The second annual “Antiques Depot Writing Contest… with an Antiques Twist” was a great success. We are amazed at the many terrific stories that were submitted by our young authors. Here is this year’s winning story in the Over Twelve age group, submitted by Grace Manning who is “almost 14 years old”. She wrote a fictional biography of a Victorian girl named Kathleen Jenkins, inspired by a Victorian Shell-Covered Box in the form of a Miniature Armoire.
The Hope Chest
By Grace Manning
I stand at the edge of the pier in the pouring rain. My two sisters and my mother stand next to me, squinting into the downpour, hoping to catch a last glimpse of the whaleboat Kathleen as she leaves Nantucket harbor. All I can see of the ship are its great, white sails, like outstretched wings, eager to meet the wind. I can imagine my papa, though, standing at the prow of the boat and tipping his navy blue hat to the nearly invisible onlookers. We stay on the pier until The Kathleen is long out of sight. My mother grabs Olive and Ann by the arms and steers them away from the water. “Come along, now,” she says, in a harsh manner. I smile to myself. This is Mother’s way of hiding her fear and sadness. “Come along, Kathleen!” mother orders. I take one last look at the churning, gray sea and grudgingly follow them.
Papa grew up farming, deep in the countryside of Vermont, so he was no stranger to hardship and physical work. He loved nature and the outdoors but, he was restless on his family’s farm and he longed for adventure. When news of the whaling industry passed through, Papa seized his chance and he left Vermont for Nantucket. He has been a whaler ever since. He used to tell me how much he loved the sea. The rolling motion of the waves, the salty, stale smell that hangs on your clothes. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be,” he would say, his bright blue eyes misty in thought. When I was young I used to sit on his wide lap and pretend his knees were the wooden planks of some huge ship. He would bounce me up and down until I begged for him to stop. When he left on his whaling trips, I would watch the sea for hours, hoping that his boat would reappear.
Mother, on the other hand, has been a lady all her life. She was born to a very wealthy family and grew up in the center of Boston. She’s always been firm about manners and attending her society meetings. She occupies herself with charity work, as ladies of her station must do.
Once we reach our tall, red brick house, Mother shakes the water from her parasol and hands it to Gretchen, our housemaid. Olive and Ann peel off their mackintoshes and simply leave them on the floor, but I hang mine up silently and climb the stairs to my room. Mother always says how important it is for one to have one’s private space, so she insists that each of us have our own room. Olive’s is closest to the staircase, Ann’s is right next to Mother and Papa’s and mine is down the hall a little ways. My room looks out over the bay which is no place I’d like to be today. The whitecaps on top of the waves are enormous and growing every second. A storm is on the way. I can smell dinner wafting up through the floorboards, but my stomach just lurches and I know I couldn’t possibly eat. Instead, I stare out the window and daydream about what Papa will bring back for me. Each trip he takes, Papa brings a souvenir back for each of his daughters and for his wife. Mine sit lined up on the mantel over the fireplace in my room. A piece of whalebone covered with the intricate drawing of a boat: a scrimshaw. A pair of shell earrings woven together with wire. I look sadly at all the treasures my papa has brought back for me over the years.
Every night after dinner, my sisters and I sit in the parlor to study or sew. But tonight, I can’t concentrate on bible verses and when I try to sew a button on my blouse, I prick my finger. Tears well up in my eyes, but I fight them down and hurry up to my room. I dig around in the wooden chest where I keep most of my belongings until I find a small, half-finished jewelry box. I had started making the jewelry box last year, when Mother showed Ann, Olive and I how it was done. My sisters finished theirs but mine never really amounted to anything. I take out the box and turn it over in my hands. I think of my papa, out in the middle of the ocean, maybe in the midst of a whale hunt, or deciding what presents he will bring back for each of us. I carry the jewelry box and a pile of supplies downstairs.
“You’re starting that again?” Olive asks, unable to keep the jeering laugh out of her voice, “You didn’t get very far last time!” I choose to ignore her and instead, I sit at our round dining table and begin to glue a few pieces of wood together. It won’t be a very sturdy box, but it will be a pretty one. Ann’s shadow falls across my face and I look up. In her outstretched hands are a few weather-beaten shells. “Here,” she says softly, “You can glue these around the edges. Papa would like that.” I smile and take them from her. I work on the jewelry box every night for a week. Between going to school and helping mother at home, I write letters to Papa and mail them to whichever place The Kathleen stops at next to get provisions. First the barque stopped at the Western Islands, then at the Peak of Tennereif and then at the coast of Africa. I write to tell him about the goings-on around town and whatever else might be worth talking about. It cheers me up as well as I hope it does him.
