Friday, December 12, 2008

The Christmas Desk

Dickens knew the role of ghosts at Christmas best, and his lessons --- and theirs --- have resonated among us since that story of Scrooge and three night visitors first was read around open fires in the winter chill of London in December 1843.

Those ghosts, along with our own, still are with us in this troublesome year of our Lord 2008 as Advent moves toward the certain star of Christmas, but uncertainty beyond.

Now, as then, it is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come we fear.

But given our inability to do more than anticipate the future, it is the ghosts of Christmas past from whom those of us still writing our own Christmas carols can learn.

I THOUGHT AT FIRST that I would not tell this story of the Christmas desk. It seemed too full of the sorrows of 128 years, inappropriate in a season expected to be full of joy.

But this I think is only a perception built because we often dwell on the sorrows that punctuate life and lose track of the joy that came before and will follow if we allow it.

So I will tell you these family secrets and sorrows, as well as joys, hoping that you will recognize dark threads as only that, counterpoints in a larger and largely joyful pattern.

ALTHOUGH IT IS FADING and difficult to decipher now, there is an inscription on the bottom of the Christmas desk written boldly in black ink in a strong and graceful hand that I recognize as my Great-aunt Emma’s: “Emma Prentiss, Columbia, Iowa, Dec. 25, 1880.”

Emma, 16 in that year, also was the great-aunt of all reading this who are my Miller first-cousins, an elder half-sister of our grandmother, Jessie.

She was born on the 12th of September, 1864, on a small farm of woods interspersed with prairie along Wildcat Creek just north of Corydon in Wayne County, Iowa.

Her parents, who had settled here in a log house 10 years earlier, were Chloe (Boswell), born in Virginia, and Moses W. Prentiss, native to Ohio. Emma had three older sisters, Eva, Laura and Sarah. Living nearby were her maternal grandparents, Peachy Gilmer and Caroline (McDaniel) Boswell, and other Boswell kin.

When Emma was not yet a year old, on the 6th of July 1865, her father was killed when a boiler used to power a sawmill exploded --- an explosion still talked about a century later by my grandfather and distant cousins who had carried the story down.

There were no welfare programs in that time other than family, and remarriage was a widow’s hope. But who would take on a woman with no money and four young daughters?

It took time, but five years later, Joseph Brown, my great-grandfather, did just that. Born on the 4th of July 1811 in Ohio into a Scots-Irish family of fierce Presbyterian sensibility, he was 59 and Chloe, 37, more than 20 years his junior, when they married at Corydon on the 17th of November 1870 in the year that Emma turned 6.

Joseph, widowed first in 1850 when his first wife, Hester, died, had raised single-handedly a family that included seven children and while doing that moved all save one to Iowa. He had waited until they were grown before marrying again --- in September of 1869 to the widow Penelope Dawson who was of his own generation. She, however, died less than a year later in Washington, Iowa, and wasting no time --- this time --- Joseph married Chloe four months later, soon after they were introduced by her aunt, Mary (Boswell) Brown, who was the wife of his brother, Archibald.

Joseph was a small and compact man with a wispy beard and sparks in his eyes, respected and for the most part loved by children and stepchildren alike. I suspect, but do not know, that my Uncle Owen Miller might have been closest to him is size and disposition. Chloe was larger, and calm. Fire and water.

If Great-grandfather had a fault, some say, it was only that his fierce Presbyterian convictions sometimes caused him to come down on the near side of charity when the sins of others were considered.

In the spring of 1871, Joseph and Chloe, Chloe’s four daughters, including Emma, and Chloe’s mother, Caroline, loaded their belongings into wagons and moved the width of Lucas County north to Columbia, located just where prairie meets the woods near the Lucas-Marion county line.

There, two more children were born, Joseph Ellis Brown in 1871 and my grandmother, Jessie, in January of 1875 --- when her father was 64 and her mother, 41.

There were, if my grandmother’s stories are to be believed, far more happy than unhappy days in that trim white clapboard house, four rooms down and two up, at the principal crossroads in Columbia. Great-grandfather owned the northwest quarter of that town and sold off lots bordering the streets so that the May Store, other businesses and homes could be built. There was always something going on there.

It was here, two months after her 16th birthday, that Emma received the Christmas desk, although I do not know who gave it.

This surely must have been a remarkable gift at a time when Christmas presents were minimal and tended to be made by hand or edible.

Although not elaborate, this was store-bought --- it’s exterior hand-grained to simulate a grander wood with gold “hardware” carefully painted on. It had (and still has) a lock and key, so privacy would be possible. Fully open, it forms a sloped felt-covered writing surface not really convenient in a lap (although it is called a lap desk), more appropriate for a table top. The hinged writing surface opens to two compartments where writing paper and treasures could be stored and a small lidded pen try is flanked by recesses where ink wells could be placed.

Many of the items Emma placed in that desk during her years as its custodian remain there.

In the years that preceded and followed that Christmas, Emma’s sisters married, Laura to Alpheus Elkanah Love, a Carolina man with great musical and artistic talent but little ability to make money; Eva, to John Rush West and Sara, to Samuel McCorkle, husbands who died far too young. Sarah and Sam moved to Nebraska where he was struck and killed by lightning as he sought lost sheep on open prairie where there was no shelter.

EMMA, HOWEVER, DID NOT HURRY to marry, and was the last of Chloe’s first family to remain at home as the 1880s advanced. She was a fine seamstress who sewed for others, often staying in their homes while she outfitted children for school or crafted Sunday-go-to-meeting clothing for entire families.

By the early summer of 1887, when she was 22, Emma was expecting a child although she was not married.

