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Bethany's Box

Bethany flopped backwards like a felled tree on her half-made bed. She tilted her head back to see the sunset glowing through upside down trees and illuminating the gathering clouds. Her entire day had been responding to needs, wants, wishes, watch-me’s and demands — all while pining after her unfinished to-do list.

The good parts — she loved the good parts of having a family. Christmas mornings, big Saturday breakfasts, her baby boy’s sloppy kisses, her daughter’s musical giggles, friends over for hot dogs and s’mores around the fire, cheering embarrassingly loud at her older son’s soccer game, and those goofy, little inside jokes with her husband. But lately, life seemed more like a sloppy sandwich with uneven proportions. There was too much mundane in-between. Now that her time was no longer hers alone, there was so much she wanted to do. Mostly, she just wanted to do something, anything, without interruptions.

Her youngest son cried out from the bedroom across the hall. Bethany rolled off the bed and trudged into his room. As she held him, she realized she was still irritated at the recent string of destruction he constantly left in his wake. Feeling slightly guilty, she put him back to bed amidst yowls and kicks and went back to her room, shutting the door against the noise. I’m just going to have to save it all for later. I’ll set aside the things I don’t want touched and try to forget the things I really want to do. Maybe if I’m detached I’ll be less annoyed and life won’t bother me so much. She sat on the side of her bed, considering what she valued most.

There was that gorgeous red and gold timepiece she received from Mom and Dad as a child. For years, it was proudly displayed on her nightstand. Her parents seemed to work a lot in those days, but they were always engaged when they were home — Bethany knew she was important. They valued efficiency and Bethany liked having such a pretty reminder to follow their example.

Bethany glanced down at her sweats, realizing she had no memory of her own mother in sweats. She always had on her elegant, silver wristwatch. Mom would lightly tap it with one dark, red fingernail and remind the family to “make the most of the time!” Bethany made a mental list of unfinished projects and sighed.

Grandma’s cross-stitched bookmark should definitely be tucked away before the kids got their sticky little hands on it again. I need to stop getting angry when they pull it out of a book I can’t finish anyways. At least they’re drawn to books as much as a screen. Bethany slid the bookmark out of her current book, deciding to start over another time. She gathered a few more books to reshelve in the living room. One by one, she reluctantly tucked away interesting titles promising hours of insightful study on theology, parenting, who was responsible for the murder of Cecilia Green, surviving marriage, odd animal friendships, and the lives of Instagram celebrities. She felt a surge of guilt as she realized she preferred these books over her family most days.

Her eyes fell on her old college scrapbook - tucked between giant hardcovers full of thrilling facts like how long a snail could sleep. Oh Jesus, she prayed, I really miss those people. I wish I could take a couple of months off from life and visit everyone. Most had either moved to another state or remained single. Sadly, both ended up equal obstacles. Bethany tenderly pulled the scrapbook out and tucked it under her arm.

Are coffee mugs too silly to put in safekeeping? She had several but knew her favorite was bound to get broken. It was the best at keeping her coffee hot and her morning bright — the only thrilling part of getting out of bed each morning — maybe she should save it for a calmer time. She went to the kitchen and plucked it from the still warm dishwasher.

Returning to her bedroom, she went to her closet and whipped back the hangers holding an increasing amount of workout clothing. I guess they sort of inspire me. Better than wearing too tight jeans. Her eyes found the classy little black dress with the vertical, white band running the length of one side. Surely she’d fit into it again some day. It had been hanging in her closet untouched for so long she was afraid the musty smell was permanent. She added it to the collection in her arms.

Rain ran smooth, clear and fast down her bedroom window. She hadn’t felt smooth or clear OR fast in — who knows how long. Why am I so annoyed? She laid her growing collection on the bed and tried to remember where she’d stashed the empty shoeboxes. Oh right. I moved them to that old trunk in the storage closet. The trunk looked like a relic from the Titanic. It was passed around the family and stopped here after they purchased a larger home. Bethany found the trunk, and rifled through the shoeboxes. She dug deeper, shoving aside musty blankets and crunchy afghans. Aha! Just the right size. But it definitely wasn’t empty. Bethany closed the lid of the trunk and set the shoebox on top. She pulled off the lid and paused, confused.

