Just before I left for college back in 1980, I was packing up my things to decorate my little dorm room, a small space with two daybeds that pulled out from under their padded backrest storage bins to produce a standard twin-size bed. My actual going to college was a big deal for my family. I was the youngest by almost seven years, and my leaving meant empty nesting would begin for my parents. My mother had always worked full time, mostly secretarial work, and my father, though he carried a Master’s degree in Law, for those last six years of his life put his entrepreneurial spirit to the test and worked as a general contractor doing craftsman quality work on residential projects. In other words, he struggled financially. I knew we didn’t have much money; I’d heard the arguments over finances for years from the safety of my corner bedroom. My parents hadn’t stored away college funds, not because they were frivolous with their money; they simply didn’t have it. They lived paycheck to paycheck or more likely paycheck to credit card payment.
If it weren’t for grants, I wouldn’t have been an incoming freshman at Georgia Southern College. But a nearly palpable stigma hung over me. I recall the embarrassment I felt when I had to stand in line beneath the sign with large black letters spelling “FINANCIAL AID.” Thankfully, now that stigma no longer exists, and financial aid is part of the norm. At this point, I wish we had some for our sons, but that is a different story.
As I was preparing to go, my father brought me a gift. He had taken a wooden box about the size of a family Bible, stained it dark walnut, and attached a little brass knob to its cover. Standing the box on its side, the cover slid back and forth in the track like a closet door. Inside, a shelf covered the top corner creating a small safe place for special things, just like my corner bedroom. When I pulled the sliding cover too far, it came out of the track, revealing through the stain an illustration of a boat and the words: George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. Flipped over to hide what it was; stained to become something new; adorned to become usable. Always finding new ways repurpose things, he’d taken something ordinary and made it special just for me.
I kept that box on the shelf over my bed that first year. Daddy also gave me a small hammer with multiple screwdrivers nesting in the handle. I kept the screwdriver and other “living supplies” inside. The dark wooden box went all four years with me to college. Then it went with me to my apartment when my husband and I got married, and on to live in a larger cabinet all these years with the extra special craft supplies inside.
That box and the miniature hammer were the last things my father ever gave me. He died two weeks before Christmas that year.
Today we are packing up my younger son to go to the same college I packed up to go to 34 years ago. I think it’s time to remove those silver and gold spools of thread, the gold rub for frames, the package of earring backs from the jewelry making phase, and pass that special walnut-stained box down to him to put in his dorm room and put extra special things in it and maybe one day pass down to his own child. It’s nothing special, and yet it’s everything special.