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  • corneliusmary

I Never Thought to Ask

Perhaps it is the Effexor that flattens my emotional responses, but I feel no emotional connection to ancestors. Late marriages skew the ancestral trees on both sides of my family forming generations spanning decades. The oldest child of my father’s siblings was forty years older than the youngest. The distance is greater on my mother’s side. My grandparents were gone before my age of awareness. A snippet of memory sets me in my maternal grandmother’s house, a kitchen with a linoleum floor, metal table, high chair, and squat refrigerator. One time I asked my mother if there were cherry trees in that yard, confirming a wispy recall of pride when presenting her with a basket of fruit.

Although I knew many of my great aunts and uncles, ancient to a young child, a few uncles of the next generation died before I was born. Family photos of the late 19th and 20th centuries offer prompts to imagine their lives. I own the fife played by my great-grandfather in the Civil War. Supposedly a plug of tobacco in his pocket saved his life. The death of an uncle in World War II, depriving him of meeting his infant daughter, pained my mother and her siblings throughout their lives. Knowing that daughter as a cousin, I was aware of this loss. In my youthful ignorance, I never thought to ask about the uncle himself. These histories read as tales of a fictional family, not my own flesh and blood.

When Mike and I bought our first house, my father purchased the family kitchen table from his sister who was breaking up her household. He was hurt that he had to compete at auction to claim it. After my dad refinished the wood, we used that table with the simple turned legs for years. The four leaves allowed us to seat twelve or more people at holiday dinners. The drop leaves conveniently minimized the size for storing. I tried to imagine my father and his siblings gathered at the farm table three times a day. I never thought to envision his mother busy cooking and serving on this furniture. In my youthful ignorance, I never asked my dad to share his memories. Another family member now uses that antique table in a summer cabin.

My dad’s wooden sled, a heavy chunk of stained-red wood with solid runners lined with metal, sat on a plant shelf in my home for many years. As a young boy claiming ownership, my dad carved his initials into the bed. In my youthful ignorance, I never asked my dad to share his memories. Downsizing, I donated the sled to the Des Moines County Historical Society in Burlington, Iowa. They told me they would display it during holidays.

A plant table, a style popular at the turn of the century, the 20th century that is, graced our entryway for years. I liked its simple style, the beautifully grained top smaller than many in antique shops, the spindle legs elegant but restrained. There was no space in the house that we share with our daughter and grandsons. I took the table to church where it holds the offering plates at services when there is no formal collection. Which brought me to this memoir.

The table sat close to me on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I admired the honey oak and the gently turned legs. My dad probably ran past this table hundreds of times. But in my youthful ignorance, I never asked my dad to share his memories. I tried to imagine my grandmother as a young woman, excited to choose this piece to display her plants in the living room window. I know the house, having visited many times while growing up. I don’t know the grandmother. And I can’t imagine her, especially young. The only photos I have seen show her as a well-dressed but dour, heavy-set old woman surrounded by her many adult children. I have heard that dementia rendered her difficult in old age, “hardening of the arteries” it was called. She appears to be smiling in the one photo showing her holding me as a newborn and surrounded by a few of her other grandchildren.

HGTV home renovation shows frequently feature people lovingly and tearfully recalling their Memaw, struggling to preserve a knick-knack or family home. I feel nothing. This is what happens. The furniture is discarded. The gravestones are untended. The stories die. The present demands emotional connections leaving little for the past. I have no desire for my descendants to mourn my life or my death. But someday, somewhere, someone may come across an old Gemeinhardt flute dated 1960 and think, “this was precious to someone.” And maybe they will imagine a 10-year-old girl discovering a passion.  

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