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Touching History

by Julia Sneden

Does every family, I wonder, have little treasures whose only real value is their age? Handed down the generations, these beloved and often homely objects carry with them an accumulation of stories that weave together past and present and make them priceless purveyors of history. They have an intrinsic value that makes them every bit as precious as fancier heirlooms. Here is the story of one such family totem, known in our family as The Cricket.

I grew up in an old, three-level house that meandered down a California hillside like a series of waterfalls caught in mid-spill. Fitted to the contours of the slope, each level had two outside entrances. The top floor was over the garage, and contained three bedrooms and a covered porch that opened out to a gentle slope dotted with the great live oaks in which I loved to play.

A staircase led down to the next, or main, level, where our living room, dining room, and kitchen were. The front door opened to a stoop with three steps down onto a brick patio surrounded by flower beds where all kinds of pelargoniums grew like weeds, in a state of constant bloom and riotous color.

Three steps down from the dining room was what we referred to as "The Grandmother's Wing." It held another, small living room, a small bedroom for one grandmother, and a large sleeping porch where my other grandmother and her older sister, my Aunt Martha, slept. French doors opened from the living room to a covered porch beside which grew a fine specimen of an acacia tree whose improbably brilliant yellow blossoms gave everyone the February Sneeze. At one end, the porch opened to the front patio. There were steps leading down from that to the lower portion of our lot, where a well-worn path ran down through a large field to the road below.

That path was worn by the trudging feet of small children on the way home from school. During WWII, the school district decreed that there wasn't enough gasoline to run a bus up our hill twice a day, and settled on the morning route as the most important. In the afternoon, the bus left us off at the bottom of the hill, and we had to walk a steep mile home. The road going up the hill twisted and turned around the slopes, but we children cut straight up across the open fields. It was a hefty hike, one which left all of us incredibly fit, as well as attuned to our environment. There wasn't a plant or critter we couldn't identify. We avoided poison oak and rattlers, stomped on gopher holes, and picked wildflowers like lupine and shooting stars and owl clover as we trekked upwards.

When we came up the steps out of the field below our house, we never thought of going in through the front door. We turned right to the Grandmother's porch, and threw open the French doors crying: "We're home!" as we dropped our lunch boxes, coats and other paraphernalia (no backpacks in those days). The grandmothers were usually elsewhere, up in the kitchen at the ironing board or busy with other household chores, but Aunt Martha was almost always there in her mother's old, leather armchair, sitting by the window and humming as she held her sewing in her lap. She had been a fine needle woman in her younger days, and even in her 80's, she loved to do the small sewing jobs that families produce incessantly: buttons to be reattached, socks to be darned, small tears to be mended, etc.

Between her chair and the fireplace stood a small stool, covered in dark blue tapestry. It had four sturdy wooden legs, hand-carved by the look of them. It stood only about 8 inches high, perfect for a little girl to sit on, and from my very earliest years, I loved to perch on it as Aunt Martha sewed and hummed, and told me stories of her childhood in Minnesota, back in the 1860's. The stool even had a name: it was called the Cricket, and whenever Aunt Martha invited me to join her, she would smile and say: "You may sit on the Cricket, IF you are a very good little girl." That warning, she explained, was a time-honored tradition in our family. When her mother was a small child, her grandmother used the same words, with the same twinkle in her eye, to invite her to sit on The Cricket.

At the time, I considered the Cricket my very own place to sit. It was only later that I recognized it as a piece of family history. How far that little Cricket has traveled!

As I look back at my family, the first mention of the Cricket that I can be sure of comes from my great great great grandmother, Abigail Hinsdale. She was born on August 26, 1765, and lived in Hartford, Connecticut, the second child and first daughter of Captain Barnabas Hinsdale and Magdalen Seymour.

Abigail (known by her nickname, "Nabbie") grew up and married Allen Manley. The young couple decided to leave Hartford and go to the wilds of northern Vermont, carrying the Cricket among their household goods. Their daughter, Martha, was born in 1805.

Martha grew up and married Jesse Pomeroy. Their daughter was Abigail Pomeroy, my great grandmother. She grew up and married Solomon Stevens Burleson of Franklin, Vt., and soon after their wedding, they moved west to Wisconsin, where Solomon was to set up his law practice. The Cricket went with them, and survived a long spell under water in Lake Pepin, when a quick storm froze the lake and capsized the boat at the dock.

Within a year, Solomon was convinced by Bishop Whipple, the great missionary bishop of frontier days, to study for the ministry. After his graduation from seminary, he and Abigail moved from town to town, starting congregations and building Episcopal churches all over Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Cricket, of course, moved with them every time.

Their sixth child was my grandmother, Abigail Marion Burleson. She grew up and married Charles Edwin Kelsey, a young lawyer who had earlier spent a year in California and fallen in love with it. He took his bride west to San Jose, where in later years Abigail's mother, by then a widow, joined them, bringing the Cricket with her just in time for yet another good little girl to sit on it. She was Mary Electa Kelsey, who would grow up to marry Orrin Henry Brown. They were my parents. The Cricket came to our home when my grandmother and Aunt Martha moved into our household in Redwood City, in 1941.

After my parents divorced and my mother remarried, it went to Port Townsend, Washington because my grandmother moved in with a sister-in-law and nephew. It moved east to North Carolina in 1963, when my grandmother came to live again with my mother, her only child.

The cricket came to me in 1976, the year Mother sold her home and moved to a retirement community. "It needs a hearth," Mother said.

I had no daughter to caution about being a very good little girl, and my sons were pretty big by then. They tended to use the Cricket as a footstool if they used it at all. But my middle son, William, grew up and married a wonderful girl named Sandra, who brought us one ready-made granddaughter named Gina. So now there were at least eight generations (and possibly earlier ones) involved. Then came a baby whom they called Julia, and a little boy named Adam. Both have enjoyed sitting on the Cricket, and I delight in delivering the time-honored "If you're a very good little girl (boy)" message.

I don't know where the well-traveled, well-loved Cricket will go next. Through all the family's changes and chances, it has remained a small, sturdy part of our past, a tangible link to times long ago. A look at the underside reveals that the legs have been braced a couple of times, and in my lifetime, it has had three coverings (the current one was needle pointed by my Mother, to my knowledge the only needlework she ever did).

It's a long way from Nabbie to Gina, Julia and Adam, but the family memories are passed on from generation to generation, just like the dear little Cricket. Sturdy is, I think, the operative word.

 

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