Ramona Reeves is a fiction and essay writer living in Texas. Her work has appeared in literary and regional magazines.
I was twelve when my grandmother gave me aprons to start my hope chest—technically, a bottom drawer in my hefty, mahogany dresser and not a chest at all—but by the late 1970s, even in Alabama, the intended purpose of the hope chest had lost ground amid bra burnings and a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. Still, I placed the aprons in the drawer and later added a handmade quilt, picture frames, a palm-size white Bible, and my great-great grandfather’s discharge papers from the Union Army. I hoped for a good-looking spouse, remarkable children, money, and a good education. I hoped for a real career, not one to fall back on. I hoped for travel. Without knowing it, I hoped for choices.
More than twenty-five years later, the night sky is open and free of margins, seeming to stretch forever beyond the suburban trees and streetlights of Austin, Texas. The renovation inside our house is not yet complete, but everything has been carefully planned. My friends have taken my soon-to-be-fiancée to dinner and will be guiding her, yes her, through the house when they return. In each room instructions have been taped to the wall—songs that must be sung, poems that must be read, questions that must be posed—until they reach me on bended knee encircled by a constellation of ivory candles.
She says yes, and for a moment, we are happy. Champagne, laughter, jubilation. We are getting married. Not legally married. In 2005, that isn’t yet possible, but we revel in our make-believe. “Our marriage will be real for us,” we say, adding “for us” to the end of sentences the way we sometimes add “in bed” to Chinese fortunes.
After our friends have gone, we sit silently on the couch and peer out the window to study the fully alive moon, glowing white and golden around the edges. We are planting flags in that distant place: flags of peace, of family acceptance, of what the world calls a normal life. There’s no fanfare, no cameras, but we are venturing from our Apollo for the first time. One giant step.
Almost a year later, in 2006, my fiancée and I fill out our city’s domestic partnership form. It is the closest we can come to obtaining a marriage license before the official ceremony. The document does one thing and one thing only: ensures next of kin status for unmarried partners. It applies only in Austin, since the Texas Legislature at the time has seen fit to invalidate such forms at the state level.
We wear shorts, polo shirts, and flip flops to the city building. Summer scalds the parking lot. The crown of a voluminous tree is reduced to a shadow no larger than a can of spilled soda.
Inside the building of dull stucco walls and government business, a bored clerk with peppery-gray hair slides the form toward us and says, “Fill that out.” We smile at each other. No, the document is not a marriage license, but it binds us in a way that is officially recognized, can be looked up and used in data. We want to be counted and measured. We want to be another statistic.
When we finish filling out the form, we summon the clerk. She dumps the form into a tray and stares at the clock. She pays us no mind as we congratulate each other and quickly kiss.
We celebrate by going across the street to Burger Tex, a local joint that carries its namesake food and two island buffets of cafeteria-style fixings for the most American of sandwiches because now more than ever we feel American. The parking lot is a crush of pickup trucks, some with trailers and landscaping equipment, all with red, white, and blue Texas plates. “Come and take it,” a bumper sticker reads, an allusion to Davy Crockett’s supposed, famous words at the Alamo. Below the words, for emphasis, rests a black cannon.
“Yes,” I say, thinking about our newly signed paper, “Come and take it.”
“Don’t jinx it,” my fiancée replies.
I don’t say anything, but I wonder if her hope of a real marriage is waning. I am, by this time, in my late thirties, but I’ve retained the quilt and the apron my grandmother made, not because I am hoping to find a husband but because the quilt is warm and some notion of family is sewn into its squares.
My fiancée and I don’t hold hands or sit on the same side of the table in Burger Tex, despite the occasion. At some point, I recall the bumper sticker. The patrons of this place have already “come and taken it,” without even trying, but not much later, I decide some customers might have been supportive. I promise to be bolder next time. Next time, for sure.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Feathers never resided in my hope chest, not even goose down, but maybe the idea of flight was there. After all, one purpose of a hope chest was to encourage a young woman to leave her parents’ home in favor of her husband’s—a kind of flight synonymous with escape. The hope chest was both about fleeing and holding on to tradition. Perhaps not only a thing with feathers but a thing with deep-seated roots.
I think of my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, and of Oakleigh, the last of the city’s preserved plantation homes. It resides in a section of town notable for its old high-ceilinged houses and wraparound porches. An official city crest affixed near the front door of each residence proclaims its historical importance. Oakleigh, the grandest of these homes with ties to some Vanderbilt or other, has long been a tourist attraction brimming with antiques. Among other things, the gift shop sells postcard memorabilia, dolls in pinafores, and Southern cookbooks. The house, painted white except for black shutters, is more Bette Davis a la Jezebel than Betty Crocker. Its history, which includes slavery, is not all lazy oaks and pink-budding azaleas.
