Those of us who love history, research into arcane subjects, and stories of little known archeological digs on the Smithsonian Channel can sometimes get up a tree—get our feathers ruffled—get our noses of joint, whatever, over family treasures from the past. Maybe everybody is that way, but I think my family seems about 15% more interested in curios from long-dead aunts and uncles and is willing to discuss them endlessly—and dispute over them too.
We venerate past possessions and they become the source of folklore stories, pioneer tales of questionable origin, the swapping of memories and sometimes differences of opinion.
I recently received an attachment with the pictured sewing machine, pretty slick looking, from my niece. She had inherited the machine from her mom, my sister, gone now and missed these three years. The niece told me her mom said it was the sewing machine of our mother, and had sat in our family home through our childhood, humming away to make us little outfits, shorts, and blouses.
“I hate to deflate your balloon,” I had to say. “The sewing machine in our childhood home was a black Singer with gold script writing, and it came from about 1945.The one you have is from 1956—you can Google Singer machines by year and you’ll see it. Our mother was gone by that time. And the reason Sister had that, I think,” I told the niece, “was that I gave it to her. I had bought the sewing machine the year after we were married, took lessons at Singer, and then was a miserable failure as a seamstress, leaving pins in your Uncle’s Christmas pajamas. I didn’t give up—got another one I think but didn’t use it.”
So my Sister had remembered wrong, who knows why? “Well, I’m just glad I don’t have to lug this heavy thing around any more,” my niece said. So much for that myth. But my memory had failed me too. I gave my sister with some reverence another family treasure, a swan-shaped vase that I swore was Mother’s also from our childhood home. But after Sister took it, I recalled I had bought it earlier myself to match the original, for sentimental reasons. How many of these family pass-downs really have true stories connected to them? Does it really matter? Does anybody care?
I have four first cousins, all active, and not spring chickens. Our family is one of endless tales of southern Indiana, eccentric relatives, stories from childhood that our parents would either laugh uproariously at or stoutly deny ever happened. Everybody remembers the tales from our own parents differently. Details are blurred, and I’m pretty sure stuff is being made up by us–the modern generational storytellers. This I have to admit.
Take the story of Aunt Fannie’s violin. It has turned up recently, and a photo of it sent around by the youngest first cousin, restored and looking pretty good. Our Aunt Fannie, bear in mind, was born in 1880 (or so) and was a respected and talented music teacher in Indianapolis. She carried her considerable weight well and dressed elegantly with ropes of pearls and medium-high heels. How beautiful her many rings looked at she ran her beautiful hands over the keyboard playing “When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day.” Aunt Fannie’s stories of Wheatland, Indiana, sent us into gales of laughter at Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. She was probably the influential person who started me on my own career of writing about southern Indiana history.
So now when this violin surfaced, there was a flurry of discussion of the past among the cousins.
“This violin must have gone with her as she changed homes with her four marriages.”
“It was five.”
“Who was that first one? John Light?”
“Jack Light. Jack is short for John.
“I never heard her call him John. Are you sure of that?”
He came to see her just before she died.”
“Well he was better than the others I think. Mom said they were bums.
“All except for the Spanish American War vet.”
“Why did he fight in that useless war?”
“Nobody much thought it was useless when they went to Havana.“
“Well none of us can use Aunt Fannie’s violin. The bow is falling apart. So ask the next generation.”
On and on.
We drew straws in the next generation, sort of, and now it rests with our daughter who is the family genealogist. She probably doesn’t really know or care about any of these stories about Aunt Fannie, but she seems to have inherited the family desire for old stories and unidentifiable curios.
Nancy Niblack Baxter has written about Aunt Fannie’s father John R. McClure in her book Hoosier Farmboy in Lincoln’s Army available on Amazon.