By Carol L. Wright
Shut up in a dusty attic was about the last place I wanted to be on the first really sunny Saturday of the spring. But how could I say no?
“Dory, dear,” my mom said when she called. “I need your help.”
I knew when she added “dear” to my name she was making an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“I’ll be over around ten, Doe,” I said, using the nickname everyone called her, including us kids.
“And bring some trash bags,” she added as I hung up the phone.
I had hoped to get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but Doe had something else in mind.
I was the only one of my mom’s six kids who had not completely left the nest, so to speak. The others had gone off to various colleges, married people from far away, and established careers in other states. But my parents divorced in my last year of high school, so I lived at home and went to the local community college.
Oh—don’t get me wrong; I don’t still live at home. I moved last year, when I was twenty-five, to share a townhouse with two of my friends from high school. But I was still the one who lived in town—and still the one that she called when she needed help with anything.
When I arrived that morning, Doe was at least a little apologetic. “Thank you, sweetheart. I know it’s not what you’d like to be doing. . . . But I have the get the house ready to . . .”
She couldn’t finish the sentence. Doe had grown up in that house. It belonged to her grandparents, for heaven’s sake. She loved every square inch—creaky floors, noisy pipes, and drafty windows included. But now she had to sell because, in a fit of matrimonial optimism, she put my dad’s name on the deed. Now he wanted “his share” of the money out of it. No way my mom could buy him out, so she had to sell her family legacy and the only place she—or I—had ever really called home.
“It’s just that . . .” she continued, steadying her voice, “I feel like losing this house is like losing my mother and grandmother all over again.”
It made me sick to think about it. Each of us kids had taken a crack at Dad, trying to get him to change his mind. “Financial reverses” was his only answer. He needed the money.
So today, I was going to go up into the attic to try to cull the must-keeps from the why-did-we-save-theses. I figured that there would be a lot more of the latter.
Truth be told, I thought it might be fun. You know—find an old item tucked away by great-grandma that would bring tens of thousands on Antiques Roadshow? I mean, my family was never rich, but geez—they had to have something worth keeping to have filled up an entire attic, right? If I could find it, Doe could stay.
So, armed with a cold bottle of water and a fresh box of trash bags, I picked my way up the cluttered staircase. Everything from hub caps to metal milk jugs blocked the path, daring me to make my way to the top. When I got there, I was pleased that I could stand upright—at least down the center of the space.
Any thoughts I had of an authentic Tiffany lamp or Chippendale bureau or long-lost Vermeer died when I saw the dusty trunks and sagging boxes stacked willy-nilly under the sloping rafters. They nearly obliterated the meager light that came through the smudged-up windows at the gable ends. Fortunately, despite a collection of dented oil lamps, somewhere along the line someone ran electricity up here, so I had a bare bulb to see by—probably one of Edison’s first.
A-a-a-a-CHOO! I never was too good with dust and this place was musty enough to give the Statue of Liberty asthma.
I unscrewed the cap of the water bottle and took a swig. Okay, I told myself. It might be no picnic for you, but it’s better than having Doe do it. It made me feel a bit noble, and helped me get down to it.
By noon, I had gone through enough boxes to begin sorting them by type: cardboard boxes full of disintegrating newspapers (most of which had become mouse condos, sad to say); books and magazines from who knows how long ago that were growing a mold of some sort; and broken stuff. And by broken stuff, I mean all kinds: chairs with loose legs, a rocking horse with broken springs (and peeling paint that had to have lead in it), TVs in need of tubes they stopped making during the Nixon Administration; tools with broken handles; and a host of discarded toasters, lamps, blenders, shoe-shine machines, electric frying pans, and some things that I’m not really sure what they were. Beyond those was the most special category of all: stray pieces of stuff. I swear, my ancestors never threw anything out. If there was any chance that a screw, bolt, fitting, pipe, board, or twist-tie could be used again, it was preserved. It was then I realized this wasn’t my mother’s attic; it was junk heaven.
