Harmonious Cord

They say every cloud has a silver lining and I have to agree: the loss of a car was a small price to pay for the recovery of the ancestral umbilical cord.

The problem with a 100-year-old umbilical cord is that it looks like a hardened bit of old string. Misplace it in the trunk of your automobile, already littered with the debris of years of hard driving, and it’s gone forever. Or so we thought.

This curious relic came to us from my husband’s side of the family, the Japanese side. The Japanese have a long tradition of saving the umbilical cords of their children as mementos of the happy occasion of birth. My ancestors, Irish and plainspoken, found the actual child memento enough. Nevertheless, when my mother-in-law sent along the umbilical cord of her father, Kutaro, I suppressed my first instinct—to wonder why our friends inherit stocks and bonds while we inherit mummified body parts—and graciously assumed responsibility for protecting the venerable item. In other words, after showing the cord to my delighted husband and children, I quietly put it away in a drawer.

But children never forget, and one day our fourth-grader decided he wanted to take the heirloom to school for cultural heritage day. "I don’t think this is what the teacher had in mind," I told him, but he prevailed, and needless to say, his presentation was a crowd-pleaser—these were 10-year-olds, after all.

The cord gave me the creeps, though, and so for the drive home from school, I consigned it, in its box, to the trunk. Unfortunately, it worked its way free and into some uncharted abyss. Although we searched from time to time over the next few years, we never found it. We began to think of the car as a very large reliquary.

Then a pickup truck blew through a stop sign, totaling our vehicle. I walked away with hardly a scratch and wondered, at that moment, if Kutaro hadn’t somehow extended a measure of paternal protection. I thought with remorse of my neglect of family duty and the fact that the search for the ancestral remains was undoubtedly over.

But what did I know of salvage yards, or the sensitive souls who run them? The proprietor at mine was a friendly fellow who seemed to perceive my dejection. He helped me clear out the car and then watched quietly as I continued to root through an obviously empty trunk. "Was there something else?" he asked delicately. Well, why not? "There’s an old umbilical cord loose in there, and we’ve never been able to find it," I said without elaboration. I must have sounded deranged. And then, here’s the wonderful thing. He didn’t laugh, or ask questions, or slowly back away. He just turned to the trunk and, half a minute later, emerged with the prize. "This is it," he said with the serene assurance of an expert witness schooled in the lore of the ancient cord. I still don’t know how he did it.

I now take my role as the Keeper of the Cord more seriously. I bought a little silver box, placed the relic inside, and put it on the mantel. My husband is pleased. Our guests are puzzled but polite. As for me, I still think about the guy from the salvage yard. He may live on the edge of the Midwestern plains but deep inside him burns the spirit of the East. Perhaps, in some small way, I, too, have been enlightened.

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