The Cardboard Box
Written by
Ann Lineberger
October 2018
Written by
Ann Lineberger
October 2018

The box arrived. It was standard cardboard about two feet tall by two feet wide. It didn’t make it past the foyer for weeks. I could tell the day it appeared that my mother was afraid of it, which made it all the more interesting to me. I was six years old. I was interested in anything that appeared to have power over my power source. 

The box was put in the corner of our foyer. Our address was written on it in the loopy script of my grandmother on my father’s side. Long, full letters written in black ink fountain pen making me remember the flourish of her handwriting. My father had died several weeks before in a home in Alabama that my family once lived in together. His mother lived closest to him.

I wanted to know what was in the box. I offered to open it.

“No,” my mother said hurriedly. She was the single mother of three young children; the man she was reconciling with had just died unexpectedly. She was keeping herself busy, too busy to open a box.

I waited a few days and then asked again, suggesting that I could unpack it as a form of help.

“No,” she snapped as she looked in its direction. “Abbbssooolutely not!”

It was a plain brown box sealed with brown masking tape positioned to the right of the front door in the house in Connecticut where we lived. It arrived and was dropped feet from the front door, released from her hands like poison after noting who sent it.

We passed the box several times a day. It was impossible to avoid. Our only television was in a room off of it, our coats hung in the closet across from it, and it was positioned steps from the powder room and the kitchen. The only more obvious place to leave the box would have been in the middle of our dining room table.

I can’t remember my brother’s reaction to the box, but my sister who is the oldest in our family was as unsettled by it as our mother. Of the three siblings, she had been the closest to our father. There was nothing busy about the way she was coping with his death. It was quite the opposite.

“Please,” I begged our mother. “What if it’s a present for us?”

“It isn’t,” she said flatly and definitively with sadness creeping into her voice. She didn't want to open the box, but she didn't know how to deal with the box. She couldn't even touch it. 

So I started to sit with the box. I leaned against it. I propped my feet on it. I read to it. I put army men on it. I put stuffed animals on it to keep the army men company. I curled around it like a cat when the sun shone into the room.

One day when I found out that a babysitter had been hired to watch me and only me, I plotted the opening of the box. I scouted my favorite hiding places: a corner of the kitchen with an open space, my bedroom closet, the basement, and under the grand piano. I settled on under the piano since it was closest to the foyer and next to a window that offered lots of natural light. My brother’s red Swiss Army Knife would provide the tool I needed.

Once my family was out of the house and the babysitter had settled down to read, I picked up the box, which was surprisingly light and carried it to the piano. I carefully sliced through its brown masking tape, first along both sides and then down the middle, the blade moving through the tape like butter. I snapped the blade shut and then opened the flaps of the box. What I saw was a scattering of newspaper clippings that had been neatly cut. The corners were scotch taped and sticky to the touch. The clippings were photocopies of black and white photography or pen and ink drawings of civil war battles that took place in Alabama. When my father died, he was researching a book during his free time that he planned to write about the civil war. He fell while staying in a hotel near one of the battle sites. That fall led to surgery, which led to a blood clot and sudden death. 

Under the clippings were his unpublished manuscripts neatly stacked in folders. The only one I could appreciate at the time was the children’s rhyming book that he had told us about over the phone and in letters. Its rhymes reminded me of Dr. Seuss, but many of the words were too advanced for me. The book appeared to be written to teach vocabulary to older children. Along with each of the manuscripts was one to two rejection letters from people who work in publishing. The letters were long and thoughtful and personalized. He had received them over many years. He was told he was young and to keep writing. He was told he was talented and to keep writing. He was told his heart was in the right place, and he should be a writer. Our father wanted to focus on civil rights and produce work similar to the journalist and author William Bradford Huey who lived nearby him. Huey was a Southerner fighting racism. Our father did research for Huey on occasion, including when he was writing Three Lives for the Mississippi, the non-fiction book that grew out of an article Huey wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. The book was released a year after the murders, and about twenty years later it was made into the movie Mississippi Burning.

What I found most curious about the box once it was open was the scotch tape on the corners of the clippings. It had not been folded down to prevent the clippings from sticking together or marring the other contents. My first grade teacher always removed or folded down the scotch tape used to hang our drawings before returning them to us. I imagined my grandmother moving quickly through my father’s office, pulling the photocopies that represented his last creative work from the walls and throwing them in a box that she would send away. Her only son was dead at age thirty-seven.

The day we received the call from his mother with the news that our father had died I didn’t know how to feel. Everyone else in my family was crying, but I was six years old and barely knew my father. My parents separated when I was a baby. What I knew of him other than from his phone calls and letters was secondhand and filtered. I wasn’t allowed to visit him as my brother and sister did on occasion or go to his funeral. I was told I was too young.

That box is why I became a writer. Its mystery. Its power. Its demanding deductions. The concept of attempting to hide from something that is in plain sight. It all fascinated me, and I may not have known how to react when my father died, but I was old enough to understand its impact on those around me. With time, I better understood and empathized with my mother and grandmother's choices. The contents of the box filled them with regret and longing. For me, the box revealed a person I should have known intimately but never would in a way that no description could. I admire his continuing to write despite rejection. I admire his focus on civil rights. He was inside that box, and it was a gift. 


If you liked reading this personal essay, please let me know. I'm working on a series of short stories (memoir and fiction) to be published next year and the ones I get positive feedback on will be included.


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please check out my website, She Writes page, novels and follow me on social media: 

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