From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1955 –
By Ora Pate Stewart
I would probably never have known about the old, round-topped sea chest in the attic of Grandmother’s house, if it hadn’t been that a big chain store company needed that particular corner for a supermarket. Grandmother had been gone for many years. She never would have stood for selling it, nor did Aunt Elon want to move. She was living alone in the big house at the time. She was a widow, and all her children were married and gone.
“My roots are here,” she persisted; and she wouldn’t budge until finally a lawyer came out and told her that the property was going to be condemned, and she’d do well to sell and get out while she had a good chance.
“Condemned, my foot!” Aunt Elon ejaculated. “They don’t build houses like this today. Adobe walls nearly two feet thick! My father made those adobe with his own two hands. Of course, we had it faced over with brick at the turn of the century for the golden wedding; and then two years ago I had it stuccoed. But I was born in this house, and I’d hoped to die in it!”
It was a sturdy old house. The four rooms on the ground floor were each exactly sixteen by sixteen feet, and ten feet high. There were no halls or corridors. Each room was communicable with the two that it adjoined by thick oak doors, each eight feet tall. The upper rooms were precisely the same. As an afterthought, a veranda had been added, running the length of the house on the north side, and wooden steps ascended on the outside to the upper story. About the time of the golden wedding, this stairway had been cased in, and the place under the stairs had been made into a pantry. A kitchen lean-to had been added at the back at the time plumbing had come in. It was considered easier to extend the house out to the water pipes, as sort of a half-way compromise, than to bring the pipes all the way in through brick and adobe.
No, there wasn’t another house just like it. Grandfather had not been a builder of houses; he had been a schoolteacher.
When the house was wired for electricity sometime in the twenties, the inspector asked to see the attic.
“We never had an attic,” Aunt Elon told him.
And it was true. They had never had access to it. but the regulations said there had to be an attic. So Aunt Elon had an oblong hole cut in the ceiling of the northeast room upstairs. She had it framed, like a little window. And when the inspector came again, she brought in the eight-foot stepladder from the apple orchard, and he went up and poked around in the rafters.
It was just as it had been when it was built seventy-five years before, so he was quite surprised when he stumbled onto a bulky, round-topped sea chest. It was too large to get it through the tiny dormer window. And how it got up there on the rafters was a mystery to him.
“Who in the world would build a house around an old battered relic like this?” he muttered, and turned his flashlight the better to examine it. It was made of wood, covered with leather, and banded heavily with thick iron bands. The leather had been broken in several places. The top was dusted over with sawdust and cobwebs, and the feather-soft residue of seventy-five quiet years.
Aunt Elon’s curiosity was sufficiently aroused so that she climbed up the stepladder to a point where she could put her head and shoulders through the oblong hole.
It was her first glimpse of the sea chest. She was then seventy years old, and for sixty years or more the sea chest had never been mentioned; and for forty years it had been forgotten.
It took some time for Aunt Elon’s thoughts to travel back into the remote corridors of memory.
“Oh, that – ” she said at last – “that was the legacy.”
The inspector looked expectant.
“No,” continued Aunt Elon, “it’s not what you think. It’s not important. I remember now. Ma told me about it when I was very small. But she was always sort of ashamed to talk about it. Ma was a proud woman. And whenever she had a hurt she buried it. That’s why she had the sea chest built into the attic. It arrived from England just when the rafters were going up. It’s all she ever got out of her parents’ estate.”
The inspector looked doleful, and shook his head.
“It doesn’t look like it’s locked,” he ventured. “Looks like the padlock has been chiseled in two.”
“As I remember the story, they never even sent the key,” Aunt Elon said. “But, like I say, there was never much talk about it. You can open it, if you want to. It’s no skeleton in my closet.”
Aunt Elon had pulled herself up onto the solid old beams now, and the inspector helped her to pick her way over to the old chest.
After a few jostling tugs the hinges creaked and the lid came loose. Th inspector bent for long seconds while his flashlight probed over the contents.
“Well, I’ll be hornswoggled!” he exclaimed at last.
Aunt Elon said, “Like I told you – that’s all she ever got.”
It was fifteen years after they’d put in the electricity that Aunt Elon wrote to me and told me about the supermarket people and the lawyer. She put up a lot of bluster, but, as she said in her letter, she was eighty-five now, and she probably had passed her prime, and if I’d come and help her with the dismantling, she guessed she’d give in. They’d promised her a sum that would keep her in comfort for the rest of her life and bury her in style, she said. And it was time to begin to think about those things. Besides, a nice new supermarket would be a pretty addition to the neighborhood. It was a sign of progress.
So I went out to help her with disposing of her things. It was just before I was married.