I miss you so much already. It’s only been a few weeks, but life just isn’t the same without you. I hope you’ve been busy and that you’ve caught a few whales because the more whales you catch, the sooner you’ll be home. Mother misses you dreadfully, although she never shows it. Olive and Ann do too, but they’re busy with school and friends.I run down to the dock every morning before sunup to see if I can spot any ships on the horizon. I’ve seen quite a few ships, Papa, but none of them were yours.
With love, Kathleen
Months pass and finally, a whole year has gone by since papa left. I’m glad this is Papa’s last journey, for although he loves the adventure of it all, I’d sooner have him safe at home. Besides, Mother thinks Papa is getting too old to be doing such demanding work. Mother keeps all of us busy. I suppose it’s to keep our minds off Papa. I finish the jewelry box and place it in the center of the mantel in my bedroom beside all the other treasures from Papa. It really has turned out quite beautiful. Ann and Olive were clearly jealous when I showed it to them. The box is coated on all sides in yellow paper mâché and mirrors cover the two tiny doors in the front. The bottom drawer is lined with soft, red velvet and shells border the edges. It stands on thick legs so that it doesn’t fall over and the top ends in a glorious arc. Whenever I look at it, I am reminded of Papa.
It’s been two years, now, and there’s no sign of you or The Kathleen. The weather here is awful and Mother says there will be a storm for sure. I pray you’re far enough away that the storm won’t reach you. Ann and Olive hardly ever talk about you anymore. I don’t try to bring you up because that just makes Mother leave the table and Olive shoots me dirty looks. Don’t worry; I’m sure they miss you terribly in their own ways. I’ve been busy making a jewelry box, Papa. You know, the kind all the girls in town like to make for fun. It really is nice looking actually. I finished it last week and it sits patiently, waiting for your return. I still miss you and am thinking of you everyday.
Your daughter, Kathleen
We’re all named after boats. Papa thought of the idea when Olive was born. He wanted to name her after the barque, The Olive Frances, and after that, he decided to name all of his daughters after famous vessels. Ann is named after The Ann Alexander and I’m named after Papa’s last ship, The Kathleen. Mother went along with the plan quite happily, especially since most boats have beautiful names. Papa wasn’t captain of either The Ann Alexander or The Olive Frances for those boats sailed many years before he was born. Today Mother, Olive and Ann went to pick up a new dress for Olive that mother had ordered. I went down to the bay to pick up a few more shells for my jewelry box. A few of the shells that I glued on had fallen off and I needed to replace them. The days are getting shorter and much colder. It has been two years since Papa sailed out of Nantucket harbor and I am becoming steadily more anxious for his return. I can hardly wait to see his weathered, tanned face and his eyes twinkling as he spots us standing on the docks.
I am so, so ready for you to be here again. Mother will make your favorite pumpkin pie and maybe roast turkey, since you’ve missed three thanksgivings. I can’t help hoping that you’ll make it home for Christmas. I don’t know if you’ve been getting my letters, but if you have, please write back. I would so love to hear from you, as would Ann, Olive and Mother. Have you seen any other boats while you’ve been out there on the sea? You’ll be back within the year, won’t you, Papa? We’ll all be terribly worried if you aren’t.
One of our fishing boats sailed into port today. The Edith Rose. I run down to the dock in case the fishermen have news of the whale ship The Kathleen. Olive and Ann come right behind me with Mother close at our heels. At the dock, the fishermen are unloading the fish, but without their usual laughter and rude jokes. Mother warns me not to get too close to the clumsy fishermen, for they could easily drop a box of fish or an anchor. I run right into the scuffle anyway, and call for a man who would tell me of news. The men stop working and look at me with pity. Only one man steps forward. It is Charles Baker who lives on Nantucket when he isn’t out at sea. “Kathleen,” he says gravely, “I don’t know where your father is, but one of the fishermen found this floating off the coast of Barbados.” Charles rummages around in one of the crates for a moment, before producing a piece of splintered wood. He hands it to me and I run my fingers over the faded letters on it. Kathlee. It’s missing the n but there’s no doubt about it. This piece of wood was once part of my father’s ship. I can’t feel anything but the wood under my hand. I stare unseeing up at Charles and then hand the wood back to him. He pushes it gently back at me. “Keep it,” he says and tries to smile. The men begin to work again. Unloading The Edith Rose. I stand in the middle of it all, trapped by thoughts. Ann shakes me out of my stupor. “What are you doing?” she hisses, looking anxiously at the rough men around us. I let her pull me through the crowd to reach mother and Olive standing near the post office. Olive is crying softly into mother’s sleeve. Ann slumps dejectedly against the brick wall and lets her chin fall onto her chest. Mother and I stare at each other for what seems like forever, before she breaks away and we walk slowly home.