Betrothed couples often nuzzle at Oakleigh to capture the perfect prenuptial photograph, the one they will paste onto their wedding website. They pose in front of the cylindrical staircase that connects the porch to the veranda and the veranda to the upstairs bedrooms. The couples smile beneath a canopy of live oaks so thick you can almost feel the trees holding hands and pulsing. The oldest of these oaks have seen the buggy give way to the car, the candle to electricity. They’ve survived a civil war and countless hurricanes and thrived even as the world changes. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. Change, the trees might advise, is always coming.
I imagine two women, then two men posing on the steps of Oakleigh, their hearts no less whimsical than the staircase. I imagine many same-sex couples, of all races, claiming ground and telling a new story about this place. We are as much a part of this landscape as the trees. Rooted in change. Green with hope.
Several weeks after filling out the form, we officially exchange vows. Our ceremony overlooks rising bluffs of white-pink limestone and paddle-shaped fronds of cactuses tipped with yellow blooms. Two gay men—one East Coast, one West Coast—walk us down the aisle. We are grateful for our surrogate brothers. Neither my partner’s brother nor her father is attending our nuptials, and my father has long been distant. My partner’s twenty-something son and daughter, two sisters, a brother-in-law, her mother, and even her ex-husband are there. My sole family member is my mother. Being an only child partially accounts for this slim showing. My family’s religious beliefs and my own years of self-imposed hiding account for the rest.
At the time, I suspect my mother is there strictly to save me the embarrassment of having no blood kin at my wedding. Now that more than a decade has passed, I view my mother’s presence as an act of courage for her, just as my ceremony was for me. Far removed from her Bible-study crowd, she had no idea what to expect; she knew only that her one child was getting married.
My best friend Nena, a bi-racial adoptee from the Midwest and makeshift maid of honor, stands beside me at my wedding, though we are hardly maids. On the day before the ceremony, my mother, Nena, and I go to lunch. The conversation turns toward children and parents.
Nena comments, “My mother always said ‘kids just break your heart’.”
“True,” mine replies. “You love them anyway.” She takes a sip of iced tea and looks away.
At that moment, I long for Tyler, my other bridesmaid. Tyler is a punk-rock musician whose escapades include a big-time record deal and cavorting with Mick Jones of The Clash. I can easily envision her dipping a chip into the complimentary red salsa, then stating in her off-handed way, “Yeah, but don’t they say apples fall close to the tree?”
Googling advertisements for Lane’s hope chests produces a 1940s poster that showcases a teenage Shirley Temple endorsing their product. “A million maids yearn for this romantic gift,” the poster exclaims. Its colors are red and bright yellow. A valentine trimmed in white lace surrounds Temple’s head of wavy chestnut hair parted to one side. In the poster she is a young woman. Her dimples are canyons, her skin a Southern California beach. She is the American girl—mind you, the American white girl—and the gold standard by which other girls are judged. The irony is that she needs no hope chest. Her fame and good looks will bring many suitors, too many opportunities to accept, but the idea perhaps is this: If this starlet of the silver screen needs a hope chest, how can you as a Plain Jane afford to do without one?
I try to imagine Billie Jean King or Melissa Etheridge with a cedar chest. I envision them wrapping tennis rackets and small guitars into linens and table runners. The only house they are setting up is their own. Then there’s Gloria Steinem who during her first year as a feminist probably stoked a lovely warm fire with her hope chest on the first cold night. She was done with that kind of hope, but I wonder, did she burn the linens her grandmother embroidered or secretly tuck one into a pocket for sentimental reasons? There’s always a bit of holding on in every act of letting go.
It’s then that I realize my hope chest was probably my mother and grandmother’s hope for me. They hoped I would find a handsome husband who treated me well and that I would raise children who became good citizens. Perhaps their hopes stemmed from the fact that this was not their narrative. Neither had a big wedding, nor did their marriages play out in storybook fashion. Maybe this was true for many women of their generations, more than would care to admit it. And under such circumstances, oddly enough, the hope chest might have represented a woman attaining something better—a big wedding, a long and happy marriage, well-adjusted children—making her female relatives proud she had achieved what they could not, the life popularized in 1950s sitcoms and old Hollywood movies. That their daughter or granddaughter would play an off-stage role in the larger world was understood. After all, the show titled “Leave It to Beaver” was not about empowering girl parts.
