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That Cursed Ruby Box

March 13, 2013

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 1939 – 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.

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From → faith, family, love

90 Comments
  1. Fantastic, sad, funny and heart warming story, more so because it’s true.

  2. Reblogged this on T. W. Dittmer and commented:
    A fascinating and well-written story about family from Victoria Dougherty.

  3. Damn, woman. Nicely done.

  4. Tears in my eyes; the good kind.

  5. madiebeartri permalink

    That was a very heartfelt read. 🙂

  6. Ah, I loved this well told story! It took me back to when I was a boy and would rummage through my own grandmother’s closet. My grandfather’s belongings were in there, such as his old fire fighter helmet. I was his first grandchild and 8 when he died. I always felt so comfortable in that tiny space. Thanks for sharing! My grandma still lives in that house. I may check out the closet next time I visit.

  7. Fantastically written. So glad I read this.

  8. Amazing…Its hard to make me cry but this post did. Thank you for sharing it.

  9. Beautiful writing! Thank you!

  10. What a touching tale. I often feel like my life is cursed I just can’t place it back to one object or event. Glad I came across your blog Love and light to you.

  11. What an amazing story, and beautifully told. Thank you for sharing.

  12. HI Victoria,
    What a great blog. Thanks for sharing this story!

  13. I really enjoyed your blog. It was very powerful. I appreciate the eloquence you used in the descriptions of your families story despite how tragic it was. Thank you for sharing.
    Jenness

  14. Beautiful write, left me glowing and glad I clicked here. ❤

  15. Expressed it so perfectly.

  16. Loved your story. Thanks for sharing it 🙂

  17. “A curse is an enchantment,” so true!!

  18. Personally, I’d be thinking about the box too much. Cute story! 🙂

  19. A Charming story……

  20. My pleasure, Andy.

  21. Hey there! I was Freshly Pressed today too and wanted to stop by. First off, congratulations! Second, this story is heart breaking and warming all at once. Beautifully written.

  22. Arya Ingvorsen permalink

    Touchingly told.

  23. Beautifully written and touching story. Thank you for sharing it., and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Well deserved!

  24. Wonderfully written and the pic very fitting. Love it.

  25. optimisticgladness permalink

    This was really good. At 8 years old, were you just curious about your brother? Did you want to be close to him? Was there an emotional connection?

    • Hi, optimistic – thanks for reading. To answer your question – was I curious about my brother? Somewhat. It was all a bit too nebulous for me at that age. I was more interested in the things in his shrine because they seemed to tell a story. No one would talk about my brother, so the story sort of stopped there. Was there an emotional connection? To be honest, no. He was as distant as the old country. My interest and emotional connection developed through my mother as she and I became close in my adulthood. Families are funny, arent’ they?

      • optimisticgladness permalink

        This is so interesting to me. Thank your your response and sharing this heart felt story.

  26. I love how you can make the idea of a family curse romantic . we also talk of a family curse, maybe oneday I will see one of us break it. Thanks for sharing , I really enjoyed !

  27. Vikas Yadav permalink

    beautiful Post…

  28. My pleasure, Optimistic (I rather like calling you that).

  29. Beautiful writing. Congratulations on being FP.

    • Thank you very much. Please check out the mystery/thriller blog tour I’m hosting on Cold. 6 truly terrific writers will be doing what they do best – write 🙂 It’s flash fiction, so it’ll be a short, fun read.

  30. Umm, I didn’t read the post … AS due to much business, but as soon as I saw the crows image, I shall share with you that Crows seem the gangsters of the bird world. Ever so quiet and conspiring with each other….

  31. Reblogged this on beyondtheflow and commented:
    This is an incredibly moving, tragic story but so beautiful that I had to share it! xx Ro

  32. Fantastic story – I was gripped from the beginning. So glad to have found your site. (via linkedIn bloggers helping bloggers)You are on my feed. BTW I’ve been trying to like your author FB page, but the link on keeps jumping me back to my own FB author page. Any suggestions?

  33. What a powerful and poignant tale. Choosing to be a part of the family and its curse may well have been the healthiest thing you could do to bring resolution to your awkward contribution to your brother’s shrine. And you tell the story so cleanly, and clearly, and with such strength — I am so glad I read this. Thank you!

  34. Reblogged this on Diabetic Redemption and commented:
    This post is a piece of the history of a family, and the things that separate them and bind them together. I was incredibly moved, and I wanted to share it with you.

    • Thank you, Judith. Much, much appreciated. Please check out the mystery/thriller blog tour I’m hosting on Cold, too. 6 top-notch writers doing short, flash fiction.

      • Sounds good — I just got home, so I am only today able to look at notifications. I hope I didn’t miss it! Thanks for the lovely post!

  35. Jessica permalink

    Beautiful. The third paragraph in particular does just a fantastic job of setting the scene, establishing a character, and drawing the reader into the plot line.

  36. seanossu permalink

    Wow, how ignorant am I!? I never read long blog posts as I think “oh, too many words”. I read this post and you had me gripped with such a sad, but warming story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  37. Excellent write Victoria, I needed this today….

  38. Happy to oblige, Gavriel. Hope today is a great one.

  39. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  40. Nice post…loved it!

    • Thanks, Marci – come back for Dead Cold, the mystery/thriller blog tour I’m hosting. 6 fabulous writers, flash fiction and lots of fun. Starts next week, but I’l be talking a bit about it on the blog tomorrow.

  41. Such a gift you have! So very well done… Will be following Dead Cold on a weekly basis.

  42. Jona permalink

    Reblogged this on Live, Laugh, Love.

  43. Děkuji moc! – Prague was March 15, 1939, though. Cheers from cold Berlin. My family hates these corrections based on factual knowledge, I still cannot resist. However the older I get the more I understand it is stories, not facts, helping me to see the leitmotif of history.

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