Where are you? The Edith Rose came into port today and Charles Baker had a piece of The Kathleen to show me. Are you really shipwrecked? I don’t believe it. You’re a survivor, Papa. And if there’s anyone who deserves to live, it’s you. I’ll never lose hope even if everyone else does. I’m still waiting for you, Papa. We all are.
Instead of mailing this letter, I roll it up neatly and slide it into an empty medicine bottle that I rescued from the trash barrel behind the apothecary’s shop. From the dock, I throw the bottle as far out into the water as I can. I watch it bob away. A tiny speck of brown in an ocean of green and blue. I then stoop down to the dock and pick up the shard of wood that Charles gave to me. I look at it one last time, and then hurl it into the sea.
There was a funeral for you today. Not just for you, of course, but for all the men that were on The Kathleen. Mother, Ann and Olive cried during the ceremony, but I saved my tears for afterwards, when I was alone in my room. What’s funny is that everybody in town believes you’re dead. Not one person hopes that you’re still alive and waiting to be rescued. I don’t show my hope outwardly, but inside I’m hoping, Papa. You have to come back.
I wear a beautiful dress to the funeral although nobody is paying attention to my clothes. Olive and Ann have new dresses, too, but Mother has had hers for a while. I’ve seen it before, hanging in her closet. I know she hoped she would never have the need to wear it. We sit upright in pews that are full to bursting. Even people who didn’t know anyone on The Kathleen are there. A lost whaleboat on Nantucket is no small thing. When the priest begins to speak, men take off their hats and ladies bow their heads in prayer. I dip my head, but I peer out from under my curtain of hair and I watch. I watch tears falling and mouths turning down in agonized and silent screams as the priest begins to talk about each of the men. I listen when Papa’s name is announced. He’s last, because he was the captain.
“We remember Thomas H. Jenkins as one thing in particular. A leader. Many times he has lead men through huge storms and dangerous circumstances. He was a well respected man throughout our community and he will be greatly missed by all.”
Outside the chapel, mother talks quietly with the other women in mourning while Ann, Olive and I stand off to the side. I watch the seagulls circling overhead and take deep breaths of the salty air. Calming myself.
Another boat came in today, but this time, a foreign one. It was called The Borderer. Do you remember this boat, Papa? Because it rescued nearly all of your crew. Not everyone was dead, after all. You weren’t on this boat, Papa. Will you be on the next one? Will there even be a next one? I felt a pang inside when I saw so many wives seeing their husbands and so many children hugging their fathers. There were tears again, but these were happy tears. Mother doesn’t smile anymore, Papa. She has already given up hope. Our house is so quiet, now. Come home, Papa.
My heart leaps when I hear the news that a foreign boat is in the harbor. Perhaps they have news of Papa! We hurry down to the docks to find men from The Kathleen leaping down from the steamer to embrace their family members. Mother’s hand flies up to her mouth and she trembles. I craned my neck as more and more men file off the ship to meet their loved ones. Twenty-eight of my papa’s crewmembers are on the ship and not one of them is Papa. I think we all lost a little hope after that. Mother won’t even look at us anymore. I can’t feel anything. Just a steady numbness that makes me feel quiet inside. I keep writing letters to Papa and throwing them into the sea. That’s how I remind myself of Papa. Right after The Borderer leaves, I carry my jewelry box into the attic and lock it in a chest along with everything else that reminds me of what might have been, should Papa have returned. All the treasures he brought back for me from foreign places, locked in the attic.
Should I give in to everyone who says you’re dead? Should I stop trusting my instincts and just let you go? I tell myself to hold on and to wait. I tell myself that you’ll be home soon. But I’m getting tired of waiting, Papa. I’m not sure that I can convince myself much longer. Half a year has passed since The Borderer brought some of your men home. Are you coming home at all?
Mother sends us back to school. She says we can’t stay home all day and do nothing. I would feel angry if she had said that two years ago, but now I feel nothing but emptiness. So we walk to school and walk home. Hardly talking. I look at my sisters and I remember what they used to look like. So vibrant and alive. Now they just look tired. Like they can’t wait until the end of the day. I suppose I must look like that too. Charles Baker used to stop by almost every day after school with cookies from his wife and cards from his small children, but now my papa is a person from the past. Nothing more than a memory.
