In my home office where I work, I'm surrounded by things nautical, medieval, and piratical, items I've collected over the years from antique stores, museum shops, flea markets, and other sources of miscellanea.
On the wall behind me hangs a large ship's wheel, an heirloom from my father who brought it back from a tour of duty in the Far East when I was very young. The shelves to my right support model ships, two flintlock pistols, a bosun's whistle, a powderhorn, an astrolabe, a traverse board, a medieval compass, a couple of hurricane lamps, a brass telescope, an antique lockbox, a pile of coins—some authentic, most not—from various epochs in history, and other mood-setting sundries.
One item on the top shelf, however, seems not to belong in this collection of antiques and reproductions. It's a child's bank. A small treasure chest cast of iron and bearing the stereotypical pirate image—replete with eyepatch—on one side and a skull and crossbones on the other.
Up there on the highest shelf, it seems to wink down upon the room, as if conscious of itself as a cartoon. While the surrounding objects seem deceived by their own illusion of antiquity, this little bank makes no pretense of being real. It is what it is. A toy.
I had a bank exactly like it when I was six. But as a Navy family who moved every couple of years, we tended to pitch things rather than pack and carry, and it disappeared along with the rest of my childhood as I outgrew it.
I realized when I spotted this particular bank in a flea market one day, that it had been my little Russian grandmother who'd introduced me to pirates. She'd given one of these banks to each of her grandchildren for Christmas. That's seven kids, seven pirate treasure chest banks, seven tiny brass locks and keys that really worked, seven metal chests that were buried and unearthed in countless repetitions of pretend pirating.
Not surprising that she would have given us a means to save for a rainy day. Grandma and Grandpa were models of frugality, having supported a family through the Depression by selling eggs at a roadside stand in Minnesota.
They moved to California after the Second World War and bought a modest bungalow, sent two daughters to college, and even bought property in a remote, undeveloped area of the Mojave Desert. One of my earliest memories is the blustery, frigid winter afternoon that my dad helped my grandfather pour the cement foundation to what would become my grandparents' pink stucco house—which is now practically within the city limits of Victorville.
The original house had no indoor plumbing. That was my introduction to outhouses. Grandma's house was also my introduction to rattlesnakes, fool's gold, jackrabbits, horny toads, Joshua trees, roadrunners, .22 rifles, tumbleweeds, lizards, and prickly pear jelly.
The desert was a mysterious, frightful, and wonderful place for a child to visit. My siblings and same-age cousins were taught the proper way to turn over rocks, lest a snake be disturbed underneath. Grandma insisted we always shake out our shoes before we put them on, in case a scorpion had slipped in during the night. And we were taught the dangers of all those holes drilled into the desert sand. Some belonged to benign burrowing creatures like rabbits and chipmunks, but others were rattlesnake dens. Best just to leave them all alone.
Once, we discovered a badger in Grandma's garage. Vicious animal, that was, but we kids managed to capture it in a rainbarrel. What a sight we must have been to the poor thing as we ringed the barrel's opening with our downturned faces, staring and chattering and backing away when it lunged and snarled. Grandma had a fit when she discovered what we'd done. She shooed us back into the safety of the house, then overturned the barrel and ran like hell. The badger was never seen again.
A few years ago, my grandmother set down her memoires and philosophy of life on audio tape, which began, "The main thing is your food." The little house in the desert always smelled of borscht, blinzes, cinnamon pull-apart rolls, stuffed cabbage, sauerkraut, and turtle cookies. There was never a bare larder. Ever.
Garlic was a gift from God, a panacea for a myriad of ailments. So said Prevention Magazine and thus, yea and verily, so it was true. Grandma endeavored to keep her brood healthy with copious servings of garlic-laced Eastern European cuisine and attributed her own sound constitution to garlic supplements.
While Grandma lacked the moral depravity for true piracy, she possessed a gift for acquisition that rivaled Blackbeard's own. When it came to finding treasure among junk—and, OK, junk among junk—Grandma had no equal. I scoured the bins at Goodwill for toys many a Sunday afternoon with Grandma. The stuff wasn't free, but it was damned close. Very near to plunder, actually, to a greedy 10-year-old.
