I knelt down by a woman's fake alligator handbag and opened it. There was a business card in a side pocket from Bella Donna Hair Salon and a cotton handkerchief with the initials JK. My first thought was, Just Kidding. Would we be able to laugh about all this one day?
Everything in our life up until that moment had felt blessed. We had our two lovely daughters and a cozy house on a quiet cul-de-sac about 30 minutes away. On early walks with the dog before I left for school, I could see the stretch of fields rolling out toward the horizon, greeting the morning. The days of my life had unfolded exactly the way they should, like pages in a book. I was certain that life guaranteed us only happiness, yet now it seemed that everything had unraveled all at once.
I thought of the spool on my mother's sewing machine. She'd been a seamstress at a wedding shop, an expert at making each bride's gown a perfect fit. I pictured her hunched over the needle, concentrating, a safety pin in between her full lips, as the thread suddenly ran out and the spool whirled around on itself, jostling and bumping against the metal rod. What would my mother have told me now? She'd lost her husband—my father—when I was four and managed to raise me and put me through school. Sarah, she would have said in her no-nonsense voice, when life throws you a punch, punch back.
"Look at this jewelry box," Andrew said, holding up an elegant white box. "Now this is something I could sell. It's a vintage jewelry box. You don't see things like this anymore."
He made his way toward me and I noticed that his cream-colored shirt—the one I'd bought him a couple of Christmases ago—had a streak of dirt running across it like a railroad track.
"Let's just go," I said, pleading.
"I heard about one guy who made thousands of dollars selling antique jeans," he said cheerfully. "Eventually, this will pay off."
"Eventually," I said, trying to mirror his enthusiasm. "What happened to that job in Sean's company?"
"They're not hiring right now," he said as he reached me. "I don't want to wait for that, Sarah. I want to be able to support you and the girls. I want to support my family."
"But how?" I asked, unable to hide my despondency.
"My father always told me the story about his father and a friend during the Depression," Andrew said. "His friend was a rich kid who refused to work any job because he thought it was beneath him while my grandfather washed dishes and collected milk bottles and did whatever he could to survive. His friend didn't make it but my grandfather did. He saved enough money to go back to the farm and start over."
"He was a tough man," I said, looking up at Andrew. "So are you."
"I'm sorry you sold your necklaces," Andrew said suddenly, staring at the box. "You could have put them in here."
"Those aren't things that matter," I said with conviction.
"But they were your mother's," he said sadly.
"She'd tell me that I don't need a few necklaces to remember her," I replied.
"She would have been proud of you, Sarah," he said.
I turned from Andrew, my eyes welling. I imagined the sun outside, a brilliant golden globe shining over the prairies. Andrew's father and my mother had never met but they both would have been in agreement: Life goes on. Sometimes you have to pick up the pieces and make the most of what you've been given.
"You should take the janitor's job. And I'll clean offices until I find something else," I said, as if I had known the answer all along. "I remember reading in the newspaper about a woman who worked in a cafeteria in a private school. The parents were so snobby to her and then one day she won the lottery! She now has more money than they do, but she's still there because she enjoys being around the kids."
Andrew and I smiled at each other.
"Look at this ballerina," he said, gently opening the box. It was lined in light blue satin that was stained yet still a pearly blue. He turned the key and music began playing. The ballerina was poised with her arms above her head, one leg bent, standing on tiptoe. She turned and turned. The music filled the cluttered room. It filled my heart.
"It's amazing it still works after all these years," Andrew whispered, almost in a trance.
"It is so beautiful," I said just as softly, not wanting to break the spell.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.