I have to think about you hard now, just to remember what you look like. I think I’m forgetting you, Papa. I don’t want to, but it’s hard to remember someone who nobody even mentions anymore. Mother is worried about the money running out. There are no more new dresses or fancy dinners at restaurants. I don’t miss that so much. People look at us differently now. With a sad, soft look in their eyes. They grasp my hands and tell me how truly, truly sorry they are.
I’m down on the beach, looking out into the waves, when something catches my eye. It’s no bigger than my fingertip, but I can tell that it’s headed for Nantucket. The tentative hopefulness that bubbles up in me is warm and unexpected, like an old friend. I wade out into the water until my clothes are soaked through. I can see now that the small speck is a ship. I can see it’s tall masts and it’s white sails like the wings of some great bird. When I can stay no longer on the beach, I rush to the docks. They are desolate, not a single fisherman or whaler is to be seen. When the men come back from voyages, they tend to want to be as far from the water as possible. They prefer to be at home, spending time with their families and getting used to the solidity of land. I can see the ship clearly now and a great weight of disappointment falls into my stomach, replacing the hopefulness. It is not Papa’s ship. It is not The Kathleen. I sink down into a crouch and look at my reflection in the water. A small face stares back at me, whose eyes quickly fill with tears. It hurts to see Papa’s face in my own. I angrily splash my reflection out of the water and get up to leave. The boat is in the harbor. I see the men jumping and hugging each other, so happy to be home again. None of them were really sure that they’d survive the trip at all. Their voices become sharper. “Hey, Jenkins,” a fisherman yells, “ Isn’t that your lass on the docks there?” I lift my face towards the salty spray that the nearing boat flings onto me and I catch the first glimpse of Papa that I have seen in over six years. What comes next is all a blur. Papa crosses the gangplank in three long strides and lifts me in his arms. He hugs me and spins me around and when he finally puts me down, I can see tears in his blue eyes.
“This was your great, great grandmother’s house,” my Mom explains in the car on the way into to town, “She lived here with her Mom and Dad and her two sisters. What were they named, Jack? Something long and fancy.” She pauses for a moment and looks out the window into the pouring rain. “Her Dad was a whaler. Remember? Like from the whaling museum?” My sister Sarah nods furiously, mouth agape. “Anyway,” Mom continues, “They were pretty wealthy and well-known around here. I’ll bet if you mentioned her name to a couple of islanders, they’d recognize her as a friend of their grandparents!”
“What was great, great grandma’s name, Mommy?” Sarah asks.
“Kathleen, honey, her name was Kathleen,”my Mom replies.
The house is damp and a cold when my Dad finally gets the front door open and we pile inside. It’s mostly empty which disappoints Sarah a little. I think she was hoping there would be some paintings or old dolls that the girls used to play with. A grand staircase spirals up to the second floor and I leave my parents and Sarah downstairs, so I can investigate. Mom was right. There were three girls. Each one must’ve had their own bedroom. Lucky. I have to share a bedroom with Sarah back home in New York. The first three rooms are all empty but the fourth has the skeleton of a four-poster bed in it. The view from the fourth bedroom is amazing. My breath catches in my throat when I see it. It’s almost as if I’m flying above the bay. The house is set high on the cliffs so when I look out the window, all I can see is the water below. I rest my elbows on the dusty windowsill and gaze out at the sea. I try to imagine my great, great grandmother looking out this same window, wondering when her Dad will be home. I shake my head and smile at my own craziness.
Mom is buried in boxes and cobwebs when I finally find her up in the attic. It’s more of a crawl-space than an attic, really. “Can you believe this?” she asks, gesturing to the piles of junk around her, “ Kathleen must’ve never thrown anything out!” I nod in wonder and sneeze. “Bless you,” Mom mutters, sticking her entire head in an old box, “You can look around if you want.” I wade over to a corner and spot a big trunk that is half-buried under all the empty boxes and old clothes. It takes awhile for me to pry it open but when I do, I can hardly bear to look in. My eyes water uncontrollably at the dust and scraps of old paper that flutter out. Blindly, I stick my hand into the trunk and grope around until I hit something solid. A box. I pull it out and wipe it off with a corner of my shirt. It’s a small box that looks like it was meant for jewelry but when I pull open one of the tiny drawers, all that’s inside are a few holes and tattered red velvet. The two mirrors on the front are cloudy and battered shells line the edges. The sides are made of some kind of ripped paper and it seems fragile. I gently turn it over. On the bottom, some words are written in a spidery script. Kathleen Jenkins. I can hardly believe my eyes. This box had belonged to my great, great grandmother! I start to yell for my mom, but stop. Somehow, I want to keep this a secret. A secret between me and a young girl named Kathleen Jenkins.
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