We all have them. Those items we gather as we move through our life. They may have been handed down to you by your parents, grandparents or passed down from many generations. It could even be a silly souvenir that you purchased on that great family vacation a few years ago. If you still do not know what I mean, these are the things you would grab as you leave because of a fire. You know the things that have no monetary value, but are priceless because selling them would be like selling a part of yourself. Do the people in your family know their story? Do they have a secret life so that their story is not known? Their story is your story, your family’s story and needs to be told.
I have just finished reading “The Secret Life of Objects” written by Dawn Raffel. The author would choose an object, her 14-year-old son Sean Evers, would provide the illustration. Dawn would select an object as a coffee mug, rocking chair, watch, prayer-book, just an ordinary item until she told their story. Then they would come to life because their story was her story and that of her family’s. In her telling the stories of these objects, we learned the deep meaning they had for her but also served in the forming of her memoir. The book is an enjoyable read, and I came to an end way too soon. I recommend that anyone doing genealogy read this book.
Pictured above is the slate chalk board that was used in school by Emma Craft. Emma was my wife’s great-grandmother and was born in June of 1866. You may not be able to see in the photograph where Emma carved her name into the wood. At the time, she was going to school this would have been used to work out math problems and many other exercises. Paper cost money and the chalk board was used in place of paper. Also, her school would have been a one room school house. Emma was married at age 25 to Oreon Monty. According to the write up in the Plattsburgh Sentinel “A very pretty wedding was that of Miss Emma Craft and Mr. Owen Montey, which took place at the residence of the bride’s father, Mr. Stephen Craft, ..at five o’clock, P.M..” Please note the complete misspelling of the Groom’s name. The article goes on to say ” Supper was served, and a most agreeable air of sociability prevailed…They were the recipients of many beautiful and valuable gifts, tokens of love and friendship.” Pictured below is a homemade cedar chest that was made for her wedding day. Draped over the lid is a hand embroidered pillow case that was crafted by Emma’s daughter Florence Monty Gonya, my wife’s great aunt. My wife has very fond memories of riding her bike to the Gonya farm and visiting with her great aunt.
The clock you see pictured below at one time hung in my grandmother’s living room. It does not work now but as a child I could watch the movements of that clock and day-dream the time away. Since my grandmother lived just a few blocks from me, I would often go to her house for a visit. I especially liked Sunday dinners at grandma’s house. She was a great cook and the meals were always delicious. I would always know where my seat was. It was the one with a bottle of Coke by the plate. Drinking soda with your meal was not allowed in my house. However, at grandma’s house she overruled this and the soda was mine. My grandmother died when I was 24 years old. I was told I could take anything I wanted from her house. The only thing that I could think of was this clock. It reminds me of days that seem so far away.
The above picture is of a wooden bowl with its cover, and a certificate admitting Robert A Lyon the privilege of practicing law in New York State Courts. Robert was to leave for war soon after his high school graduation. The army put him through some college, but after a couple of years he found himself on the way to Italy. He was to be a clerk typist but at various times found him operating a Browning Automatic Rife or as they were called a BAR. Italy was to touch Robert in a very special way. As Robert tells it, he did not keep his derriere low enough and collected some shrapnel and a purple heart. He never told his mother about being wounded. Instead, he brought back that wooden bowl. We have hundreds of letters that Robert wrote to his mother during the war. By reading them, you see the formation that made him the man he became. Once back from the war he got married, worked and got a law degree all at the same time. He set up his law practice in rural northern New York. He worked at night at a dairy farm to earn the money needed to get his law office going. When he died almost every farmer in the county were his clients. My wife has memories of him being paid off in vegetables and meat from these farms. I was with him one day when somebody asked him what type of law he practiced. He smiled and answered “oh anything that comes through the door”.
The picture below is of an old World War 2 garrison cap. I cannot begin to tell you the hours I spent playing with that hat. With that hat, I was the general that led his troops into battle that we always won. We would play outside for hours saving the world from the bad guys. I would even put it on when playing with my plastic army men indoors. However before I wore it, my father had use of it and not for play. It was part of the uniform that my father wore while he was in the army during World War 2. I now have his medals and the knowledge of the terrible price that came with that cap. He saw more bloodshed and inhumanity than anyone should ever have to. When he came home from the war, he got married and went to work every day at the foundry. He would speak very little about the war. He kept it locked up inside and also in a heavy footlocker. There it stayed waiting for a young boy to discover. The flag in the picture covered my father’s casket. He died when I was fifteen years old. It’s funny the things you never forget. When they handed the folded flag to my mother, the airman said, “from a grateful nation”.
I only gave you a quick peek at the secret life of these objects. The stories could be longer and more detailed. Long or short version of their stories, it is up to you to tell them. We all work so hard to get our genealogy right. Why would we pass up the chance to tell everyone what these heirlooms are and what they mean? Just take one object a week or a month and tell its story. By doing this, you will be keeping your family history alive. That’s better than finding your treasures on sale at a flea market.