There sat a century old pocket watch. The gold chain clinked against the box as she lifted it out. She opened it and squinted to read the tiny inscription: You were worth it. With eternal love, Father and Mother. She carefully set the watch aside and pulled out a much newer bookmark. This one was laminated and full of pithy quotes about reading. She smiled as she recognized a favorite. Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life. Bethany reached for a small mass of brown packing paper carefully folded around an old fashioned looking teacup with a large crack from rim to base. Bethany turned it over in her hands and grinned at the apparent attempt to make the crack blend in with the flower motif. Tiny green leaves were painted on both sides of the crack.

She reached back in to the box for what looked like a cleaning rag. She stared as it unfurled into a long black dress with vertical, white bands on both sides. Becky noticed a split in one of the bands. Darn, it’s ripped. But further examination revealed the split was boldy tailored a good foot and a half from the hem. Goodness! Which relative wore this?!

She pulled out the last item - a stack of pictures held together with a single strand of twine. The first few were faded black and whites of people and places unfamiliar to Bethany. They weren’t in any sort of order, and Bethany chuckled at the more recent snapshots of toddlers making faces and teenagers holding palms up to the camera.

Then she saw her.

Bethany sat in silence for so long the ticking of the clock down the hall and the whir of the fan in her son’s bedroom seemed to grow louder. Am I time traveler?

But no, it wasn’t Bethany. The woman in the black dress had the tiniest mole under her left eye. Wait. Is this Great Aunt Laura? Bethany had met her only once —a funny, elderly woman who had been more excited to meet a young Bethany than visa versa. In the photo, Laura looked to be about fifty and wore the black dress with the white bands. Bethany inspected the first photo in the stack more closely. Laura smiled in this one too, albeit younger and thinner, and had on the same dress. Henry, her jolly, faithful husband, had both arms wrapped around her. She looked at the photo of fifty-year-old Laura again. The beauty and confidence in the older Laura’s face and posture belied the added fabric. Henry’s bright smile was unchanged. A thin sheet of lined paper fell from the stack of photos. The cursive was elegant - the kind of handwriting not seen anymore.

Helen, I tried to pick my favorites, but while there are just too many, the candid ones

really are the best. They are a bit random, but all the best moments are, right?

With great love, Laura

There was a theme in the photos Bethany couldn’t quite put her finger on. She jumped as her youngest cried out from a nightmare. She didn’t roll her eyes this time and dashed down the hall into his room. She picked him up and buried her face in his neck. Was she missing it? A tear rolled down her cheek and she suddenly remembered something she used to ponder in her younger years. Bethany laid her son down, and went back to her old college scrapbook. Underneath her best friend’s picture from junior year was a poem she’d written for Bethany:

I don’t believe that we’re what we seem.

But is it worth time to learn to swim upstream?

Cause at the end of the day, can I really say that I’ve given away

All the love poured out, poured out on me.

Bethany put everything back in the shoebox and slowly carried it with her into the kitchen. She filled the tea kettle with hot water, and stood still. The dishwasher was open and she noticed just how colorful everything was in there. Little metal clangs sounded from the dryer’s one hundredth load of adorable onesies. She looked down at a little whimsical, wooden frog just begging to be tripped over. Was it today that her daughter had that laughing attack pulling it around the house as it chomped at her heels? Bethany carried her tea down the hall, soaking in the family photos on the wall. She knew what each unique expression meant. She smiled ruefully at the bright orange soccer ball parked near her oldest son’s bedroom door. I wish I had half the discipline and drive he has in that game. I’ll ask him to teach me some footwork tomorrow. He’ll be thrilled. Tomorrow suddenly seemed oddly exciting.

Her husband was sitting in bed by the time she returned. Bethany resisted the urge to check her phone on the bedside table. The surprise in his face made her eyes water with shame. Great Uncle Henry looked really happy in those pictures. Would my husband look the same?

This. This was important. He was important. Those precious kids were important. Clutching time and energy to her chest only made her increasingly irritable. Her world seemed to shrink the more she clutched. In her mind, she stretched her hands wide, releasing her time and unimportant things to the Lord, and remembered the Scripture nagging her heart all week:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21

{This story was submitted to the Unpublished Short Story portion of the 2019 Oregon Christian Writers' Cascade Contest where it became a finalist.}


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