Old trunk gets chance to finally tell its story

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Being a part-time copy editor here gives me time to do my other writing gig, as a volunteer at the Harvey House Museum where I research and write the stories that go with the exhibits.

Usually these “copy panels” are fairly straight-forward assignments. But an old Harvey House linen trunk was an entirely different story.

Little information came with the Fred Harvey linen trunk when the museum got it this year. It belonged to former Harvey Girl Margaret Nitschke, who died in Phoenix and whose neighbor donated the trunk to the museum.

What intrigued me were shipping stickers on its sides dated Jan. 25, 1945, that showed the trunk had been shipped to M.A. Nitschke, Phoenix, Ariz., from Manzanar War Relocation Camp in California.

Manzanar was one of several prisoner-of-war camps that housed thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, who were rounded up at gunpoint, during World War II. It closed in 1945.

Why was this trunk at Manzanar? And how was Margaret Nitschke connected to it?

Solving this mystery led me in all sorts of directions, from a brief obituary I found online to Manzanar itself. It’s now a National Historic Site and records of all the people who were there are on file.

Margaret’s name wasn’t there. She wasn’t a nurse there, like some had speculated, because all the professionals — doctors, nurses, teachers and so on — were prisoners themselves.

But the park employee suggested the trunk was shipped to her for safe-keeping since many of the prisoners had no homes to return to once they had their freedom.

I wrote the story with the information I had — about how it was a Harvey House linen trunk that somehow ended up at Manzanar and how the rest of the story is a mystery.

The assignment was over but I wasn’t satisfied. There were too many unanswered questions.

I told my friend Ruth Wessels, owner of The Porch, about all the missing pieces to the story and she suggested we open the Akashic Records.

“Akasha” is a Sanskrit word meaning “ether.” The Akashic Records are an energetic imprint of every thought, action, emotion and experience that has ever occurred in time and space. The Bible calls them the Book of Life.

Ruth has been opening these records for about 25 years. It sounded worth a try.

We went to the Harvey House Museum on a quiet day in April and sat next to the trunk. It was on exhibit but we were the only ones in the room.

We each placed a hand on top of the trunk and said the prayers Ruth had brought with her. Then we asked to hear the records.

Ruth began writing short phrases while a dark, cold fear swept over me.

“It’s cold and I’m afraid,” I said and Ruth wrote that down, along with “I see coats and woolen scarves.”

My heart pounded. I felt frightened, rushed. That too went on the paper, next to her words: “sister to friend,” “ancient belongings,” “stillness/quiet,” tea set,” “ritual robes, silk” and “fear of destruction … misunderstanding.”

Our session with the old trunk lasted only a few minutes but much was revealed as Ruth arranged the words, phrases and feelings into a story line.

To begin with, the trunk never belonged to Margaret. It was her friend’s. She and Margaret were Harvey Girls, probably in Los Angeles, where young Japanese women were hired to work in the huge railway station’s lunchroom.

Margaret’s friend took the trunk to an older woman’s home the night before they were taken to Manzanar. The woman had many family heirlooms, passed down generation to generation in Japan, that needed to be hidden.

So the two packed the trunk in the still of the night. They hid old silk robes and china tea sets that were part of family rituals, wrapping them in blankets, coats, shawls and mufflers.

That was the first installment of the trunk’s tale. A few weeks later, we would have the rest.

As soon as we opened the records with our prayers, and asked it if we could learn the whole story — within seconds — I was overcome with sadness, with a heaviness that knocked me down to my knees. When I looked up at Ruth, tears streamed down her cheeks.

The trunk was grieving. The woman who lovingly packed it with her sacred objects never came to get them. She died soon after Manzanar closed.

Her revered objects had remained hidden in the trunk during the entire time she was imprisoned. They remained in the trunk after she died, until someone in Phoenix opened the trunk and gave them away.

It was as if the trunk’s heart was ripped out. Its precious cargo was gone and scattered among people who didn’t know or care what they had.

This happened before Margaret died. It could’ve been Margaret who opened the trunk. We don’t know; that bit of information is still missing.

Even more amazing was how the trunk physically changed. It was hard and cold when I first placed my hand on it. I felt it warming up as Ruth retold its story.

At first, I thought it was my own hand’s warmth I felt, but the trunk was warm every place I touched it.

Then it became lighter, and softer. At one point, it felt like a cloud! Ruth saw it too.

“The trunk is relieved,” she said. “It’s free of all its grief.”

We let go and got up to leave. We turned to look one last time.

“Look, it’s smiling,” Ruth said.

And it was.