Table of Contents
It was my first love letter.
I got a chair, reached up high for my red rose box, and took it down. I opened it, looked at the picture of Mama and Daddy, emptied my pocket of the four seashells I'd been carrying most of the day, put the letter and the shells in the box, decided not to cry on a Saturday night, and wondered what happens to swallowed tears.
I locked the box, put it away, and got undressed. I sank into the tub, put my head under the water, and washed my hair with Ivory soap like Mama used to. The sweetness of the soap, like the smell of perfume, brought a smile to my insides and I thought, Mama wouldn't want me to be a sad girl.
It felt like I was a million miles from Sulphur and crayfish, cotton fields and hand-me-down clothes, a one-room schoolhouse, segregation, and Jim Crow. But I knew one thing. I knew that I would gladly give up this new comfort and freedom to be in my mama's arms, to feel the tenderness in my daddy's touch one more time.
“Delicately and richly drawn.... A quietly touching story of a girl's survival.”
A CORETTA SCOTT KING AWARD HONOR BOOK
OTHER BOOKS YOU MAY ENJOY
I thank God, who always helps me. Special thanks to
Barbara Markowitz, a great agent and good person. She
never stopped believing. Special thanks, also, to Victoria
Wells, Nancy Paulsen, Kathy Dawson, and everyone at
Putnam for their guidance, patience, and clarity.
Published by Penguin Group
Penguin Young Readers Group,
345 Hudson Street, NewYork, NewYork 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell,
Victoria 3124, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcom Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand
Published in the United States of America by G. P. Putnam's Sons,
a division of Penguin Putnam Books forYoung Readers, 2002
Published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers
Text copyright Â© Brenda Woods, 2002
All rights reserved
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS EDITION AS FOLLOWS:
Woods, Brenda (Brenda A.) The red rose box / Brenda Woods.
p. cm. Summary: In 1953, Leah Hopper dreams of leaving the poverty and segregation of her home in
Sulphur, Louisiana, and when Aunt Olivia sends train tickets to Los Angeles as part of her tenth
birthday present, Leah gets a first taste of freedom.
[1. SegregationâFiction. 2. African AmericansâFiction. 3. SistersâFiction. 4. LouisianaâFiction.
5. Los Angeles (Calif.)âFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.W86335 Re 2002 [Fic]âdc21 2001018354
eISBN : 978-1-101-07812-9
To my sons,
Jordan and Elliot
I would always remember my daddy, tall and brown, the tenderness in my mama's touch.
he first thing you need to know about the red rose box is that I wasn't expecting anything. I suppose that's when most good things come, when you're not looking.
It was the middle of June 1953, nearly noon, my tenth birthday. Ruth, my sister, was eight. We were sitting out front, Ruth and I, watching the day go by, when Gramma's gentleman friend, Elijah, drove up. Gramma was sitting in the back of his rusty black truck, her legs dangling. She was holding a big box wrapped in brown paper, and we ran up to her, buzzing like bees around a peach tree in bloom, because we thought our third cousin Lettie had sent us more pralines and plum preserves from New Orleans. Gramma stumbled out of the truck and Elijah drove off, not saying anything, like he usually did. All we saw was his brown hand waving.
Ruth tugged on Gramma's worn yellow skirt and asked, “What you got in there?”
Gramma replied, her tone made snappy by the heat, “Nuthin for you,” so I just stepped aside.
I ran to the screen door, opened it for Gramma, and walked in after her.
Gramma looked around and asked, “Where's your mama?”
“She gone to Lake Charles with Miss Lutherine, shoppin,” I replied. Miss Lutherine was our nosy neighbor.
Gramma sat down and put the box on the front room table. Ruth and I looked and waited. Sweat dripped from Gramma's forehead. She reached in her pocket for her handkerchief, wiped her brow, then the back of her hot, toasted neck, and asked for a cold glass of water. I went to the kitchen because Ruth was too short to reach the faucet and I had longer legs. I filled the glass with water, took two cubes of ice from the icebox, and put them in the glass. The ice crackled, made three pops, and I jumped, startled.
Gramma took the glass from my hand and drank her water slowly like it was a pale green mint julep. I looked at her, then the box, wishing I had four eyes instead of two. She put her glass down, told me to sit next to her, put her hands on my face over my ears, pulled me to her, and kissed my forehead, the way she had a habit of doing to me and Ruth. She said my name twice and it sounded like an echo. “Leah ... Leah, this is for you ... from your aunt Olivia.”
All I knew about Aunt Olivia, Mama's only sister, was that she lived in California and that she and my mama had stopped talking to each other before I was born and that no one mentioned her name in our house unless they wanted to go home hungry or wearing a frown. Once, Olivia had sent me and Ruth a postcard from Paris and we had taped it to the wall inside our closet.
I tore at the paper. There was a cardboard box underneath. A card was taped to it. The card had a picture of a hot air balloon, red and orange, green and yellow, the kind that floats up high in a clear blue sky. It said “Happy Birthday” on the outside and on the inside Olivia had written some words.
Ruth said, “Lemme see,” and stood close to me. Her head touched my shoulder and I smiled at her.
“Dear Leah,” I read. “This is a very special gift. It has a lock and key and it's only for you. One day, you will be a woman, a wonderful woman. This is your box of ...” I didn't know the next word and I asked Gramma for help before I remembered she couldn't read. I tried again. “This is your box of fem-i-ni-ni-ty.” I stopped reading and asked Gramma, “What's femininity?”
She replied, “Somethin inside that makes us difârent from mens, like Eve was dif'rent from Adam.”
I said, “Oh,” and read the next line. “Happy birthday to you. Love, Olivia.”
I put the card down and Gramma told me to open the box. I opened it, pulled out the packing paper, and didn't expect to see what I did. It was a traveling case with a lock and key, but what made it beautiful was that it was covered with red roses. Nobody who lived way out in the country, who walked the dirt roads in Sulphur, Louisiana, like we did, had ever seen anything like this, let alone had one to call their own. I almost didn't want to touch it. So I put it on the table and stared.
Gramma said, “Open it up, girl. Open it up, Leah Jean.”
I put the key in the lock and turned the key and it popped open. Then I looked at Ruth sideways before I lifted the top. If you think the red rose box was something, it's only because you weren't there to see what was in it. In the top of the case there was jewelry. Gramma picked it up in her hands, looked at each piece extra hard, and said, “It ain't real, just costume jewelry, but most folks, even down in New Orleans, would think it is and some would even swear it is.”
It didn't matter to me whether it was real or not. All I knew was that it was pretty and that it belonged to me. There was a string of pearls and two pair of earrings. One pair had a pearl and a ball of what looked like real diamonds. The other had three purple stones set in the middle of yellow metal. Ruth touched them with her hand, and I let her because I loved her and her birthday didn't come until four days after Christmas. So if Olivia was going to send Ruth a box, it probably wasn't coming until then.