Open The Box

JIm Marsh of the band, Mom's Chili Boys, tuning up for rehearsal.

JIm Marsh of the band, Mom’s Chili Boys, tuning up for rehearsal.

It is often the simplest of actions that rock the world. I had one of those moments yesterday. It was a threshold moment. Its power took me by surprise. It changed me and all I did was open a box.

We flew to California to work on a play. I’ve worked on dozens of plays and performance pieces in my life but this one is special because it’s not an abstraction. It’s not a made-up story. I’ve lived it and lived with it for nearly a decade. The event, the catalyst of the play was the discovery of a box, a time capsule plastered into the walls of a ranch house over 130 years ago. Tom found the box. It held the possessions of an ancestor, a small boy who died in 1885. The boy’s mother, Isabelle, put his clothes and toys in a small trunk, wrote notes, some brief anecdotes about the boy, and then hid the box in the walls of the house.

Nearly ten years ago, we began creating the play when, late one night during a visit to the ranch, Tom asked me to help him. He asked, “What am I supposed to do with this box?” At first, much of the body of the play amounted to organized transcription. During each visit I recorded hours of conversation with Tom, hours of late night storytelling, and then flew home and transcribed the recordings. I wanted to catch the cadence of Tom’s vocal patterns. I wanted to catch the rhythms of his extraordinary voice and gift of storytelling. The play was his to perform; my work was simply to craft it, to draw a clear story-path for him to follow. The play, a one-man show, was ready for production when Tom’s health failed. He died a year ago.

During Tom’s decline I rewrote the play so that I might narrate the story and added another character to the piece. The Chili Boys had a battery of new music for the play so we gathered in Stockton to integrate the new music with the new text.

When we arrived in California, we visited Tom’s widow, Marcia. She gave us the trunk so we might photograph the clothes, toys, and notes. I’d seen the artifacts many, many times. Tom and I wiled away many nights unpacking the box and reading the notes, talking about his family stories. When our rehearsals were finished, sitting with Kerri and Jim moments before driving back to the airport for our return flight, we decided to open the trunk. Kerri had never seen the artifacts. As I lifted the lid, as I opened the trunk, I realized it was the first time; Tom had always opened the box. Tom had always reached inside, removed the shoes, the tattered coat, the hobby horse, the diary that contained the tracking notes of a fever that killed the boy. This boy was not fiction. Tom would say, “Look at this. Look at what she wrote on this.”

I opened the lid, for the first time, reaching inside, pulling out the shoes, the jumping jack, saying, “Do you see this? Someone must have made it for Johnny. And here, this is the notebook that Isabelle kept of Johnny’s fever. Look at what she wrote.”

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