“That’s your Great-Grandfather Who Lost His Arm in the Battle of the Wilderness.” That was his name. In a big gold gilt-framed photo: a distinguished-looking, white-haired, mustached gentleman high above the upright piano in my grandmother’s music room. This Civil War veteran was her father-in-law, and he and his wife in her matching frame watched over the music room for as long as I can remember. His wife looks severe: perhaps it was her high lace collar, the hard life of a 19th Century woman, and the long wait for the photographic plate’s exposure.
My horticulturist great-grandfather with the long name had convinced his son, my portrait photographer grandpa, to move the entire family 2000 miles west from Jamestown, New York to the foothills of Mt. Hood in Oregon in 1911, there to begin growing apples and pears on land whose price matched its fertile but irrigation-challenged soil. My grandma’s opinion: “But only if we can live close to the school and close to the church.” The Civil War hero, his wife, and my grandparents and their three young children traveled by train, with boxcars full of furniture, to a community of rutted roads and tenacious, weather-toughened farmers and loggers. My grandparents’ big house got built beside the church.
Irrigation was the most pitiless of the orchard’s many obstacles. The farm didn’t last long. The Great Depression happened. My grandpa re-educated himself as an electrician, and drove a Model T Ford to his jobs well into the 1950s.
Now, summertime 2016, I’m sitting on a chair from that music room, as I have done for decades. Not the piano stool. (“Virginia, do NOT spin on the piano stool. You KNOW that.”) This is a straight-back maple chair, probably from the turn of the 20th century, with curvy lines, turned legs, and a heart carved out of its back. Who made it and where? Why didn’t I ask when I was a kid and Grandma or Grandpa could have told me?
It has silently held up its end of my daily working bargain without complaint.
My grandparents’ fortunes fell, the great-grandparents died, the three children grew up. Grandma opened a boarding house for schoolteachers, and the boarding music teachers gave lessons on her piano. Rambunctious schoolyard kids walked tamely through my grandparents’ door, carrying their red John Thompson music and their yellow and green Schirmer’s.
My mother had married her true love, a lapsed Pennsylvania lawyer turned Oregon farmer who had built a large log house three miles from town. My brother and I made a family of four, happy and complete.
Grandma’s and Grandpa’s dining room, with a great big table (for all of us relatives and all those boarding teachers), opened into the music room, and someone (anyone) could play “Happy Birthday” on the piano for whoever was celebrating: age 6, 46, or 76.
We children decorated the music room Christmas tree with raggedy and chipped ornaments from history (why didn’t I ask for their stories?), and my visiting cousin and I giddily overreacted each year, as our gifts progressed from identical dolls to identical bottles of Evening in Paris perfume.
I think that during the 60-plus years this utilitarian chair spent in the music room it was never witness to insolence or profanity.
I knew my grandparents were prominent in the church, in positions of power. A few times each year Grandma prepared the cubes of Communion bread, and as I grew I was allowed to help her pour her homemade grape juice into teensy glasses in the holy, shiny tray-rack thing. Grandpa’s role was even more essential: He started the church furnace early on Sunday mornings, and on choir practice evenings, and made sure everything was working right in every room of the building. He made church possible.
Years later, my big brother whispered to me that Grandpa was the church janitor, and that he and Grandma were probably doing those jobs to fulfill their annual tithe. We were in church, and our mother, as usual, was on the organ bench, bringing Bach and Schubert and all those beautiful loved ones to the rural families in the pews.
I don’t think I ever heard my grandparents discuss religion. It was just there, an unequivocal force, like a mountain or an ocean or God.
The family sidestepped disputatiousness, didn’t stoop to quarreling. When people got peeved about wartime rationing or went mute about Hiroshima they did it without making a fuss. I never knew which marriages were unendurable yet iron-tight, I never knew which grownups had “er — uh — a problem…” Things and people didn’t break apart. Except that people died. When they did, our grief was wild and silent.
“Your father was a wonderful man, Virginia.”
“You look like your father, Virginia, you have his eyes.”
Grandma washed on Mondays (tubs, bluing, the cranked wringer, hundreds of clothespins, yards of clothesline), ironed on Tuesdays (all those boarders’ sheets went through a marvelous machine called a mangle), sewed and mended on Wednesdays, teaching me to use a Singer machine for perfect seams by using only my foot on the pedal.
Elvis Presley began to sing. Our family went on as if he had had the good manners not to. But he had stirred something in my visiting cousin and me, and it lay stealthy and uncomprehended inside us.
We spread out, we learned to vote. Now, years too late, questions persist, casting everything in the shadowy half-light of incompletion.
Had the Civil War sergeant (Pennsylvania 105th Infantry Regiment) kept a war diary? How did Grandpa really feel about leaving studio photography and trying to be an orchardist? What might Grandma have said about spending her entire life taking care of people? Why did the church break into factions? Why did our families trust to school to teach us what Hitler had actually done? How many sudden grownup silences did my visiting cousin and I snicker through, instead of probing?
And that’s a thing I’d like to change, if I could. We know children can’t decipher the secret messages that adults send in plain sight by means of eyebrows and coded gestures. But I wish the young were quicker to develop antennae for the waves of history, its tragedies, its hilarities, its noble struggles.
I’m duly ashamed that I don’t even know where this beloved chair came from.