There are certain items that get passed on in old families with grand stories to accompany their antiquity. In our family there is "The Gracie Silver", bequeathed to my Gr-grandfather from a wealthy uncle. There is an old ceder chest, used to store linens at my grandmother's, and which my research reveals was given to her as a wedding present from her mother, who in turn received it from her mother, who got it from her mother, who packed her things in it and strapped it to the carriage that took her to a Quaker boarding school in the early 1830s. My Virginia 2nd cousins have a fiercely uncomfortable piece of furniture called "The Aaron Ogden Sofa", and it is probably stuffed with horsehair because Aaron Ogden was governor of New Jersey in 1812.
What, then, will future generations make of the lovely cherry stool in my house, with the deeply incised and crudely executed words "Here Lies" emblazoned across its smooth finish? The stool is formed by a solid round from a cherry tree with more than sixty rings, and which clearly added far more growth on its south facing side. There is a small makers mark ESTY on the other side, and that is a clue, though an obscure one. Because I figure prominently in this mystery, it behooves me to make it easier for my gr-great grandchildren when they haul the old thing off to the Antiques Roadshow and to tell the tale of how this unusual stool came to be.
The house where I grew up in Millbrook New York had a number of tall American cherry trees growing among the Black Locust clones by the roadside and unruly apples in a little orchard in our back yard. One of these cherry trees dropped in a storm, and my mother asked that a thick round section of the trunk be set aside, for she had in mind that it would make a lovely cutting board. Of course it needed to cure, and she set it in the back woodshed, next to my father's toolbox, where it lay until my rabbit Harvey died.
Harvey was a white rabbit, part of a litter of nursery school bunnies, and had already received his name when much to our surprise he produced babies of his own. Harvey was a great rabbit, and one memorable Christmas when it was 32 degrees below zero he was allowed into the house and spent a delightful holiday season chewing on the tree and bedded down in the downstairs bathroom. He has a good life, but in time he passed away, and I was determined to make him a gravestone.
Perhaps you now can anticipate the cataclysmic events that were soon to unfold. I was in boarding school, and should have realized that that superb tombstone I discovered in the tool bench might have been reserved for some other purpose. I believe I had a vague notion that it had been lying there for a long time and perhaps no one was using it, but the deal was sealed when I selected a large screwdriver from the tool chest and picked up a hammer to chisel a memorial for my deceased rabbit.
I had just executed "Here Lies" - and if you examine the image, above, you will see that I had a particularly heavy hand when forming the "L" - when my mother, attracted by the racket, came into the woodshed.
Mom is a gentle soul and avoids confrontation whenever a smoother path can be found. In this case, she was utterly beside herself, and I quote: "TIMOTHY BLANCHARD ABBOTT! I WAS SAVING THAT FOR A CUTTING BOARD! WHATEVER POSSESSED YOU I CANNOT IMAGINE BUT SO HELP ME ONE DAY YOU'RE GOING TO GET THAT FOR A WEDDING PRESENT!"
Once my purpose was revealed and I had returned, suitably remorseful, to boarding school, Mom made my rabbit a nice, wooden grave marker with "Harvey - A Good Friend" painted on the front, but she kept the cherry round. Mom's have memories as long as elephants, and when my parents moved after I graduated from college, the defaced section of cherry wood went with them. Several years later I announced my engagement, and my mother had a conversation with my cousin Tuck Esty, a fine woodworker. It was Tuck who made the stool, and sanded down but did not erase the inscription on its face. On a clear September day in 1995, Viv and I were wed in Vermont, and my grinning mother presented me with the stool, much to my delight and amazement.
It would seem that she had the last laugh, but you see, there had already been a precedent for the threatened appearance of certain other item at my wedding. The same year that Harvey died, Mom and I went shopping for school shoes, and I selected a shiny black pair worthy of an FBI agent - I had been reading "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test", in which Tom Wolfe revealed such footwear were an identifying feature of FBI plants in the counterculture. Mom thought them impractical in the extreme, but I declared I'd get so much wear out of them, I'd be married in them. And so I was. They were hog backed and had lost their luster, but they were on my feet for my mother to appreciate and laugh over when she brought forth the "Here Lies" stool.
Be that as it may, the shoes are not destined to be family heirlooms, but the stool most certainly is. Thanks, Mom!