One of the many tasks that usually falls to the primary caretaker for a departed parent is the sorting through of clothing and possessions; what to keep and what to donate, or throw away. It is an arduous task, of course, but it also has its blessed moments. Sometimes one finds a treasure that serves as a window into the departed one’s life. It is like a portal providing a glimpse into the past, underscoring the reality of the loved one’s existence, offering a casual but profound testimony to the fact that they lived in the same world you and I live in. I found such a treasure when I found the matchbook.
There it was . . . in a small cedar box where mother kept some of her sentimental possessions: the gold locket her parents had given her when she graduated high school, special keys that unlocked some unknown locks, and other objects that obviously meant a great deal to her. And . . . the matchbook. Not a complete book of matches, mind you; rather one side of a solid black paper matchbook where there was an inscription in gold that read:
McCallie at Houston
Close Cover Before Striking Match
On the opposite side this was penned in India ink:
Dec. 15, 1947
Edward L. Benson
Obviously, this was written by my father (he would be appalled that I shared his misspelling of the word “remembers” with you). But the occasion? There is no clue. It could be implied that they met at this downtown Chattanooga restaurant at 5:30 PM on December 15, 1947, but anything beyond that would be conjecture. Clearly, my father thought this meeting would be important to my mother, important enough to remember. But why he wrote the note on the matchbook and not her – that is quite interesting in and of itself.
Your mind can race away with all sorts of scenarios to explain the scant details, but let me state the one most likely (in my estimation). Dad decided to propose marriage to mother on this date. Of course, they did marry on May 24, 1948, five months after this restaurant rendezvous; that much we do know. But that would still not explain why he wrote the note on the matchbook and not her. It makes me wonder if his decision to propose marriage to her was made while they were at the restaurant, and so he quietly penned the note on the matchbook while she was away from the table. Of course, it could have been planned in advance of the dinner date, but . . . likely we shall never know this side of heaven.
Interesting fodder for the history detectives. As I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, real life is more than adequate for engaging the movie buff in us all; each of our lives could be a blockbuster. But what of this note? And why does the finding of this intrigue me to the point that I would write about it for others to read? Remembrances.
Remembrances. The moments of our lives are so fleeting, even the ones we value most, the ones we think we shall never forget. The formative events, the epiphanies of life-changing thoughts, the emotion laden words, the tragedies and the triumphs, the trophies (if you will) of life that we collect and put on our personal mental shelves – they all gather dust . . . and fade. And we are constantly looking for ways to preserve these all-important remembrances, to mark them in time in such a way that we never lose sight of them, but can always refer to them. For it is in these remembrances that we establish who we were, who we are, and (truth be told) who we will be tomorrow.
In ancient Israel they erected a pile of stones as a reminder . . . in modern times we erect a statue, or hang a plaque. These, of course, are for more public remembrances, community memories. In private, we might use the back of a matchbook to mark a date that changes us forever.
And so, as I handle this small scrap of paper that was once a book of matches advertising a restaurant in post-war downtown Chattanooga, I am aware of the fact that I am holding a priceless token, a prized possession defining the lives of two people who are now both departed. Not only am I a recipient of the remnant of paper, but I am also a recipient of the love those two people shared. And so, this portal helps me glimpse my past, my present, and my future.
Tomlinson’s Restaurant (first opened in 1935) was sold in 1972 to Holiday Inn. Its matchbooks can be found for sale on eBay. But the matchbook scrap in my hand is not for sale. It is priceless.