THE BLOG

Magic in Yiayia's Steamer Trunk

It was painted in battleship grey so many times, whenever a layer chipped, you'd be able to see the next layer of slightly-more-faded grey underneath. Its inner shelves were long gone. The inside was decorated in tacky wallpaper, and the outside was battered and bruised. If you propped it up against the basement wall and put cushions on it, you had the perfect reading bench. If it was placed in the middle of the floor and covered with a board and tablecloth, it served as a sturdy, short buffet table for summer snacks. When it was damaged beyond repair, I still kept pieces of it for memories. Even today, I can't get rid of it completely -- not when there was so much magic inside it.

You see, inside Yiayia's steamer trunk, the one she brought with her when she arrived in the United States for the first time over a century ago, were the most enchanted things. When I was a girl, we never bought Halloween costumes. We'd just open the trunk to find our inspiration.

Yiayia was a young girl left behind with her grandfather when her parents and some of her siblings emigrated. After her grandfather remarried and had a son, she decided to join her family here. Reluctantly, her grandfather bought her ticket. There was no gathering on the steerage deck for my aristocratic Yiayia, nor did she come through Ellis Island. She traveled by ship First Class, and arrived in Boston with her steamer trunk, packed with a complete inventory -- linens, household items, personal gifts, jewelry, and a dowry for her future. When she arrived in Massachusetts however, her father immediately confiscated the contents of the trunk and gave them to her older sister, his favorite daughter, elated he'd gotten one over on his hated father-in-law, no matter how it affected his younger daughter.

Yiayia never liked her sister after that, nor was she too thrilled with her father either, even though he let Yiayia keep the trunk and she brought it with her when she married and moved.

Throughout the years, that trunk held a wide range of items, not just her children's belongings, but whiskey and wine bottles she made and sold to the neighborhood police during Prohibition, important papers, the flag from my father's coffin, and much more. Eventually, Yiayia turned it into a giant costume and dress-up box. Whenever any of us -- Yiayia, my mom, my uncle, or I -- saw something cool that could be used for a costume, be it jewelry, old clothes, toys, caps, hats, ace bandages, outerwear, capes, even decorations, we'd bring it home and pop it into the trunk.

Then at Halloween, we used these things to create all sorts of costumes. Long strips of cloth, ace bandages, and muslin created my uncle's head-to-toe mummy costume. A black dress decorated with some assorted curtain fringe, coupled with long strands of fake pearls and a New Year's tiara, served as a flapper outfit for my mother. Yiayia's favorite velvet beret and a black dress made a stylish witch's costume.

But my favorite and most unusual costume that came out of that steamer trunk was made from a couple shirts, a cap, and a broken toy. My best friend had created hers too, and we were looking forward to going out together, as we did every year. Unfortunately, she became sick on the special night, so I was determined to get candy for her as well. I remember that night, the sound of dried fallen leaves crunching beneath my feet, the dark of the moonlit night, my uncle waiting patiently at the end of each walkway, as I trudged up to ring the bell or knock and holler, "trick or treat!"

I remember quite vividly the looks on several faces as they answered their doors to an eight-year-old race-horse jockey, dressed in large-sized breeches and silks that were once two old blouses cut and sewn together in garish, contrasting colors. I held two bags open and explained carefully and timidly that my friend had come down with something, I don't remember what, and couldn't go outside, so I had to ride alone. Because I was juggling the two bags, I had tucked the horse head, which had once been a hobbyhorse that had lost its stick, into my waistband, where it kept staring at everyone with its black beady eyes, looking menacing.

I'm guessing I got the extra treats because they were amused, or at the very least, bemused.

Another Halloween, I used the trunk to create a Bride of Dracula costume. An old satin wedding dress, some fake blood, store-bought wax fangs, and a short, red cloak made me feel quite grown up and very cool. This was way before helicopter parenting, so I went out with just my friends. After a very successful haul, and a spooky and fun walk home, I joined the party in progress at my house.

On the steamer trunk were trophies and prizes for best costumes. They surrounded the Cauldron of Spirits -- a punch bowl rigged with dry ice that spewed mist all over. After everyone voted, my uncle awarded the prizes. I won for bed kid's costume. To be fair, I was the only 11-year-old kid there, but the costume was awesome anyway. I lost out for Best Costume to a relative who had borrowed my grandmother's battleship grey paint and came dressed as an outhouse. He looked odd, with his half- moon slit, toilet paper roll and working door, standing next to the steamer trunk to get his prize. Since they were the same color, he looked like a two-story building with a head sticking out, but no one could deny he had the best costume. After that, I went to bed, and fell asleep listening to the sounds of music and laughter.

The contents of the trunk changed over the years. After I grew up and Yiayia passed on, my mother used the trunk to store my old christening gown, her wedding dress, and my father's flag. It stayed in the basement and maintained its place of honor along the wall. The battleship grey paint faded and the wallpaper inside peeled, but whenever you went downstairs there it was - a gentle reminder of things long past.

At least, it was until May of this year. That's when the local utility company placed their pole in the middle of the house's sewer line and flooded our basement with sewage for nearly a month.

The poor old trunk couldn't take the water and the muck, and it quickly fell apart.

I salvaged what few pieces I could, determined to hold on somehow to the magic that was once inside.

I think I'll go downstairs to our musty basement, gather up those little remnants of the trunk, and see if there's something I can make from them. A table decoration, or a wall sculpture, or something.

And I'll paint it battleship grey.

After all, Halloween is coming...

And I'm certain there's still a little magic left...