The Desk

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:


 
And with Emily for Imperfect Prose on Thursdays:
 

Heidiopia  – (March 29, 2011 at 5:31 AM)  

Don't you love discoveries like this? The ones that spark a new quest, that are just the tip of the ice berg? And in your case, the beginning of a journey for your personal history. Enjoy!!
PS-- adore the Polish pottery pieces. :) xoxo

Catherine West  – (March 29, 2011 at 5:43 AM)  

What a cool story Michelle! My mom told stories of her childhood in South Africa a lot. My dad not so much, but I got his stories from my Grandmother. I love history, especially family history.

Christine  – (March 29, 2011 at 6:26 AM)  

This post is pure magic. I loved every word. And I have a desk just like that, though it holds less in the way of memories, memories that I too wish I had. Stories that I wish had been passed down. You've inspired me to find more time to sit with my grandmother, to hold on to what she can tell me while there is time.

V.V. Denman  – (March 29, 2011 at 7:01 AM)  

I absolutely love your desk and your story. It's magical. Thank you for sharing it with us. May you continue to get inspiration. :)

Debbie  – (March 29, 2011 at 7:16 AM)  

Oh, how I love this! I'm joining at Jen's Finding Heaven today. I love the Spirit that I already feel from the sisterhood she has gathered there.

I do come from a family of story tellers, but just like your story here, there are so many wonderful characters who fell through the cracks and never had their story told.

Gaby  – (March 29, 2011 at 7:41 AM)  

I have a grandmother with a "magic" drawer all the grandkids want to inherit just so we can rummage through it freely. What a sweet story!

Jen  – (March 29, 2011 at 8:07 AM)  

I loved to sit at my grandmother's feet when she told me about her growing up and then, raising kids, and then, raising kids without a husband (who died when my dad was nine). There is something so magical about receiving a story, someway connecting with a past that isn't yours, but still kind of, is.

Graceful Moments  – (March 29, 2011 at 8:17 AM)  

You made my eyes leak. I do come from a story-telling family and am very thankful for that. I am the family historian but often wonder, "Why am I doing all this---compiling endless facts, documents, mementos, photos, poems, cards and even love letters? Does anyone even care?" Then I will get a call from a grand niece who wants to come "hang out" with me and find out more about the family. It makes it all worthwhile. I do it to give our family its roots, so that they know who their people were. Sometimes it helps explain a character trait or a talent and a connection is formed and sometimes lives are even changed by it. Thanks so much for sharing this touching story.

Andrea  – (March 29, 2011 at 8:24 AM)  

I. love. this. I have old letters from my great-aunts, all the stories of after they immigrated here with their parents. The history and stories that continue to be told, faith prayed for and seen...it's so powerful.

And i love the desk. LOVE.

Linda  – (March 29, 2011 at 8:38 AM)  

What a delightful read! I found your blog by clicking over from Diedra's "Jumping Tandem."

I am my generation's family historian and your story thrills me. I've had similar moments and what a thrill they are.

For about 5 years I've taught memoir classes based on Deuteronomy 4:9 (and similar verses in Deut 6 and other Bible verses) that tell us to always remember what we've seen God do for us, and to be sure to tell our children and grandchildren!

I think you have some very important stories to write down for your kids and grandkids!

Linda Thomas

Leslie  – (March 29, 2011 at 9:00 AM)  

Yes, my dad and mom were/are great storytellers. My dad's family too, but not my mom's - at least not her immediate family. I think she started the tradition on her side. As you are beginning with your family. Such a wonderful discovery in the recesses of that desk!

Keli Gwyn  – (March 29, 2011 at 9:05 AM)  

What a lovely post, Michelle. The desk itself is beautiful, but the mementos and memories it contained are priceless treasures. May they serve as inspiration for countless stories.

Jodi  – (March 29, 2011 at 11:36 AM)  

I agree, the desk is beautiful, Michelle. My son is the family historian. With a few scraps of information provided by my mom, he was able to find heaps of history on my mother's side of the family. It's his gifting. He now works as an adjunct history professor.

Laura@OutnumberedMom  – (March 29, 2011 at 3:35 PM)  

What a neat discovery. Oh, we are definitely storytellers - with a dramatic flair! Tell those stories, Michelle...preserve them, pass them along, enjoy them.

A lovely post.

I Live in an Antbed  – (March 29, 2011 at 3:43 PM)  

This is beautiful! What amazing treasures you found. You are changing things by being the storyteller. And we get to listen. Thank you, sweet Michelle.

I collect Polish pottery, too!!! I just like more and more about you. :)

Tiffini  – (March 29, 2011 at 4:03 PM)  

love this... After all, there are still stories to tell…and I am still here to tell them.

for the love of story and weaving that into the fabric of our families so that long after we're gone they can still be told...
xo

Abby  – (March 29, 2011 at 4:14 PM)  

'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.'

this part stopped my heart--gorgeous...i do come from storytellers, on both sides, actually, but especially my mom's. And with her gone, her and her family's legacy seems all the more important to me...a couple of my aunts have many notes and stories and I have talked with the eldest aunt (1st of 11 children) and we have dreamt together of weaving these together for our family. My grandparents, in many ways, purposed afresh in their generation to put away the dark secrets and dysfunction and bear many children that would live faithfully in this world...we all fear it is being lost in the generations coming and want to preserve the legacy for them/us...call us all to this as a part of the Great Story over all time He is weaving:)

Jennifer  – (March 29, 2011 at 4:47 PM)  

Michelle, what a beautiful desk and beautiful words! My family is the family of storytellers. They are not very good about recording details, but I feel like I know what my grandfather was like based on stories like the one my dad told me about the time he (my dad) stole an orange from a fruit stand and got caught by his dad.