When Doe called up to see if I wanted lunch, I was glad to get back downstairs where I could inhale air I couldn’t see. I’d check with her to see if we could get a dumpster delivered—and position it right below the attic window.
“Oh, Dory, you have cobwebs in your hair,” she said, picking at the schmutz that had made me prematurely gray.
“That’s the least of it,” I said, rolling my eyes for effect. Then I saw her expression. It wasn’t just sadness I saw there; it was grief. This was harder on her than she wanted to let on—even to me.
As I munched my turkey sandwich with mayo and cream cheese—don’t knock it until you try it—I thought about what clearing out the attic meant to her. To me it was junk; to Doe it was her family—her whole life.
I had to find something of value that she could sell and buy Dad’s share of the house.
* * *
I started in after lunch with renewed enthusiasm—and my iPad. Anything that looked like it might have intrinsic value got Googled. I didn’t want to be one of those fools who let a priceless whatever get sold at a yard sale for two dollars.
But the more I dug through piles and boxes, the less optimistic I became. Even in mint condition, the antiques I found were pretty common and not worth much. And the stuff in this attic was seldom in mint condition. But I was determined to keep looking.
By Sunday night, I had looked into every box, moved every pile, and dug through every stack of odds and ends. Nothing. No treasure that would enable Doe to keep the house. There was just one trunk left to open. From the size of it, I knew it wouldn’t hold anything large. What could possibly fit in there that would be valuable enough to save her home? Coins? Jewelry? My people weren’t the kind to have a treasure horde. Could an antique clock or lamp of sufficient value be locked inside? Only one way to find out.
I wiped my dirty hands on my jeans. There was a padlock on the trunk, but no key. I had been finding loose keys for two days. Where did I put them?
I found the bin I’d used to hold small items that might be of some use and dug through. I found old skeleton keys, car keys, house keys, and luggage keys. There were only five keys, though, that might fit the padlock on the trunk. I tried the first. No—of course it wasn’t the one. In such situations, you always need to try all five before you find the correct one, right? That is, if you actually have the correct one at all. So, I tried the second. It jiggled just a little in the lock. My heart skipped a beat.
“Where is that WD-40?” I asked aloud, looking around. I found the can and shook it up, hoping the propellant would still work. I popped the cap and sprayed the snot out of that lock.
I inserted the key again. It wiggled a little more than before. I knelt next to the trunk, leaned against the lid, and bore down with all the force my tired fingers could manage.
It opened. It opened!
I removed the lock from the hasp, and undid the latches. I was almost afraid to lift the lid. This was my last chance to be a heroine.
I yanked it open.
Paper. That stupid trunk was filled with stacks of notebooks and loose paper. I knew that unless one of them was a copy of the Magna Carta, Doe was screwed.
I took out one of the broken chairs. With a couple of screws from the loose junk box, I was able to make it stable enough for my purposes. Then I pulled out an old floor lamp with frayed wiring. I was sure I had seen . . . Sure enough, there was lamp cord in the perhaps-salvageable box. I was able to make a quick job of rewiring it and plugging it into the lone outlet under the window. I turned the switch, and—no—of course the old light bulb had blown. But there was a box of incandescent bulbs up there, too. In a few moments—light! A lot of it. It must have been a hundred-watt bulb. So I dug around until I found an old maroon, chenille lampshade, complete with frayed ball fringe on the bottom. Hideous, but utilitarian.
I pulled the lamp over to the chair, and picked up the first few sheets. There was cursive writing all over it—a bit flowery—in what now looked like light brown ink. Must be old.
* * *
“What is it?” Doe asked. My Cheshire cat grin and hands held behind my back must have alerted her to my excitement at my discovery.
“Sit down,” I said, keeping my treasure behind me to prevent her getting a look at what I was concealing.
She sat on the chintz sofa, and I moved to sit next to her, but she put up an arm. “No you don’t, sister. Not in those dirty pants. Get a towel before you sit on my sofa.”
