Someone Else’s Memories

A while back, my sweetheart and I went to a storage locker auction and bought several lockers. Among them was a unit that the proprietor said had been rented for over twenty years, and she had never seen the owners and to her knowledge nothing had ever been removed from it in all this time. Sounds promising, right? Who would pay to keep a storage locker for all of those years if there wasn’t anything valuable in it? Unfortunately for us, the only “treasures” within were purely of sentimental value. There were years and years of school pictures, cards and letters from loved ones, plaques and trophies, and a lot of really crappy furniture in various states of disrepair and disintegration, but nothing of intrinsic worth. Well, unless you count the ceramic unicorn lamp and clock set, complete with silver sparkles and stars and gold fringe on the lampshade; that might be priceless.

As I was sorting through the boxes, hoping against hope that there would be 17th century gold coins or a ten carat diamond ring in one of them, I came across one thing that piqued my interest: A small chalkware figurine.

The figurine was about six-inches long and was of an infant wrapped in a green blanket with a kewpie curled hair-do and face typical of the depression-era. On the back was a yellowed piece of tape, with the words “James Arthur Polk, gift from Martha Gruber, 9/12/29”* written in a neat, cursive script. Though there is a small collectors’ market for antique chalkware figures, there was something about the care with which this item had been labeled that gave it a sentimental aura. I decided to try to find James Arthur Polk.

I got online and found dozens of James Polks and Jim Polks in Texas. I cross-referenced their information against the family information on findagrave.com for Martha Gruber, who was born in 1909 in Waco and whose maiden name was Polk; she appeared to be James’ aunt based on an obituary that had been posted. I looked throughout the listings in the same cemetery, but didn’t see any James Polks buried there. The relationship between aunt and nephew was confirmed when I started a quick family tree on ancestry.com. I discovered a Texas Birth Record that showed that James Polk had been born on September 12, 1929, to Arthur and Gretchen Polk of Waco, and a 1910 Census Record that showed that Arthur Polk and Martha Polk (born 1909) were siblings living in Waco. I saw James’ draft card that listed him as born in 1929 and living in McLennan County during the Korean War. I found listings in several public directories in Dallas over the last three decades, and in the Waco area before that. A newspaper search garnered articles including his wedding announcement from 1950 and others that mentioned him as a real estate developer in the Dallas area. Some of them were quite recent. Could he still be alive?

I started looking at various public directories and narrowed down the options based on his wife’s name and some of the other details I’d read in the older newspaper clippings. I gave the phone numbers to my sweetheart and he dialed the first one. We were lucky as he spoke with the James Arthur Polk on the first try. I was too nervous to call myself, as Mr. Polk had become larger than life in my mind after the investigation that took the better part of the day, but I hung on my sweetheart’s every word.

As he described what we’d found, Mr. Polk confirmed that September 12, 1929, was his birth date and that Martha was his aunt. He said that the handwriting was his mother’s and that he believed the figurine was a gift that she had received on his behalf when he was born. He had been born in the Waco area and now lived in Dallas where he’d retired after a long career; his son (also named James) ran the business now. (Hence the recent references to his name in the newspaper.) Oddly, he didn’t know the people whose names were on the letters and trophies that we’d found in the storage locker. It seems that how the figurine came into their possession will remain a mystery.

We got his address and carefully packaged the figurine and sent it to him. I hoped that we’d hear from him after he received it, but we never did. Still, I pictured him opening the box and carefully unwrapping it. I imagined him gently touching the chalkware with his wizened fingers, and his cloudy eyes brimming with tears as a shock of recognition washed over him seeing his mother’s handwriting. That’s how I’m going to believe this story ends.



*Names and dates have been changed.

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