A Message Box: Objects and Memoirs

Because my father was a farmer, we barely knew what it was to take a vacation. There were crops to tend and livestock to feed, and God forbid our cattle got out of their pasture, as they sometimes did, and we weren’t there to corral them. All through my childhood, I only remember us going on an overnight trip once. We drove up to Springfield, Illinois, to the state fair where my aunt and uncle were camping. We saw a country/western show and slept on the fairgrounds in my uncle’s camper.

The next morning, my father surprised us by suggesting we drive over to Hannibal, Missouri. He knew I was a big Mark Twain fan, and he thought I might enjoy the sights. I remember going through Mark Twain Cave and buying a souvenir in the gift shop. For some reason, I chose a cedar message box to hang on our front door. The box had its own front door that opened beneath a roof peak. “Sorry we missed you,” it said. “Please leave a message.” I have no idea why I chose it, but maybe it had something to do with the pleasant smell of the cedar, or maybe I was fascinated with the replica of a front door that I could open, or maybe I wanted it to be a reminder that at least for these few days we were the sort of family who went on a vacation and left a way for those who came to call while we were gone to leave us a message.

Looking back now, I consider the box an odd purchase for a kid who’d just gone through Mark Twain Cave, but maybe it wasn’t so unusual since I was a boy who watched so many families on television sitcoms, families who routinely went on vacations—to the beach, the mountains, amusement parks, even abroad—and I always sensed my family wasn’t one of those families. Maybe buying that message box and hanging it on the front door of our farmhouse was my way of insisting we were. Maybe it was my way of trying to enter the circle of suburban families who didn’t have the hoof prints of runaway cattle in their yards, or a house with broken plaster and raccoons in the attic, or a pump at the sink, or fuel oil stoves and their fumes, or chamber pots beside their beds so they wouldn’t have to make the trip to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Maybe I wanted to be what television programs told me was normal.

I’m writing about that message box because I don’t really know how to take a vacation. I do it from time to time, and I always enjoy myself, but it’s always hard for me to forget my work and the obligations I have. With Cathy’s help, I’m trying to be better at getting away from things. I meant to make this a short post to say I wasn’t going to do a blog for the next couple of weeks, and here I am writing about that message box and what it meant to me. I’m supposed to hang up my “Gone Fishin’” sign and then disappear until the fifteenth, but like I said, it’s hard for me to stop working.

For those of you who write memoir or personal essays, consider how much mileage you can get from an object that’s lodged itself in your memory. A simple cedar box, for example. Why do you remember it so clearly? What questions does it raise? What other memories does it evoke? What does it have to tell you? Think about your objects. Do a little writing, interrogating, speculating, and thinking on the page, and I’ll see you on the fifteenth. . .if not before.

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