At some point Grandma came into the possession of a scarlet velvet cloth that once draped the altar of a church somewhere. "Holy Holy Holy" had been emblazoned across the red velvet in gold, Old English lettering. Grandma thought the fabric would make a fine cover for an old sofa she had in the enclosed front-porch sitting room. Not wishing to commit sacrilege, however, she removed a few letters from the cloth. For years afterward, countless butts were comforted on the scarlet velvet which read, inexplicably to most, "oly oly oly." Personally, I think she should have taken off the L's too. That way, at least it would have quoted one of her favorite expressions, "oy oy oy".
With water so scarce at her desert home, gardening wasn't an option, so Grandma created a "glass garden," a collection of antique crystal she'd seasoned in the relentless desert sun until the pieces turned violet. The adults always found that more fascinating than I did.
In the 70's the state's aqueduct project went through Grandma's area, and at last there was a steady supply of fresh water. She turned her energies on her bare plot of land, planting trees and shrubs which, upon subsequent visits over the years, I would see grow tall and lush into maturity, surrounding the little pink stucco house like the oasis it was.
It didn't surprise me when my mother phoned me at college with the news that my active grandmother had broken her ankle. "How'd she do that?" I asked.
"Fishing in the aqueduct."
I envisioned the steep slope down to the concrete river, and my bent little grandmother, straw hat on head and pole in hand, scrabbling down to the water, intent on hooking something for dinner. Somehow, it also didn't surprise me when I heard she was fishing again as soon as her ankle healed.
After Grandpa died in 1974, she remained in the desert house for the next 10 years or so, but despite her garlic regimen, time took its toll. At the age of 85, she was forced to surrender her driver's license. The pink stucco house sold to a stranger shortly afterward.
Grandma lived with my aunt in Simi Valley for several years after that, but it became increasingly obvious that she needed more care than a home environment could provide. As fortune would have it, my mother was a nursing home administrator by profession, so Grandma was moved into mom's facility. It wasn't home, but at least a family member was still close by.
By that time I was living in Chicago and able to get home only once a year or so. Each time I saw Grandma, she was a little older, a little more stooped from osteoporosis, a little less positive in her outlook on life, but still as mentally alert as ever.
At the age of 92, Grandma started refusing her meals. That was common, my mother told me. Sometimes the elderly just seem to know when it's time to go, she said, and they begin the process themselves.
Mom phoned again a few weeks later saying I'd better come home if I wanted to see Grandma one more time.
The family convened at the nursing home one Saturday afternoon. My brothers and sister. My cousins—the ones who helped capture the badger—were now grown with kids of their own. The pale, shrunken, near cadaverous figure in the hospital bed bore little resemblance to the vital matriarch I'd always known. We all gathered around Grandma for a final hug and photo, and I did my best impression of normalcy.
I looked into her eyes, once a brilliant blue but now clouded and rheumy and distant, and I wondered if she could see her life passing before her eyes, these hours so near to death. And when she looked at me, did she see a grieving adult at her bedside, or a child returning from another expedition with shoes full of sand and pockets full of fool's gold?
Occasionally I'll stumble across another cast iron treasure chest bank in some flea market or antique store, and I'll always buy it. So far, I've found two others, which I've bestowed upon my two brothers. I've got a sister and three cousins I'm shopping for now.
That's seven kids, seven pirate treasure chest banks, seven tiny brass locks and keys, if I'm really lucky and the bank still has the original hardware.
Sometimes I wonder where my original treasure chest went, what landfill it's now rusting under. But then, I think maybe my parents didn't just throw it away. Maybe our household goods went to charity.
And then I can imagine some small pair of hands rescuing my treasure chest from a bin at Goodwill, playing pirate with it in some backyard, then discarding it for newer toys. It languishes in a closet for years until maternal hands set it on a garage sale table, and canny hands pay a quarter for it and later sell it to an antique dealer for five dollars.
And in amongst the antiques it sits, until this sentimental adult spots it there, smiles, and says, "Hey... I used to have one just like this."