins for trinkets. I am good at one thing: not being good at most things. This is a truth I can sink my teeth into. My father looked a little like Michael Anthony. For all I know he may have been the spitting image of John Beresford Tipton, Jr., because in over 200 episodes, no one ever saw anything of Tipton but his arm and hand. Both Tipton and my father wore suits most of the time.
At Christmas we would gather around the couch my father and mother reupholstered numerous times throughout our childhood. My dad would organize us, set the timer on the camera, come back to take his place, and then, proceed to appropriate us all—the real kids, the foster kids, and him and mom. We’d smile (of course we did) even if the mysterious substance of anger flowed through the body of every last person in the photo. Year after year, the only thing that changed was the couch.
surprise in a photo processing envelope
Back in the day, photographs came in surprise packages from the drug store. You had to search through envelopes in the bin labeled with an H to find the one with your name on it. Sometimes it was in with the bin labeled with a G or an I. Excitement was palpable. You couldn’t wait to get out of the store, crack open the sticky flap, pull out your prints, (doubles usually) and look for the one good reflection of yourself. Maybe you were smiling. Maybe in one, you had a dreamy, ethereal look that said, she’s mysterious and brooding like Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County. Maybe there was one with you and a boyfriend (a Montgomery Cliff). The kind of look that had ‘appropriation’ written all over it.
You can’t escape from a photo once it’s taken. You can tear yourself out of it but you were still there, the moment a shutter fluttered. You cannot undo that part even with digital trickery. I have a photo of my mother and father when they were both 18 years old. Prettier than Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff. The photo is torn—too neatly to be accidental—right down the middle, to half way down. If whoever started that tear had continued it, none of us would exist. Susan, you can appropriate for a moment in time, but you cannot own forever.
the birthday present as a failed package
These days I don’t respect birthdays like I used to. Age has become less than a trinket. Not even one of my thousands of appropriations reflects unexpectedness. Once when we were young and first married, my husband didn’t give me a present all day on my birthday. He took me out to dinner, out to shoot pool, out to a bar. He collapsed into bed when we got home. I roused him to ask about a present. I had shamelessly hoped for a present. He mumbled that it was in the car trunk and I should just wait until morning. I said, no. So, he stumbled into the garage and got it. I don’t remember what it was. That night, I established a new rule about when we hand out surprises. This rule has never been broken.
the surprise package as change
That doesn’t mean I am unsurprisable. And I don’t believe it when someone says people never change. On a recent trip, my husband stood on the balcony of our hotel suite overlooking Puget Sound. He faced Mt. Baker trying to appropriate its peak with his phone’s camera. It was surprising because I could not recall having ever seen him appropriate anything. I watched, thinking, this is a time when even the cliché is not cliché.
Then he told me for the first time in our lives together that he was interested in history. So we watched a TV show about the Dust Bowl. When I said something to him, he shushed me saying he wanted to hear the part where they tell why the Dust Bowl happened.
I said, “Haven’t you read The Grapes of Wrath? We expose the top soil and it gets caught up into a dry wind’s fury.”
There are books to read. There are drawers to open and close. There are moments of appropriation to reappraise. There are trinkets to look at. There are couches to reupholster. Doorbells to answer. Millions to receive in a check. There is Disneyland. Damage to undo. Presents to receive before breakfast. Rabbits to feed. Birthdays to let go of. Old women to die. Rings to lose. And, grief. There is still the surprise of grief hidden in a box of tissues like the toy in a box of Crackerjacks.***
“ ‘The Shape of a Box as Appearing’ was written from a prompt provided in a writing group to which I belong, i.e., to write on the subject of someone finding or receiving an unexpected package. I followed an impulse to pull together vignettes of personal revelation using the idea of packages/containers/boxes as connective tissue. The approach had the effect of containing difficult subject matter. An extended central metaphor in a shorter piece like this can provide a safe way to explore painful memories. ”