It sat in front of the window in my grandmother’s bedroom. As a kid I would plunk into the wide armchair, the one covered in nubby goldenrod fabric, and comb through the piles of correspondence that spilled from every cranny. I loved that desk – the tiny drawers filled with stamps and address labels, erasers and nail files, hair pins and bracelet charms. The secret cubbies and slots for letters and bills and magazine articles clipped from Ladies Home Journal and Redbook.
A few weeks ago, finally fed up with the faux glaze my grandfather had applied to the desk decades prior, I spread drop cloths on the floor, pushed the desk into the middle of the sun room, hauled the can of Behr Cottage White out of the basement and got to work.
Pulling the tiny drawers from their slots, I bent to stack them on the floor. And that’s when I spotted them: two small boxes nestled into the back corner of the desk.
The square box was Tiffany blue, the white one labeled “G. Fox & Co.” On the lid of the white box “Dad’s 1st Communion Beads” was spelled out in my grandfather’s neat penmanship.
I stood in my paint-splotched clothes, Nora Jones crooning on the stereo, and lifted the lid off one box and then the other. Inside each, nestled beneath soft cotton, was a set of delicate black rosary beads. The First Communion beads were once owned by Elbridge DeRusha, my great-grandfather.
Tucked under a second slip of cotton was Elbridge’s obituary on newspaper worn soft and brown, along with that of his wife, Lena, and his son, Roland, my grandfather’s brother.
As I read through their terse obituaries I realized that I don’t know much about Elbridge and Lena. It never occurred to me, for instance, that my great grandfather was born in 1875, just ten years after the end of the Civil War. The yellowed newspaper indicated that Elbridge was born in Vermont – this I knew – but it did not say what he had done for a living. I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever known. It showed that "J" was his middle initial, but it occured to me that I don't even know his middle name.
In fact, I don’t know all that much about my own grandfather, Earl. I do know that he assembled guns for a living at the Springfield Armory. I also know that he doted on my grandmother and made delectable apple pie and loved to read and was good at math. I remember that he took my sister and me to feed the ducks at Forest Park, and sang Michelle My Belle while he flipped pancakes on the griddle.
But what else is there? There must be so much more.
The DeRushas aren’t storytellers. My family doesn’t pass down tales from one generation to the next or sit around the turkey and laugh over remember-whens. Maybe other families do this, but mine does not. My people, it seems, pass like wisps of smoke, leaving nothing but tattered snapshots and obituary clippings.
I wish now I knew more about Elbridge and Lena, and even about Earl, my grandfather. I want the facts, yes, but also the stories, the history and the beginnings, the joys and the sorrows and even the mundane in between. I want to weave them seamlessly into the fabric of my being, and then repeat the stories over and over to my children, so that the stories become part of their fabric, too.
A few days after I discovered the hidden boxes I pushed the freshly painted desk back into its spot beneath Janice’s watercolor. I tucked the brown clippings under the cotton, spiraled bead upon black bead, and rested the crucifixes on top of the coiled strands. I replaced the lids and set the blue and white boxes one atop the other, not back into the deep recesses of the desk where I’d found them, but prominently on the desk shelf.
Those two boxes on the desk will continue to remind me that it’s not too late. After all, there are still stories to tell…and I am still here to tell them.
Do you come from a storytelling family? How do you keep the rich traditions and history of your family alive?
Linking with Jen and the Tuesday sisters: