What was it about this tarnished antique, no bigger than a pocket watch?
- Posted on Aug 28, 2012
Barbara Mills stood before her safety-deposit box at the bank, a small gold case held gently in her hands. She ran her fingertips across the initials engraved on its face: S.L.M. What was it about this tarnished antique, no bigger than a pocket watch? A gentle press on the catch and the top sprung open to reveal a flat, heart-shaped perfume bottle with a glass stopper. Holding it, Barbara felt overcome by a feeling she couldn’t understand. Both great happiness and great sadness at the same time. Joy and sorrow.
The gold case and its hidden bottle had been a nice surprise when Barbara first discovered it on the “Everything Fifty Cents” table at the antique store near her home in Johnson City, Tennessee. It didn’t appear terribly valuable, but she felt drawn to it, powerfully so, as if the gold case might hold a secret bigger than a hint of perfume.
S.L.M. They were the same initials as Barbara’s little daughter, Susan, three years old. Maybe that was why the trinket felt so precious. Susan was too young for perfume, but one day, when she was ready, Barbara decided she would give it to her.
For now, the safety-deposit box would keep it safe. Barbara turned the key and tucked the box away. Her sixteenth birthday, she thought. That’s when I’ll give it to her.
Barbara didn’t think about the perfume case again until two years later. She volunteered one weekend to model for a friend’s fashion show at a dress shop in town. The shop was crowded. Barbara moved to make room for a woman putting on lipstick at the mirror. Her gaze fell on the initials on the woman’s purse. S.L.M.
“Those are my daughter’s initials too,” Barbara said. The women talked, and Barbara mentioned the perfume case. “I’m saving it for her for when she’s older. I couldn’t pass it up at the antique store.”
The woman’s eyes went wide. “Is it a gold case?” she asked. “With a heart-shaped bottle inside?”
Barbara felt an echo of that strange feeling again, sorrow and joy. “How did you know?” she said.
“It was mine once.” The woman’s voice warmed at the memory. “A gift from my father. Seeing my initials engraved made me feel so loved. I lost it in the estate sale after my parents’ death. I hated to think of it out there in the world, unloved by anyone.”
The joy faded from the woman’s face. Happy and sad, thought Barbara. Just like I felt when I first saw it. But she doesn’t have to be sad anymore.
“You must take it back,” Barbara said. “It belongs with you.”
“What’s your little girl like?” the woman asked.
“My Susan is wonderful,” Barbara said. She couldn’t help herself from grinning as she thought of her redheaded daughter with the big brown eyes and unforgettable smile. “She just started kindergarten. She loves horses, bike-riding, her friends at school and her big brother, Brad, most of all. Last night I sent him to his room for playing ball in the house. Susan slipped him notes under the door all night so he wouldn’t feel bad. She always does that. Brad calls them Susie’s love letters.”
The joy on the woman’s face returned. “Your little S.L.M. can keep the case,” the woman said. “It couldn’t have a better home than with a girl like that.”
Barbara was so moved by the encounter that the next day she took Susan to the safety-deposit box to show her the case and tell her the story behind it. “When I’m old enough I’ll love it just as much as that lady did,” Susan vowed. She pulled out the glass stopper and pretended to dab perfume behind her ears.
Barbara could almost see the woman Susan would grow up to become: same thoughtful brown eyes, same radiant smile, ready to take on the world. The case couldn’t have a better home. “For your sweet sixteen, it will be yours,” she promised. Once again Barbara locked the case away for safekeeping.
There it waited, while Susan grew older. At 10 years old, she was a vivacious fifth grader, taking horseback-riding lessons, playing on the tennis team and excelling in school. So her mother was concerned one evening when Susan said she was too tired to do her homework. She realized Susan had been feeling tired a lot lately, and often had headaches. Barbara took her to the doctor, who performed a number of tests. Probably growing pains, she thought, or too many activities.
But when she returned to discuss Susan’s test results, the doctor was grave. “Mrs. Mills,” he said, “we believe that your daughter has a brain tumor.”
Susan faced new rounds of tests, and then a risky surgery. The findings weren’t good. “The tumor is both malignant and inoperable,” the doctor explained. “I’m very, very sorry. I’m afraid we can’t do much for her.”
Barbara’s world seemed to crumble around her. She will never be sixteen, she thought, her heart breaking. But Susan was brave. Barbara marveled at how a girl so young could go on with such devastating news. As long as she had days left, Susan intended to use them.
Barbara took Susan down to the bank. “You’ve grown up so much,” she said to her daughter as she unlocked the safety-deposit box. “I think you’re ready now.”
Susan squeezed the case with excitement. “Can I pick out my own perfume to go inside?”
“Any scent you want,” Barbara said.
Susan showed the prized possession first to her brother, Brad, then to everyone. “When Mom saw my initials on it she knew I was meant to have it,” she told her friends. She dabbed a little perfume behind her ear, for real this time. The doctors and nurses at her treatment sessions admired her spirit and fell in love with her. Everyone loved the little girl with the big brave heart.
Susan died at the age of 13. Barbara felt almost as if she had died with her daughter. Susan had loved her little antique case until the end, often holding it during treatments, yet now the case was only a reminder of sorrow.
Still, Barbara couldn’t bear to part with it. No, not yet. She returned the case to the bank, touching the initials S.L.M. one last time before closing the safety-deposit box, again flooded with that dual emotion, great happiness and great sadness. I’m done with the happiness, she told herself. Now I’m meant to feel the sadness.
The family went on with their lives as best they could. Susan’s big brother, Brad, grew into a man his sister would have been proud of. He graduated from college and became a pharmacist. He dated a number of girls over the years without getting serious. Then one day he told Barbara that he wanted her to meet someone special, a girl named Sara.
Sara was everything Barbara had hoped for her son: strong, good-hearted and loving. Barbara was thrilled when Brad confided he was going to propose, and ecstatic when Sara said yes.
One evening Brad called and described the wedding invitations that he and Sara had ordered. Barbara doodled on a notepad as Brad read off the invitation to her, “…to the wedding of Bradley Mills and Sara Wesley Lincoln. The date is written out underneath.”
Barbara jotted down the names, imagining how the invitations would look: Sara Lincoln. Sara Mills. Sara… “Sara Lincoln Mills!” she cried. “That will be Sara’s name!”
“Of course,” said Brad, puzzled.
The night before her wedding, Sara Lincoln received a gift from Barbara. Something to show her that she was much more than a daughter-in-law; she was a daughter. The perfume case with the heart-shaped bottle. “It’s an antique,” Sara said, turning it over in her hands. “But with my initials! Did you have it engraved?”
Then Barbara told Sara the story, and her heart filled with a now-familiar emotion—great happiness and great sadness mixed together as one. The feeling that she had had when she first held the antique gold case in her hands, the assurance that in our joys we are uplifted and in our sorrows we are comforted, and that always we are held in the most loving hands of all.
This story first appeared in the premiere issue of Mysterious Ways magazine