By Tracy Gulliver, Becketwood Member
I run the putty knife across the surface, following the grain; careful not to gouge the dark wood. The shellac bubbles up. The blade lifts off a thin film of varnish. Beneath the skin of black patina, walnut grains swirl across the top of my grandmother’s cedar chest. The grandmother I never knew, yet have wondered about so often.
What treasures did she keep in here? What did she hope for her life and her children’s lives?
As I sand the dark brown surface and watch the grain rise like a fingerprint of her life, I wish her words would rise with it.
Did she keep a journal? Did she even have time to sit down and write?
Her silence haunts me.
I know this much about her: She was born in 1894, married at 20. At 21 she gave birth to her first daughter, Eleanor, who lived for three months. At 22 she gave birth to her second girl. Arlene died at four months. When she was 24 her husband Oscar died of tuberculosis. She was left with the dairy farm she had grown up on and inherited. Unable to manage the farm, she left.
Where did she go? How did she survive?
I trace the grain with my finger as it swims across the wood, then suddenly whirlpools into a tight knot. Seven years of her life are missing, unaccounted for in the three-paragraph genealogical account of her life.
Where did she live and work during those years?
An arrow-shaped sticker on the inside of the cover points to the worn felt that lines its edges. It boasts of its Seal Tight lid. “Dustproof. Mothproof. Airtight.” The grain continues to flow across the wood, sometimes falling back on itself, like waves lapping at the shore then receding. We’ve replaced a broken hinge on the cedar chest. Seven years of her life vanished.
In April 1925, at age 31, she married my grandfather. They would live on the farm she had left seven years earlier.
How did they meet? Was theirs a long courtship?
The fine print on the green arrow sticker is so tiny I have to use a magnifying glass to read the words: “Patented Nov. 4, 1924.”
Was this his gift to her? What did she put in it? What did she hope for?
She gave birth to twins, Maurice and Eileen, and another son, Rodney. She had a second set of twins. The boy lived a couple days, the girl, less than a week. They’re buried in the cemetery two miles from the farm. They were never named.
How did she survive so much loss?
One of the original feet of the trunk was missing and another was broken. There was no way to repair them. We replaced them all.
At age 42 this mysterious woman gave birth to her youngest son, my father. She did not name him right away.
Dad claims he was born on the kitchen table. My Aunt Eileen remembers it differently. She recalls being wakened in the middle of the night by strange noises. The next morning, after Grandma and Grandpa called their children into the bedroom and introduced Eileen, Maurice and Rodney to their new brother, Grandma told Eileen to call the aunts and uncles and tell them the news. No one would believe their nine-year-old niece until they came to the house to see for themselves.
I can understand their cynicism. Grandma was a large woman, so it must have been difficult for others to tell that she was pregnant. Maybe she and Grandpa didn’t tell anyone because they didn’t think she’d carry the baby to term. Even if she did, what were the odds that this one would survive?
Maybe my grandparents didn’t name my father right away because of Eleanor, Arlene, and the twins. Given her age and the children she had lost, I can understand their decision.
Her four children who survived infancy would all outlive her. She would see all but my father into adulthood. Six years before I was born she died of cancer at the age of 57.
What was life like for her?
If this hope chest were full of anything I wanted, I would choose journals. Pages and pages of the stories of her life. What she thought, what she lived through, how she coped.
Who was this woman?
The key still rests in the latch. The contents are gone.
What pieces of her do I carry inside me?
I gently sand the inside of the chest to draw out the cedar scent. The sandpaper and wood grain whisper to each other. I strain to hear their secrets; to understand their conversation. All my questions are answered with silence.
Blake, my four-year-old grandson—her great-great grandson—helps me put in the last screw that will hold the lid of my Grandma Peterson’s hope chest in place. I will never know what my grandmother kept in here.
Today the brown, flat-topped chest with its revealed swirls of grain, sits in our bedroom. About knee-high, it doubles as a bench, holding blankets and sweaters. It serves as a hiding place for gifts waiting to be wrapped. Tucked in one corner are some of my journals.
Someday Blake and his cousins may wonder what I kept in here. I will leave them with my words, the fingerprint of my life.