Perhaps my sweet grandmother, who began my hope chest and who was a warm yet fierce woman in her own right, was invested in the hope that life turn out more scripted and traditional for me. She seemed to bear a different hope, however, by the time I completed college. “You can still use the items,” she told me, “to set up a house of your own.”
During our honeymoon in 2006, my first partner and I witness ruins in Greece, and then four years later, we witness a different kind of ruin devoid of grandeur or amazement. According to the state of Texas, there was no real marriage, so there is no real divorce, but the financial, emotional, and spiritual impact is real enough.
Cedar does not easily rot, which makes it an excellent choice for fences and decks. My mahogany drawer never stood a chance against cedar, but now, after five decades, my body has become the chest that holds the hope. Not as sturdy as cedar but not as claustrophobic either. This new way of holding hope, which started in my late forties, opened a path for my current partner.
Our first meeting, in 2014, is at a restaurant inside an older brick-faced building in Georgetown, Texas. The scene is this: crown molding the color of an old bathtub accents dark, cherrywood tables, brightened by track lighting and a glistening bamboo floor, not so different from my attempt to put on a fresh exterior in my scoop-necked blouse, wrinkle-reducing makeup, and color-imbibed hair. My date is intelligent, witty, and beautiful in the ways that matter. An immigrant to the U.S. thirteen years earlier from a country where gays and lesbians could still be imprisoned at the time, she is beyond what I hoped for—proving the limitations of hope.
Only months after we meet, a high court rules we are equal citizens under the law. Real wedlock is possible. Receiving a partner’s social security benefits is possible. Adding a partner to my employer’s health insurance is possible. So much is possible, including real divorce.
Seen from a distance, a hope chest might resemble a small pine coffin. The chest is rectangular and intended to seal out moisture and moths. When mentioned in this century, the hope chest evokes a range of responses from derogatory to comic to curious, but rarely do people think of them as deadly.
I once read how two young boys suffocated when they accidentally locked themselves into an old hope chest. I cannot recall whether it held items for a later betrothal, but I shudder at the awful irony of them passing their last terrible moments among embroidered napkins and silverware. Now, I can’t help but think about other lives cut short or confined, literally and figuratively, by an object whose intended purpose was to prepare for the future.
Lane, a shrewd company, also developed a mini-hope chest that could sit on a girl’s dresser. It gave thousands of the mini-chests to entire senior classes of young women, many soon to become brides. By the late 1960s, Lane claimed that two-thirds of all girls owned one of their large or small hope chests.
The company could not have envisioned the current state of these boxes, owned now by both boys and girls, though not in large numbers. The chests’ contemporary purpose has gone beyond marital hopes to include hope for the future in general, a place where children can set aside things for whatever life they imagine. Recalling the boys, I only hope the locks have been removed.
Months after the monumental Supreme Court decision in 2015, I am flipping channels on a Saturday night. I pause upon seeing Shirley Temple. “Do you like her?”
“Surely,” my girlfriend spouts, as though she’s rehearsed this.
The blonde, bouncy-haired ingénue tap-dances across the screen. She smiles and laughs a girlish, cutesy laugh that, if visualized, would be as airy and round as bubbles. Every bit of hope lies ahead of her. In my heart I am smiling and singing along, although I can’t help but wonder if tomorrow will be the day some court rescinds our possibility of real and legal union. At this stage of my life, again more than five decades gone, I know better than to hope for something lasting, and yet my hope grows.
My little girl’s chest is rising and falling when I lay my head on my partner’s shoulder and sigh. We live during an opening in history, and I am working to mirror that opening in me, a release of all the good I have stored up. These days, an old steamer trunk is the closest thing in my house to Lane’s top-selling chest, but I am hopeful that my journey with this woman will be the sound and the smell and the smoothness of cedar.
Through her immigrant’s eyes, I am seeing a new moon and a new sky. We are all searching for these new perspectives, I think, regardless of how we were taught to hope as children or whom we were taught to hope for. In my mind, we stand together at Oakleigh and reclaim that place. I imagine a rainbow of lights dousing the house and a rainbow of people surrounding it. I know much of what the world touts as happiness is a dream, but sometimes there’s an opening for the real thing. As odd as it may seem, given a difficult history and an unpredictable future on so many levels, this is my time to set up house and home because—inside me, inside all of us—there remains something worth saving.