After the death of my father, there was very little from my childhood home that I really wanted. The piano I grew up with had already been given away to a small neighborhood church that my grandparents had supported.
But there it was. The Steamer Trunk. The vessel of secrets.
It had survived the trip across the Atlantic back in 1921. It must have been challenging to my grandmother to decide what to pack into that sturdy, leather bound trunk. What do you take with you when you leave your family behind in Europe to start a new life in America ?
I know of a few of those items, because the trunk ended up in the attic of my childhood home. There were some coins, a few pieces of silverware, some crocheted table scarves, and most special of all, there were photo albums.
The secrets began there. Who were the family members that this young woman left behind? So very few of the photos were labeled, but it always looked to me like she was with friends, not family. The people, mostly women, in the pictures seemed to be her same age, and none bore a family resemblance.
Why no siblings ? Why no parents ? There had to be a story there, but she died when I was too young to ask the questions. My father didn’t seem to know a lot about her life before she came here at age 21; but by the look on her face, she lived a full life in Czechoslovakia before deciding to leave.
According to immigration records, she was 5 ft. 10 in. tall, blonde hair, blue eyes and spoke seven languages. She was immediately hired as a translator at Ellis Island. It was said that she didn’t stay there long; she was unhappy with the treatment of her compatriots. Somehow, she connected with a wealthy Jewish family in Philadelphia to work as their nanny.
Through cousins and friends in nearby suburbs, she met and married my grandfather, an immigrant from Hungary on his way to being a dairy farmer in rural Chester County. She was one month pregnant with my father when she was photographed in a rather formal wedding ceremony in 1923. Like many photos of that time, there were not many smiles. The photos were beautiful, but the faces were so very serious, almost fearful. Maybe she had an early instinct about her future with her new husband.
The years passed. Economic ruin a decade later sent my grandfather into an irreversible depressive state, leaving my grandmother to raise 2 children on her own.
The steamer trunk followed her on this circuitous path. It survived much as she did, with little wear and tear, with dignity in tact.
When I first became interested in its contents, I explored the pages of those aging photo albums. Since I never met him, this was my introduction to my grandfather. The experience was unsettling. At the height of his “melancholy” as they called it, he took scissors to every picture that included his own image.
He carefully cropped his head out of every one.
It would have been much less disturbing if he had simply destroyed the entire photo. Leaving the rest of the family intact spoke volumes about his illness; he considered himself diseased, broken and unworthy. And now, decapitated.
Years later, but long after the damage was done, someone in my family had the good sense to remove all the “assaulted” photos. What remained was a lot of blank pages; black card stock with a little glue residue.
I now have that very steamer trunk, and have re-purposed it in a room that I keep full of antiques, books and photographs. In spite of the painful memories, and a legacy of family tragedy and personal failings, it is my most prized possession.