There’s a lot of sentiment in an old house. Love and life and death all leave their traces. You find them in the fingerprints between the layers of wallpaper. You find them folded away in yellowed linen in the bottom of deep drawers. You find them in button boxes, and especially in old albums. I never saw my grandmother. She died about the time I was born. Aunt Elon was the oldest and my mother was the youngest of her children. but it gave her a definite texture and substance when I found a braid of her black-brown hair in a remote place in an old trunk. I held it up to my own. It matched exactly. Everyone always said I was the “spittin’ image” of Grandmother.
“Ma felt disgraced when they cut it off,” Aunt Elon informed me. “She respected the scripture that says a woman’s hair is her glory. But there was an epidemic of scarlet fever, and Ma had to give up her glory along with the others. She said she guessed she would have died, if she could have reconciled herself to being put away without her hair. She simply had to live until it grew out again.”
The task of sorting and moving Aunt Elon’s possessions took longer than we had thought. I guess we talked too much. She had to tell me the history of each piece in the patchwork quilt. She was so full of history herself. She told me about her old beaux, and the dances at Social Hall, and there was always a glove or a scrap of brocade or a tortoise-shell fan to illustrate the story.
“Now that young man of yours,” she finally said, pointedly, “what about him – his background – his people?”
“You mean Cameron Eldridge?” I asked, knowing very well that she meant Cameron Eldridge.
Cameron Eldridge was the only young man in my life. He was not exactly what you’d call a native, and this disturbed Aunt Elon a lot. I suspect that the whole reason she had asked me to come was so that she could scold me about it. She thought it a prodigality that one of her nieces would be interested in anyone outside the valley. Cameron Eldridge was practically a foreigner. What folks he had had lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. His grandparents and all the rest of his family had been missing since the great Johnstown flood. His father had worked his way out West as a young boy to seek his fortune, and his entire fortune had turned out to be Cameron Eldridge. The pretty little wife he chose had died at the child’s birth. Cameron’s father’s name was John, and he thought his grandfather’s name was John also; and he’d heard talk of a Lafayette, or Lafalgar – they’d called him Lafe – who might have been his great-grandfather. But he wasn’t sure of anything; and that was all he knew about himself.
This was not nearly enough to satisfy Aunt Elon. Being missing in a flood was too easy a way to dispose of one’s ancestry.
“It isn’t that there’s any shadow on your young man,” she admitted sympathetically. “It’s just that there’s no light on him.”
“I didn’t know you were so interested in genealogy,” I said.
And then she went and got a big book with long, hand-written pages.
“To tell the truth,” she confessed, “I’ve worked on our genealogy for fifty years. I’ve written hundreds of letters back to England. I’ve copied all the answers I ever received right here in this book. And you know, I’ve run up against a stone wall in every case. There’s not a single lead in all this. There’s not a soul could help me out. Pa and Ma left England in 1853, right after they were married. Pa was a young schoolmaster – and the only thing we know about Ma is that her folks disowned her because she married Pa. All they had against Pa was that he had joined the Church.”
“Didn’t they ever write to each other?” I asked.
“Ma and Pa wrote back many times,” Aunt Elon said. “But they never got any answers. Ma quit writing when she found out her mother was dead.”
“But how did she find out,” I asked, “if they never answered?”
“Her mother willed her the old sea chest that had belonged to her father’s family. Ma’s sisters sent the chest after her mother had died. It was her legacy.”
“How exciting!” I said. And in my eyes flashed the butter-yellow ambers from Oran, the delicate old ivory miniatures from farther east, loose rubies, unset, wrapped in soft linen, and fragile silks spiced away in the days when the Orient was a land of silks and spices. Silver and jade from the Caribbean, and golden sandals from the Andes. Laces from Spain and Italy. And my nostrils drew in the rare essences of Paris and Cologne.
“No, child, there was nothing exciting,” Aunt Elon said. She watched carefully while the ambers and ivories slowly faded from my eyes, and my nose got reaccustomed to the familiar smells of the old house.
“As a matter of fact, she said, “if you’ll go out in the orchard and get the stepladder while I rig up a long extension cord, we’ll go up and examine that sea chest.”
I brought up a couple of planks to bridge the beams, and a large cushion for Aunt Elon, because we had to sit on the planks. Then I helped her up carefully, and I dangled the light globe while Aunt Elon raised the lid on the chest.
The while she was telling me the story. “Ma was never so disappointed and hurt in her life. All the pretty things her grandfather had collected around the world while he was a ship’s captain had been stored in that chest when she was a girl. She told me about a Spanish shawl that was embroidered all over in rich, bright colors, and of a carved ivory fan that had come from India. But you see they are not here. Ma had two older sisters. They did not have the blessing of the law to break the will, but they found a chisel to break the lock.”
At that moment my light globe revealed a yellowed letter, tightly folded, and written in a fine, cramped hand. There was no envelope, and the page was written over itself, crosswise.
