They are taking away my grandma’s rocking chair tomorrow and it feels like an old friend I’ve known all my life is going away to live with strangers.
The decision to give it up was a tormenting struggle involving memories, guilt, sentiment and, finally, the reality of the need to move on.
It’s just a piece of old wood held together with ancient glue and a few screws added here and there over the decades to reinforce weakened spots.
It always speaks when people settle into the well-worn seat with a series of loud creaks and cracks but settles down into a predictable and pleasant squeak when the user adopts the proper rocking motion to engage the nicked-up old rocker rails for their intended purpose.
The once-smooth old brown arms look and feel like the deeply veined hands of an old woman with grooves, indentations and pock marks left behind by more than a century of rubbing, tapping, and scratching by friends and ancestors of all ages who took comfort in the big old rocker’s character and functionality and rested their arms on its arms.
There’s a raised carved flower-like decoration on the top two corners of the rocker where users’ heads always rested. The one on the left a bit more discolored than the one on the right indicating that the chair’s most frequent user probably sat at a jaunty angle while rocking babies, knitting socks, or listening to 1930s-radio programs.
There are spindles on either side that provide additional support for the rocker’s old arms and a row supporting the chair’s back. They are all intricately carved long shafts of wood with grooves and flairs and bulbs of accents, except for one that indicates its replacement role with a non-decorative non-matching appearance. I always wondered what happened to the original it replaced. Was it kicked away by a rambunctious toddler being held and rocked by a parent or grandparent in a desperate struggle to induce sleep? Was it snapped off in one of the two-dozen moves the chair endured over its lifetime? It is mystery never to be solved.
The chair has a colorful origin story. My grandmother, Lizzie Minns, was a little girl in Buckhannon, WV in the closing decades of the 19th Century. She lost her sight in a battle with typhoid fever as an infant, but was an active child who learned early to expertly sew, knit, and bake. Her skills and optimistic disposition led to her becoming the favorite of many in her family. One of her uncles was the pastor of a local church. When he was reassigned to another church in another state, the congregation of his Buckhannon church gave the fancy brand-new rocker to him as a going away present. In turn, he gave the chair to his favorite niece, Lizzie, in tribute to her and because he didn’t have room in his new home for it.
The chair was a staple of my family ever since. My grandfather, Tom Minns, who was also blind, adopted it as his own once he married Lizzie. They moved it from one little Wheeling apartment to another and it often became a fixture in the little grocery store/confectionaries he operated throughout South and Center Wheeling during the early decades of the 20th Century.
A whole lot of rocking went on in that chair. My Grandfather Tom, rocked my mother, Mabel, to sleep in it. Years later, he rocked my brother, Terry, in it. Grandma Lizzie, rocked me in it. My Mother rocked my brother’s son and then my son in it. She even had the chance to rock her great-grand daughter in it once or twice.
In my childhood, the rocker had an honored spot in the dining room of our Columbia Avenue house where my grandma would sit in it by the hour as she read her Braille books, repaired our clothing with needle and thread, or crocheted delicate lace items. Her little wooden sewing cabinet sat nearby.
As a child, I often jumped into the chair when it became available and engaged my imagination to picture myself riding a horse like a cowboy as I rocked a little too hard and fast for Grandma’s taste. She couldn’t see me, of course, but she could certainly hear the accelerated rate at which our poor dining room floorboards rattled, accompanied by the rocker’s own protesting creaks under the strain of my full tilt gallop.
Long after my Grandma died, and knowing of my fondness for the old chair, my Mother made me very happy when she gave it to me one spring evening and for nearly a decade, it enjoyed a useful life in the living room of our Wheeling home, providing extra seating during family gatherings, a place to sit whenever I searched for a book on a nearby set of shelves. We even rocked our own grandchildren a time or two while in its big friendly embrace.
But, eventually, we moved to a brand-new house in another city and the old rocker never did quite fit in its new surroundings where the decorative tone was “beachy” and all the furniture was carefully and successfully selected for form, function, comfort and placement.
After more than 130 years of being a part of my family, mostly in Wheeling, the rocker’s function and place devolved into a spot in our bedroom where we deposit all those decorative daytime pillows from our bed that we don’t use while sleeping, or a convenient place to park an article of clothing that we fully intend to hang up tomorrow. I can’t recall the last time I sat down in its old worn seat and just enjoyed it for its powers of comfort and tradition.
I resisted the first suggestion that we seek a new home for the old rocker. My Mother’s passing was too fresh and the memories too vivid. I was torn between two competing realities. On one hand, I had a great appreciation for a family heirloom, tradition, and memories. On the other hand, practicality dictated divesting myself of the old and the unused. Eventually, I realized that the rocker deserved to be more than an obstacle to be vacuumed around every week and with retirement on the horizon, downsizing is just around the corner.
To keep it in the family but out of my house, I reached out to my brother to see if he would be interested in being the keeper of this little piece of history and tradition. He didn’t have room. I called my apartment-dwelling son to see if he would take it in. He too was space restricted. I was partly relieved and partly frustrated.
I was determined not to put it in the annual yard sale or donate it to charity. Either of those options would leave me wondering if it would survive or be treated with the respect it deserved.
Finally, a friend touring our home spotted the rocker in front of our bedroom window—a lonely antique sitting unadorned and unused. She admired it and voiced her appreciation for its beauty and age. She demonstrated the kind of regard for history and tradition that would afford the old rocker a good home. After some thought and rationalization, I decided that she could provide the home for grandma’s rocker that I was seeking.
So, she’s coming to take it away tomorrow. I will not be rocking any more babies in it, or throwing anymore jackets over its back, or sitting in it just to gaze out the window, and neither will anybody else in my family. I’m trying hard to picture the beginning of a new life for the old chair—one that will include attention from someone with the appreciation of its character, and the skill to prolong its service with an occasional patch and repair.
Will it serve that new family for another 130 years? Unlikely, but I’m hoping it will be around long enough to make a few more memories for a few more parents, grandparents, and children.
I’m sure I’m not alone among baby boomers torn between respecting material items of the past and the need to finally move on. Our children aren’t interested in old things like our parents and grandparents were and like they wanted us to be. That’s okay. Times change. Many of us don’t live in one house for the final 30 years of our lives preserving the old and collecting new to pass on. We retire and we move away to warmer climates leaving the trifles of nostalgia behind. When that downsizing occurs, somebody gets stuck with the chore of letting go. This time, it was me.