I obeyed, and, when I was finally next to her, said, “Now close your eyes and hold out your hands.” She looked at me sideways, but did as I asked.
“What did you find?” she asked. “You’re being very mysterious.”
“These,” I said, placing a stack of small books into her hands.
She opened her eyes and held the stack up close to her face. I knew the musty smell of those old books was a little off-putting, but it wasn’t the smell that made me bring them down to her.
“What are these?” I think she hoped I found first editions of Shakespeare’s folios, but, of course, my people wouldn’t have those, either.
“They’re diaries,” I said, trying to keep the triumph out of my voice.
“Diaries? Whose?” Doe put the stack in her lap and picked up the top volume, opening it to the fly leaf. She gasped. “Dorothea. Why she’s . . . she’s my great-great-grandmother!”
“Yes! And some from her daughter, and even a few from her granddaughter.”
“Where were they? I never knew they were there. I didn’t think we had any papers of Dorothea’s. Just the old stories handed down.”
“I know. I’ve heard them all my life. How she came to the US after the Civil War with nothing but the goods she could carry and a two-year-old daughter in hand.”
“That child was my great-grandmother, Thea,” Doe said nodding. “Dorothea started a dressmaking business, and built it up to be one of the most successful in the city.” She had a far-off look in her eye. “But none of her work survived except that pillow I’ve saved for you.”
“There are some of Dorothea’s patterns in there, too.”
Her eyes grew wide. “I almost thought the whole story was just a family legend.”
“And in each generation since, a daughter has been named ‘Dorothea’ in her honor,” I said. “Me, you, Grandma Dot, Great-grandma Dottie, and Thea. It’s a long chain,” I said, feeling like I was part of something big and important.
She put her hand against my cheek. “I almost broke that chain. I didn’t give the name to either of your sisters, but somehow, when you were born, it just seemed like I’d been saving it for you all along.”
“Awww,” I said, giving her a hug. We both blinked back tears for a moment. Then I remembered I had something else to show her. “That’s not all,” I said, flourishing a photo in a metal frame from behind my back, magician-style. “We have her picture.” I held up the image of a young woman, dressed in all black—Victorian widow’s weeds—with a young girl at her side. On the bottom, their names were written in what I now knew to be Dorothea’s handwriting, and the date: 1872.
Now the tears really flowed. “I never saw a photo of her,” Doe said. “Even without their names, I’d know that the little girl must be Thea. I only knew her as a very old woman, but I can see the determined expression in her eyes.”
I scrutinized the child’s face, trying to make it look like Doe or me or Grandma Dot. “I don’t see a resemblance,” I said.
Doe pursed her lips. “Perhaps not,” she said, but then turned to me with an arched brow. “But surely you can see something else?”
I studied the photo in a way I hadn’t when I found it in the attic. It was a typical late-1800s photo—stiff bodies, unsmiling faces. The clothes were typical of the age. But then I studied Dorothea’s face. “She looks kind of familiar,” I said.
“Oh, Dory,” Doe said. “She’s you!”
* * *
I never found a treasure that would save Doe’s house. She sold it and paid cash for a condo with her share. But what I did find enabled Doe to take our family with her. It was worth much more than an old house with creaky floor boards, noisy pipes, and drafty windows. I found a connection to our ancestors—and an even stronger connection to my mom.
Carol L. Wright is a former book editor, domestic relations attorney, and adjunct law professor. Her debut mystery, Death in Glenville Falls, was named a finalist for both the 2018 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award and for the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Carol is the author of several short stories in various literary journals and award-winning anthologies. Many of her favorites appear in A Christmas on Nantucket and other stories. She is a founding member of the Bethlehem Writers Group, a life member of Sisters in Crime and the Jane Austen Society of North America, and a member of Pennwriters and SinC Guppies. She lives in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. You can learn more on Carol’s website, or by following her Facebook page.