Now a child born out of wedlock today most likely will be received graciously and generously and the mother will not be scorned, but that was not necessarily the case a century ago. And it is at this point from the perspective of 2008 that I would have a bone to pick with my great-grandfather.

According to the story-tellers, Joseph forbade Emma and the father of her child to marry, although they wished to do so, because of what he perceived to be great wickedness in their child’s conception.

That account of things may or may not be accurate, although surely there is some truth in it. It may have been that Joseph knew things about the father I do not and that there were circumstances lost to time, so benefit of the doubt remains and it can do no harm to extend it now.

WE DO NOT KNOW who the father was, but when Verna was born on the 17th of October 1887, her name was entered as “Verna Jones Prentiss” in a family Bible. Someone tried later with many strokes of a pen and black ink to obliterate “Jones.” But time and fading ink had made the name visible again by the time I saw the record among my grandfather’s papers.

So it seems that Verna’s father was a Jones, but I have never made an attempt to find him. Was he Welsh? Perhaps among the coal miners then at work in nearby Pleasant Township? Jones is not a Columbia name. Most likely we will never know.

It is Verna who is important here, however, not her father or the circumstances of her conception and birth.

Just as the Christmas desk was a special gift to Emma, so Verna was a special gift, unrealized then, to those of us who in the course of her 91 years would love her and be loved in return.

I will not try to fool you into believing that Verna had an easy life. That would make this an easier Christmas story to tell and ensure a happy ending. But she did not. Her life would have defeated many of us.

When still a toddler, Verna was stricken by polio, then known as infantile paralysis. As a result, her body was twisted and it always was a challenge for her to walk, more so as she grew older. In the years that I knew her, she had difficulty unless holding onto someone’s hand or supported by a succession of chairs on wheels that she pushed about the house as she cleaned and kept nearby as she cooked.

The polio also affected her ability to speak clearly, something that those who loved her didn’t think about but strangers sometimes found disconcerting, akin to conversing with someone whose English was heavily accented by another more natural language.

Within that somewhat battered small container, however, was a great spirit and a razor-sharp mind; and she became the repository of family lore stretching back a century or more that she gladly shared when asked to do so. Her mind, ears and heart always were open.

When Verna was 6, her mother, Emma, died --- on the 14th of January 1894 at the age of 30.

Emma and her younger half-brother, Joseph Brown Jr., visited in late summer 1893 his much older half-brother, Jonathan Edwards Brown, a stonemason and builder of fine barns, at Durham, a Marion County town that by now has vanished.

As they were leaving in a horse-drawn buggy, a train whistle spooked the horse and it bolted. Joseph and Emma were thrown, Emma onto a pile of posts. Although she recovered sufficiently to travel that fall to her sister’s, Eva’s, home to sew for nieces and nephews, Emma’s health began to fail and it became clear that there had been undetected injuries by then untreatable.

In this manner, Verna was grafted onto my immediate family and became inseparable from it. Raised in Columbia by her Aunt Jessie, Uncle Joe and Grandmother Chloe (Joseph Brown Sr. died of old age on 4 December 1893, a few weeks before Emma’s death), Verna took the name Brown, although that was not formalized until in extreme old age when a government agency uncomfortable with ambiguity demanded proof that she existed.

My mother could have told you of the challenges involved in demonstrating to bureaucrats the existence of the person, Verna Brown, then seated before them, when a birth certificate had never been issued and the Bible record had been misplaced.

When Verna’s Aunt Jessie married my grandfather, William Ambrose Miller, in 1905, Verna was part of the package, as was Chloe, and they came along. Verna became an integral member of a rollicking household in English Township, Lucas County, that included six lively children, including my mother.

After 40 happy years, Jessie died in 1945 at 70 of diabetic complications before I was born, but there was never a doubt that Verna would remain with Grandfather, whom she called “Dad,” as his companion, housekeeper and conscience (he had always been a difficult man to manage), and as surrogate grandmother to his grandchildren, few of whom had the opportunity to know Jessie.

Many more good years followed the sorrow of Jessie’s loss, but eventually, in her 80s, Verna’s health failed and my mother began to fight her battles for her --- which is why Emma’s Christmas desk of 1880 became a gift to my mother in the 1970s. It was one of few items of a physical nature that was Verna’s to bestow.

I am now its custodian by right of inheritance and the desk still is filled to brim and overflowing with turn-of-the-20th-century postcards, Emma’s autograph book, a few of her writings, locks of hair tied up in ribbon and string, a tiny corked vial filled with a mysterious powder, dozens of inch-square photographs of people long dead who were Emma’s friends and companions.

When my mother was a girl, the Christmas desk was brought out of safekeeping and given to children sick abed to keep them amused as they examined its contents carefully, one by one. Some items I suppose were removed over the years, others added. My mother removed a small glittering crystal paperweight she found there and put it where it caught the light.

I do the same sort of examination now and then, marveling that such things should have survived so long.

But although I value the Christmas desk for its beauty and its associations, I value the memory of Verna more.

AND SO THIS CHRISTMAS, in a season that may precede a challenging year, I want to hold Verna’s memory up before you --- not like a pale ghost of Christmas past --- but like a bright candle still burning against the darkness of adversity and the unknown. Her spirit was never extinguished by despair, she was grateful for the simplest of gifts and remained full of hope and faith and grace until the end of her time among us.

May these gifts be yours, and mine.

Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Enjoyed reading this post and you are so fortunate to be the caretaker of the Christmas Desk. It's so special. Your connection to it and your family stories are clear. I wish I could go through it with you and hear more.