The solid gold box

First published in THIS WEEK, September 15, 1996.

At the wisdom-rich age of four years I went to a place where there was magic. My dad had to ask the mechanic to carefully study the big blue Pontiac to be sure that it was up to the challenge. My mom selected bags full of little toys at the five-and-dime. My older brother, my sisters and I each filled small, almost-identical valises with indispensible childhood valuables. Then the six of us and the blue Pontiac went halfway across the North American continent, with cheap plastic toys distributed at intervals timed to soothe my parents’ mental health.

Mountains, to begin with, are magic if you have never seen more than a small hill rise from the earth. The city of Vancouver was necessarily beyond the real world, because the real world consisted of Minnedosa, Manitoba, and very little else. Freighters and totem poles were previously thought to exist only in picture books. A boat so big that the blue car didn’t have to stay behind like a pet dog when we went on the ocean must, naturally, have throbbed with magic.

In Victoria there was family – my mother’s aunts, uncles and cousins. My rather selective interest focused on my great-uncle. Lawrence McInnes was, and is, a fascinating and kind man. He could fly a plane and sail a ship and dive to the bottom of the sea. He had tattoos just like Popeye.

As you remember your childhood voyages, I remember mine: imperfectly, incompletely, and through frustrating mist. In my memory we were suddenly home again, and my brother received a parcel in the mail.

Receiving mail is in itself special. Only a big brother could have the knack of pulling it off. Only a big brother could receive a parcel from Uncle Lawrence with the Popeye tattoos.

When my brother tore away the brown wrapping paper, he found a cardboard box. The box was gold-coloured, and the lid was maroon. Inside were knickknacks of the sea. A worn envelope held a series of oil paintings of sailing ships, the cheap reproductions you once collected from cigar boxes. There was a twist of blue-and-white cord, some magical sailor’s knot. There were postcards from India, and a photo of my uncle wearing his round diving helmet like the one that Tintin wore when he went to find Red Rackham’s treasure.

Of course, this is not what my brother and I saw. This is not what my uncle wrapped up in brown paper and mailed to Manitoba. It was disguised; carefully and magically shielded from people who acted too much like grownups to be trusted with a great treasure.

When I saw what my uncle sent to my brother I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a solid gold box, with a lid covered in shimmering royal purple. Inside were magic pictures that told stories all by themselves. I stared into the cigar box paintings and saw ships that soared like gulls, with sails so full that they thundered in wind and spray, saw sailors with Popeye tattoos swearing beneath the shelter of the fo’c’s’le. Story after story after story flowed like water from the solid gold box. There got to be so many of them that soon I couldn’t even get them out of my head long enough to sleep at night.

As every four-year-old should when stumbling upon such an uncalled-for thing, I went straight to my dad. I tried to tell my dad the stories, but he wouldn’t believe them. He wouldn’t even listen, after awhile. I then decided that I would write them down, so that they could be like the stories that my mom and dad read to me at bedtime.

I couldn’t write, of course; I was only four years old. I sat on the top step of the basement stairs and used the kitchen floor as a drawing table. I took a sheet of loose-leaf begged from my sister and between the lines painstakingly drew loops that looked, I was certain, exactly like handwriting. I carried the finished story to my dad and showed it to him with all of the pride a four-year-old can muster.

My dad could no more read the story than he could see the solid gold box. He even had to ask me what that was, there on the paper. When I told him he laughed, but that was only because he couldn’t yet read the stories. I decided to keep working at it. I would practise and practise until I knew how to tell my dad those stories.

I’m still working at it.

Maybe my brother still has the solid gold box and the cigar box paintings. I have my own, now. Every morning when breakfast is cleared away I take it from its secret hiding place and reverently remove the velvet-covered lid. Then I patiently wait.

I wait and I wait. Then, yes, I see. There she is now. Just on the horizon. Do you see her? Use the glass, there. I know that ship. She flies black colours, and eyes as cold as death watch you from her bows. Damn me, mate, I know that ship.

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  1. By Bruce Wishart ~ Minnedosa and Facebook on July 27, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    [...] from THIS WEEK—and I’ve gradually posted a few to the Solid Gold Box. These are The Solid Gold Box, Prince Rupert This Week (actually an Iain Lawrence column about reading the Minnedosa Tribune), A [...]

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