It was 1981 and we had recently moved into our New Orleans home. Brian was almost two and I was heavily pregnant with Sarah. The mailman delivered a large box wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. FRAGILE was written all over the box and the return address revealed the package was from my Aunt Jean, Dad’s sister in Virginia. These were the days when a package in the mail was an event. Amazon, eBay, even computers were years from development, stuff of the next century. We didn’t even have UPS home delivery.
I looked at the box wondering what Aunt Jean was sending me. I carefully opened the box, and started pulling out sheet after sheet of crumpled newspapers. Finally, I reached an object and letting the paper glide through my fingers, gasped. It was an angel, and there were eleven more, one for each month of the year.
Aunt Jean had called me a few months earlier. My beloved grandmother, Mary Belle Frederick Sykes Roudabush, known to her grandchildren as Grandbelle, died in December 1979, while we were living in Singapore. Aunt Jean was selling Grandbelle’s Richmond, Virginia, home and she wanted to make sure that each grandchild had a treasure or two from our grandmother. What did I want?
What did I want? If my Aunt Jean called today with that question my reply would be swift and sure. Photo albums. Letters. Documents. All the items vital to the efforts of the family historian. I would say to Aunt Jean, “Please. I will treasure them, digitize them and share them. All of Grandbelle’s family will know our family history.”
However, in 1981, I was 28 years old, a young mother who had just moved around the world and back. I lived in a hotel room in New Orleans for three months with my husband and a one year old. I was still settling into a new house and a new city. And I was certain there were more moves in my future. My role as the family historian was in the distant future and not even a twinkle in my eyes in 1981.
When my Aunt Jean asked, “What do you want?”- I had to stop and think. I adored Grandbelle and I particularly loved going to her house. These were rare and memorable occasions. Grandbelle’s birthday was January 17 and mine was January 21, and we usually celebrated with birthday dinners at her house. Grandbelle’s dining room is elegant in my childhood memories. She served dinner in the dining room. There was a large table, lit by a crystal chandelier. One wall was a painted built-in sideboard. The bottom cupboards stored all kinds of china and the top open shelves displayed plates, platters and a variety of fascinating ornaments, including a sparkling glass punch bowl. “Please, Aunt Jean, may I have the punch bowl?” There was a long pause at the other end of the line. “Oh Vanessa,” my Aunt Jean explained in her slow Virginia drawl, “I’ve always loved the punch bowl too. I promise that someday it will be yours, but for right now it is on my dining room table. Is there anything else?”
My mind drifted back to the January dinners. The table was covered with a crisp white cloth, beautifully set with china, silver and matching glassware. I believe we even used cloth napkins. I’m sure my mother was beside herself at those dinners, wondering if my brother would break a plate or glass, but I was enchanted. My grandmother was a fine Southern cook, and I especially remember the homemade applesauce and delicious rice pudding. Martha Stewart would have been delighted with my grandmother’s centerpieces. Seasonal objects graced the table. A large china turkey, the punch bowl, and always in December and January, the china angels. There were 12, one for each month, and they captured my girlish imagination.
“Please Aunt Jean, may I have the angels?” “Oh yes,” Aunt Jean quickly replied, “they are yours, honey. I will send them as soon as I can.”
The beloved angels arrived months later. They were intact but showed some sign of wear. Wings were glued on and bits of spaghetti china adorning the dresses were chipped. But the angel faces still shimmered and evoked warm memories of Grandbelle. She loved yard sales and antique stores and I can see her stopping on weekend trips to the river and finding an angel on a front yard table for a quarter. Her collection was probably complete by 1956 when I was a child of three sitting at her dining room table on Williamsburg Road.
The angels moved with me to California in 1985 where they are a treasured and much-loved part of my Christmas decorating. It’s like having a little of Grandbelle with me for Christmas. My Aunt Jean died three years after mailing the angels. I will always be grateful for her love, kindness and thoughtfulness in making certain that a distant granddaughter received a gift from a beloved grandmother.