In Japan, where I grew up, tea boxes are used for storage. Though you may be imagining small, decorated containers—which do exist in abundance there—these boxes are generally two feet long, a foot high, made of sturdy wood, and lined with tin. The metal lining keeps the contents moisture free, making it ideal for storage
Over our many years in Tokyo, my mother collected several of these and put them to good use. And when my parents eventually moved back to the U.S., they came along. In their large, lovely home in Colorado they had a well-organized storage room, and behind the more accessible and recognizable items like Christmas wreaths and Easter baskets, the tea boxes stood silently, stacked against the past, waiting for the future.
My parents passed on a few years ago, and my sister and I spent months sorting through multitudes of their various collections. But a couple of unopened boxes had made their way to my house and had been waiting in our own storage room. I didn’t know exactly what was in them. I did know I should go through them, but kept putting it off. Finally my husband carried one heavy container and placed it on the floor in front of the television. Though it wasn’t tall enough to obscure our viewing, it was an obstruction demanding attention. So at last, reluctantly, I asked him to help me lift the lid.
The moment I did, I burst into tears. I was startled at my own reaction, which happened utterly without warning. My husband turned off the TV and sat near me on the floor. When I calmed down he asked quietly, “What was that about?”
In the top of the box was a small plastic bag with baby clothes. The clothing had, of course, been mine—things I wore at ages one and two. They were lovingly laundered and folded in the ways only mothers and grandmothers do. I could feel my mother’s hands, the last to have touched these garments. And for just a few moments, I could feel her presence and sense her feelings at the joy of dressing her very own baby girl. The sensation passed, but I felt the privilege of having been one of the humans born to parents who wanted and welcomed their children, then spent their lifetimes as devoted parents. Given the heart-breaking and desperate situations many parents face, this was a sobering as well as an inspiring experience.
As I began lifting other treasures out of the box, it turned out these were the dolls of my childhood. Here were baby-dolls and little-girl dolls, once as real to me as my human friends. How patiently they’d waited in their dark enclosure, and how eagerly they seemed to enjoy being resurrected.
The next layer down in this archeological dig brought me to the international community of dolls who inhabited my childhood room. This makes sense, since I attended a school with more than 40 nationalities represented among the students, a cherished experience I wish more children could have.
As these beauties came to light, I marveled at their costumes and poses: the dancer from India with her silken sari holding aloft her finger cymbals; the Flamenco dancer from Spain with her castanets; the Jamaican with her colorful beads and head wrap, her shining dark skin and flashing dark eyes (yes, her lids close when you tilt her back.) Then there were the farm girls: the Russian with her head scarf, the milk-pail toting daughter from the Swiss Alps, the Japanese rice-paddy girl holding on her head a curved basket of flowers.
Finally, in the bottom of the box, were the carefully wrapped music boxes. The tiny brass bejeweled one that plays a classical tune; the wooden water-wheel one that plays a classic Japanese tune, the stuffed doggie one that holds a heart and plays the song “You Are Always In My Heart”. I remember falling asleep to each of these melodies, deriving such comfort from the peace and harmony of their music.
There were several other treasures: elegant shuttlecock paddles with embroidered Kabuki faces on one side; a memo notebook from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; a papier-mâché Japanese cow with a swinging head; a tiny turtle made of shells; the coverlet and pillow from a dolly bed. There are still some tots in my extended family, and they will likely be the surprised recipients of some unusual international gifts from Santa this year. But many of the dollies will likely be headed to their final resting places, so they can begin their journey to doll heaven.
I hope, when I get there, they’ll be waiting for me once again. They were, and always will be, among my most trusted and trustworthy companions.