In the family I grew up in, love was often misplaced, nearly always badly botched, but nevertheless there – taking us from day to day. As a unit, we had every kind of bad luck you can imagine – Nazis, Communists, deaths big and small, petty humiliations and feature film-worthy fiascos. It’s luck so bad my mom actually calls it a curse. She believes that curse started germinating right around 1938 – when Hitler rolled into Prague. My mom curses that day.
But I’m an American. The only member of my family actually born here and raised with the corresponding happy-go-lucky spirit that all of us Americans share to some extent – even the grumpiest of us, the most self-loathing. I guess that’s why my family’s story – from my point of view – didn’t begin with “the curse.” It began with a gold box with a big plastic ruby on it.
My grandparents had a tiny closet in their bedroom when I was growing up – maybe half the size of a shower stall. It was a place I liked to go when nobody was home because I feared I would get in big-ass trouble if I was caught snooping around in it. Not because my grandfather kept dirty magazines there (I wished), but because it was where my brother, Viktor, was kept.
His ashes sat in a dark bronzed metal container on the middle shelf of a metal framed display case, surrounded by things that had meant something to him in his short life – a blue teddy bear roughly the size of a man’s hand, for instance. He was also surrounded by things that meant something to my mother – a yellow vase filled with dried flowers, a small, iron crucifix. I was intrigued by the trinkets and tchotchkes. They seemed to burn with hidden meanings and when no one was around, I would take the tchotchkes down from the case and look at them.
One afternoon sometime after school, my grandmother finally “caught” me. I started explaining and before I knew it I was telling her all about how I’d come up there because I wanted to add something to my brother’s shrine. I was just looking around for a good place to put it, since there was already so much stuff up there, I told her.
“What do you want to put there?” she asked.
“My ruby box.”
A little gold box with a fake ruby on its lid – I used it, quite literally, to hold my fantasies. Maybe it contained a simple bag of wishes on one day, or a hidden message the next. Anyway, I did not want to put my ruby box up there.
“Are you sure?” my grandmother asked. She knew I really liked that box.
“Mm hmm,” I said, praying she’d drop it.
“Ok, then,” she said. “Go get it.”
I went to the bedroom she kept for me in her house and took my ruby box out of my underwear drawer. I put the box right in front of the container with my brother’s ashes.
My grandmother then kissed me and brought me downstairs for some Pepperidge Farm cookies.
I still really wanted my box back – especially when I remembered that I’d left a faux pearl ring in its belly. My only consolation was the tiny tickle of virtuousness I felt about having given up my ruby box for the brother I’d never met. And I guess I also hoped that in a weird way, my gift would forge a connection between me and my mom and my surviving brother that hadn’t existed before, and really wouldn’t until years later when I nearly lost one of my own children. My mom and my oldest brother had gone through Viktor’s death together – and in the old country. They shared that bond. I was born a year after Viktor died, and in Chicago. And despite the shrine in my grandmother’s closet, my brother was hardly ever mentioned and you knew better than to bring him up.
And now he had my ruby box. With my ring in it. Over the days, that thought began to drive my eight year-old mind crazy.
I started sneaking up to the little closet again. I’d pick up my box, open it, put the pearl ring on my finger, then take it off and put the box back. I was terrified that if I actually took the box back into my possession that I’d get cursed somehow. After all, what kind of jerk takes a present back from her dead brother? So, I’d pick it up; put it back. Pick it up; put it back. This went on for a couple of years.
But over time, the box lost its meaning to me and I stopped obsessing about it. I can’t say I forgot about it entirely, but I definitely put it out of my mind for about thirty years. It only came up again because I was going through a pretty horrible time myself after my youngest daughter was born. She was born with cancer and spent the first few months of her existence taking toxic doses of chemo and fighting for her life.
My mom and I got really close then and Viktor stopped being a taboo subject. I’d become a full member of our tribe – the secret initiation being basically a catastrophic curse of an event that had been commonplace for the other members of my family, but had eluded me because I’d lived a very privileged, middle-class American life free of dictators, gulags, political prisons and the resulting havoc they can wreak.
“I remember when you gave Viktor your box,” my mother said, out of the blue. I’d had no idea that she even knew about it, let alone remembered such a thing.
“I didn’t want to,” I told her, and she smiled and said I could take it back if it was that important to me.
“Neh,” I said. “He can keep it.” We both laughed.
Maybe that box was the beginning of my part of our curse. Maybe I should rue the day I ever placed it in my brother’s shrine, tossing my lot in with the rest of my family. But I don’t. Because along with the heartache, and the begging, the sleepless nights and the maddening loss of control that came with my part of the curse, there also appeared a few tiny cells of magic.
Grimm’s fairytales have long told us as much. A curse is an enchantment. It does, after all, take more than a few historical events to transform a run of bad luck into a true curse. It takes something special – like fairy dust or spittle from a gargoyle, if I believed in such things – for a mere awful event to enter the realm of the supernatural. The way it might take a golden box with a plastic ruby to make a family out of a broken band of immigrants.