“I never knew there was a letter,” Aunt Elon said. “Or if I ever knew, I had forgotten. Read it, child.”
To our sister, Emily Preece, who, without blessing of bishop or kindred, deserted the home that nourished her, despised the country that protected her, and spurned the faith that fostered her, to become the consort of the infidel, one Reyburn West, who together with him did go to dwell in a land of savages and heathens:
Emily, you have broken your mother’s heart. Ma is dead. She departed this life on the 27th instant. She left a last testament. We, your older sisters, Charlotte and Rhoda, do jointly inherit the house and grounds. To you, Emily, is left the old sea chest. The testament reads: “the old sea chest and contents.” The contents, you see, are not itemized.
We, Charlotte and Rhoda, knowing full well that you will never have any need for silks and ivories in a wilderness of buffaloes and Indians, have taken it upon ourselves to supply a suitable contents which will satisfy the demands of the will.
Respectfully and oblige,
Your sisters, Charlotte and Rhoda Preece.
P.S. You asked for news. So we are sending you news. We are sorry that much of it is charred. The firemen were careless when the church burned down, and the printing establishment also caught fire. We were able to rescue this much.
Respectfully, C.P. & R.P.
The trunk was full of rubbish – broken plaster, bits of brittle stained glass, charred wood fragments, chips of stone, and old papers, many, many old papers, blackened around the folds where the flames had eaten in, and yellowed and water-stained in the centers where the fire had been arrested – just the sweepings form the street where the rubbish had been strewn.
Poor Grandmother Emily! No wonder she had closed the trunk forever. No wonder she had had it placed up on the rafters where it would never be seen or mentioned. A legacy of rubbish! Her mother had forgiven her enough to send her the chest and contents. But her sisters had forgiven her only enough to send the chest.
I tugged at one of the larger fragments of “news.” It was an editorial to justify the Bill of Rights. It was hard to make out, but there was spirit in it. Another scrap eulogized the virtues of Prince Albert. I dug deeper. Here was a court case between one Simon Pender and the Crown. The crown won, and Pender was sentenced to clean the stables of the royal mounts for a term of two years.
Deeper still, my fingers found the edge of a document, notebook-like, hand written, and badly bitten by the fire. Many of the pages were stuck fast together. But many names could be made out. They read like vital statistics. This, then, had been salvaged from the church. It was a minister’s log. There were marriages, births, christenings, and deaths. And the most interesting names – names like Andrew Preece and Charlotte Pemberton. There was something I couldn’t make out, and then, “married in Westertown Chapel on this first day of Marche, in the year of our Lord eighteen-hundred and twenty-four.”
There was another entry: “Reyburn West, infant son of Julian West and Peerless Crosby, was christened this eighteenth day of October, eighteen hundred and twenty-nine.
Aunt Elon’s eyes grew deep and bright. “Why, that was Pa! Read more, child!”
The pages were stuck badly. But every once in a while a familiar name recurred – Preece, Pemberton, West, Crosby, Reyburn, and Julian. And enough dates and genealogy to bring great lights into Aunt Elon’s face.
“Oh, Aunt Elon,” I cried, “here’s some Eldridges! ‘Rupert Eldridge, eldest son of Lafayette Eldridge and Margaret Cameron …’ I can’t make out what happened to Rupert – but it says Lafayette Eldridge was married to Margaret Cameron! Oh, yes, and here’s a John. Oh, Aunt Elon, listen to this – ‘John Eldridge’s wife Rebecca Winslow died and John left for America to forget his grief.’ It’s the same one. It’s got to be. It says here that later his parents followed and they settled in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Here’s a little scrap of a letter from Margaret to the minister. It’s practically glued to the ledger. And guess what! The minister’s name was Eldridge. It says, ‘My dear cousin, Reverend Eldridge.’”
Aunt Elon wasn’t listening at all. “Does that throw any light on my young man?” I nearly shouted. “Now do you believe the flood story? Now do I have your blessing to marry Cameron Eldridge?”
Aunt Elon was on her knees, looking into the old chest. But her eyes were not seeing rubbish or rubies. There was a kind of heavenly look, and it was my first intimation that Aunt Elon was so nearly through with the things of this world. it wasn’t a fevered brightness – it was more of a soft luster, like the first rays of the sun, just before it breaks into its glory.
“The legacy!” she exclaimed softly. “Even hidden treasures. Better than rubies. Pearls of greatest price.” She gathered the bits we had removed and placed them tenderly back into the chest and closed the lid with great care. “Diamonds in the rough!” Then she took up the cushion and picked her way carefully toward the ladder.
“First thing tomorrow,” she said, “we’ll call the wreckers. Tell them to start with the attic. But the old sea chest, that, child, is our legacy!”