However, my husband's family doesn't share many details about their lives. I had a hard time giving my son his father's middle name which started with my husband's grandfather because no one could tell me anything about him except that he died rather young. I gave in because I do know about my husband, obviously, and his father, and they're good men, but it bothers me that I can't share any stories with our kids that go any farther back.

Matt's side of the family does take pictures and actually puts them in albums, too, so they beat my side there! :)

Tana Adams  – (March 29, 2011 at 5:27 PM)  

Oh I love this. I bought a used bible once and found a whole treasure inside it (of the newspaper clipping variety) of course the bible in and of itself is a treasure. Love that desk.

Kristy  – (March 29, 2011 at 7:50 PM)  

I love how the pictures started out as wide shots and then got closer and closer. My mom and I go through old pictures together and jewlry. We used to go through the hope chest together, but now I own the hope chest. Someday, my son and I will sit and look through the things in there.

stephanie  – (March 29, 2011 at 9:17 PM)  

How cool is this! What treasures!!!

Sandfra Heska King  – (March 29, 2011 at 9:59 PM)  

Oh my word. I was so excited. So I can imagine how excited you were.

My mother-in-law left tons of albums. Lots of family stories from my husband's side. A real sense of history and belonging. I'm working on my own family now.

I still have chills. I have dreams of finding family treasures in old houses.

S. Etole  – (March 29, 2011 at 10:20 PM)  

My grandfather had an old roll-top desk that held so many mysteries when I was a small child. What a treasure you found in yours.

Brian Miller  – (March 30, 2011 at 9:00 PM)  

how cool is that...a little piece of the past reaching forward to touch you...big smiles.

Joybird  – (March 31, 2011 at 12:18 AM)  

"My people, it seems, pass like wisps of smoke, leaving nothing but tattered snapshots and obituary clippings."

Beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking to a storyteller from long lines of storytellers. I remember being a preschooler and asking my mom "tell me stories of when I was little?" I have a trunk full of my souvenirs, momentos. I have saved them so I have a story trunk to spark memory to share with my children (when I have them.) I love that you found pieces of your missing story, precious bits of your history to add to your full blooded stories and pass on. BTW the desk is just wonderful in white. What a treasure.

eloranicole  – (March 31, 2011 at 9:56 AM)  

oh i love this. my family are storytellers - often fabricating and extending truth to make a tale more interesting. i know my great-grandfather roped & branded a grizzly and learned to read from jesse james. even though these stories seem a bit fantastical, i can't wait to pen them to paper with my sisters - we plan on writing a biography of his life and legacy.

alittlebitograce  – (March 31, 2011 at 8:36 PM)  

My grandmother had a similar desk. My grandmother and father are storytellers. Through them, I've learned so much about my extended family. There are relatives that i've never met, yet feel as if I know because of the stories. For years, I didn't really value this until I begin to realize the treasure that were my grandmother's stories, especially those of the wartime years. During university, I took a reading week to visit with her and listen to her stories. I was writing a paper on her involvement during the war so she told me many stories, both old and new. Now she is 95 and her story-well has run dry. I try to re-tell my grandmother's stories to my own children and get my dad to tell his stories to them(and me) at every opportunity.

deb colarossi  – (April 1, 2011 at 8:24 AM)  

Those boxes give me goosebumps.

This post brings up a lot of emotion for me...
sigh,

sometimes I want stories and sometimes I don't.

emily wierenga  – (April 1, 2011 at 9:26 PM)  

hi beautiful michelle... i was so happy to see you'd linked with imperfect, friend... your posts always leave me breathless, and this, no different... i'm with deb. those boxes left me breathless, as though souls were found in the drawers of your desk... keep writing, friend.

Melissa_Rae  – (April 2, 2011 at 12:11 PM)  

Wow, Michelle! What a wonderful discovery, and I am so jealous of your desk. Thank you for sharing this and inspiring me to learn more about my own family. :)

Keli Gwyn  – (April 27, 2011 at 10:55 AM)  

What a lovely post, Michelle. The desk itself is beautiful, but the mementos and memories it contained are priceless treasures. May they serve as inspiration for countless stories.

V.V. Denman  – (April 27, 2011 at 10:55 AM)  

I absolutely love your desk and your story. It's magical. Thank you for sharing it with us. May you continue to get inspiration. :)

Catherine West  – (April 27, 2011 at 10:55 AM)  

What a cool story Michelle! My mom told stories of her childhood in South Africa a lot. My dad not so much, but I got his stories from my Grandmother. I love history, especially family history.

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