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Mirror Reflection, Blackberry Curve

Mirror, mirror…

I, as a young teen, took my great-grandmother’s compact from a box under my mother’s bed. Once belonging to her grandmother, I am certain that my mother was storing it as a keepsake. Edna had been deceased for some time, but I liked to think she was watching over me.

As a child, I was a snoop. I could not be trusted to leave alone the boxes of old family photographs and diaries stored in my closet (there was no where else for them to go). I remember spending hours sitting on the floor of my bedroom, door shut and music turned WAY up, digging through the images of long-dead family on summer vacations, swimming in some unknown lake, eating ice cream, wearing their Sunday best in front of the house. Many of the diaries were in Norwegian, Swedish, or German; the languages of my maternal line scrawled in faded brown ink on crumbling pages. There were grocery lists in the back of an annual diary. Lists of card games won (or lost). Recipes for things such as “krumkaka” and “lutefisk” – the mealtime memories of a homeland left behind generations ago.

I was fascinated by these snippets of a life I could not imagine. Most of my maternal family grew up and lived as farmers in the harsh, flat landscape of Western Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota. You know those stereotypes of there being “no trees in North Dakota?” Well, in many places this is true: the only trees you will find serve as a wind break between a farmstead and the hundreds (if not thousands) of acres tilled and sowed by the farmer. As a child, I spent many trips west to Grand Forks (to go shopping with my grandmother) staring out at the flat, rich soil filled with sugar beets and soybeans. Tractors larger than my childhood home picked row after row of vegetables to processed into other things (namely sugar and soybean oil, or as part of ethanol).

We had a wooden trunk that came over on a boat from Sweden with a long-forgotten relative. The front and top were both carved with a name and address; in the event the passenger carrying the luggage died while crossing, the heavy wooden trunk – handmade and beautiful – would be shipped on the address it bore. Somehow, through marriages and deaths, it landed in our home. My parents used it as a woodbox, next to our fireplace, for those long winter months when it was too cold to go outside for more wood after dark.

There was sheet music from an old Lutheran church which burned in the early 1900’s. Tattered and stained, you could just make out the notes for the organ part. Luckily, it was a tune still in use, and I was able to find a clearer, newer copy to play from at the old upright piano we inherited from Great-Aunt Anna. The music was hers, along with cracking hymnals, worn-out catechisms, and many other vestiges of a faith which so blatantly rejects me now. I have no place in the religion of my foremothers.

Which brings me to Edna.

I don’t really know much, if anything about her. Stories and diaries talked about her as an “outsider,” as someone who didn’t quite fit the standard societal mould. She had dark hair and dark eyes and was breathtakingly beautiful, in a very non-Scandinavian way. Some said she had gypsy (Roma) blood. Others said she escaped from Germany by marrying her lover’s brother. Still others told that she was just a normal first-generation American, born of immigrants and married a farmer’s son. Whatever the truth was, I may never know. But Edna and I, we were kin.

I only remember seeing her a few times. She and my great-grandfather retired to Arizona. I may have travelled there as a toddler. At some point they came back to our small town and lived in a retirement community near my grandmother. She died first. My great-grandfather was very confused and alone. He must not have lasted much longer after she left. I can only find one photograph of me with them, sitting on a sofa as a very young girl, slightly confused and scared by their age, their differences, the unfamiliarity of blood family.

It was Edna who told me about the mirror. Night after night, she came in my dreams and sat next to my bed, telling me stories of my grandmother as a child, teaching me about the moon and the plants and the animals. It was she who inspired in me a traveling spirit, the burning to visit the world, to see things new and different from my own small, Northern Minnesota town. She wanted me to have the compact, to use the mirror to gain new perspectives, to find new ways of seeing the world. To remember my own beautiful spirit.

And so one afternoon, while my sister watched “Wishbone” and my parents’ were both at work, I went into my mother’s room. I knew which box to remove because Edna had described it to me. Gingerly, I lifted the lid, and there, in the bottom near an old box of pearls, was the compact. I carefully removed it as to not disturb the remaining contents, and place the box in the exact spot from which I had moved it.

Sitting in my room I felt a surge of, well, something. Maybe it was power. Maybe fascination. Maybe just the voluminous energy my great-grandmother had possessed and was passing on to me through this object. I shuddered and stuttered and finally tucked the compact into my underwear drawer, heading out to cook my sister some lunch.

Over time my mother took the compact back from me, always in secret, but I somehow found it again. When I left home at their demand, I took it with me. It was perhaps the last item I would own connecting me to my mother to her mother to hers. It has gone on every major trip, including two cross-country moves. It has disappeared for months on end, and then appeared just as suddenly in a desk drawer or a box of jewelry.

These days, it lives on the altar of my writing desk. Every once in a while, I pop the clasp and inhale that powdery, clean scent. While there is no concealing powder left in the compact, there is still that thin blue pad, “Elgin American” stamped across in fine gold script. This is the smell I remember from all those nights of my dreams. On the lid are her initials, “EEF,” inscribed in the most romantic font of her generation. She loved this compact. I am certain it lived in her purse, in her vanity, in her heart. Perhaps my great-grandfather gave it to her for their wedding, or an anniversary.

These questions may never be answered. But for me, on a grey rainy day, when my heart is bursting and bruised at once, I pick up the compact, pop open the latch, and smile.

I have her eyes. And she smiles back at me.

*This post was written as a participant of Bindu Wiles‘ latest project, 21.5.800 — If you’re not participating, please check it out and join us!