What's in a box?

Remembering a life

When is a wooden box not just a wooden box? Provenance adds context, meaning and history to what may seem as an otherwise ordinary object. You may have heard appraisers on the PBS Antiques Road Show add value to an item because of its provenance. This is a verifiable history that links an item with a person or event of note.

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While going to school in Library Science at Pratt Institute in New York City, my late husband, John, was given an enameled copper disc made by a fellow student at Pratt. He decided he wanted to mount it on the top of a wooden box. He did some pre- internet research, aka: the massive New York City yellow pages, which led him to a box maker in lower Manhattan.

He found the classic inner city warehouse, entered and proceeded to the fourth floor in the ancient iron cage elevator. Squeaking to a halt at the uppermost floor, he stepped out into a large open loft filled with sawdust, stacks of wood, and various pieces of machinery. These were all barely illuminated by industrial lighting. He could hear activity in a far corner and found his way through the maze of materials, shelves, cabinets and wood shavings.

Stacks of wooden boxes, in various sizes, were on a workbench where an older man was busy sanding a completed box. He made these custom boxes for jewelers in New York City. John introduced himself and explained his mission. A simple box to feature the four inch enameled disc made by his friend. 

After some discussion, and viewing several options, he chose a plain, dovetailed, cherry wood box of modest size. They agreed on a price and John got ready to go. As the box maker walked with him back to the elevator, the older gentleman mentioned that it was a very special day for him. When John politely inquired, he pulled back his cuff to show a tattoo and said it had been 40 years ago that day that he was let out of Auschwitz. This box was no longer an empty container, it held a wealth of history.

We have passed this box on to John's daughter with the story firmly tucked inside. An otherwise ordinary wooden box, forever linked to a dark past with the added patina of hope, perseverance and a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.

As I write this I am reminded that it is National Holocaust remembrance day. I am sure that the box maker is no longer alive, but his memory will live on and be treasured.

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