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A Spoonful of History

by Julia Sneden

 

The women in my family have had to cope with a lot of upheavals. I come from a long line of women who packed up and followed their men west, starting God knows where, ‘way back when, but in the past few hundred years, from England and Bavaria and Holland. They came to Connecticut and New Amsterdam, and then moved on to Vermont and western New York State, on to Michigan and South Dakota, to California, and — with my mother’s mid-life remarriage, back east and south to North Carolina.

This peripatetic lifestyle meant that each generation packed up their families’ essential belongings and left the rest behind. Clothes, of course, came first, along with sewing supplies and knitting needles, as well as things that warmed and/or nourished their home folks: quilts and blankets, good knives, hatchets and pokers and flints; iron pots and pans and long-handled forks for toasting food over the fire; the brass teakettle that sat on the hearth. Fine china didn’t travel well, so pewter plates and bowls made the trip. I don’t imagine that dinner forks were essential along the trail, because one could always pick up a piece of meat on the point of a hunting knife, or simply gnaw on a bone.

Spoons, however, were very useful, both for eating soups and stews and for stirring the coffee or tea, never mind measuring out small amounts of sugar and spices.

In my grandfather’s collection of Indian artifacts from Northern California, there was a spoon carved from horn. An expert told us that it came from Alaska, and had traveled down the western coast of Canada and the United States along the well-traveled trade routes of the west coast tribes.

I don’t know if any of my ancestors used a horn spoon, but I imagine that if I were to go far enough back, I’d find any number of spoons made from local materials: clay, hollowed-out stone, shells, carved wood, horn, etc.

By the time I came along, however, my ancestors had moved up a few notches to coin silver. As a result, and as my mother’s only daughter, I inherited an odd lot of coin silver teaspoons. No forks or knives or pickle servers or soup spoons came with them, but as long as I stuck with tea, I could set a lovely table.

When my great grandmother was a girl, it was fashionable to give a silver spoon to mark just about any occasion. In 1856, when she married my great grandfather, someone gave her a silver teaspoon marked with a “B” for her new last name. It is so much heavier than other coin silver spoons that the family has always called it “the iron spoon,” although the back of the handle is plainly stamped: “pure coin.”

I have one spoon engraved on the back: “JEK: Oneida, June 24, 1893,” which is commemorative of the day my Great Aunt Julia was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. She was almost 40 years old when she was converted by my great grandfather, a missionary priest. Her brother, who later became my grandfather, was confirmed at the same time, and he was given a spoon identical to Julia’s, except for his own initials, CEK, above the date.

Neither one of them needed a spoon, actually, because when my grandmother later married CEK, she came into a family that had a veritable stash of coin silver spoons dating from the early to mid 19 th century. One set said: “Kelsey” on the handle in simple manuscript. The other, a fragile half dozen spoons, had “Kelsey” in lovely, curvy script.

My grandmother gave the latter to me on my first birthday, along with a note that the malleable bowls of the spoons bore the baby teeth marks of both my grandfather and my mother. I was not, of course, old enough to appreciate them for many years. Those spoons now bear one or two of my own baby teeth marks, as well as those of my son, and, I hope, the granddaughter to whom I sent them on her first birthday. It’s an odd tradition, letting babies dent old spoons, but we’re now and then an odd family.

Along with the Kelsey spoons came three spoons marked "JCR.” They belonged to my great grandfather’s older sister, Julia Caroline Kelsey, who married a Mr. Rawls (or Rolls), and bore ten children. She died of cholera in the mid 1800’s, and nine of her children died with her. Her husband and an infant daughter survived. He later remarried and moved to the mid-west with his new wife and the toddler, and the family lost track of them.

When I took my mother’s ashes to Geneseo, NY for burial in the family plot, I found myself pausing at Julia Caroline’s grave. I am, perhaps, the only one left who knows her sad story.

The reason I know all these tales is that I used to help my grandmother and great aunt polish the silver every couple of months. It’s remarkable how much family history one can learn from a few spoons if there is someone next to you, remembering aloud as she rubs off the tarnish.

Nowadays we don’t usually live in close proximity to our grandparents, let alone great aunts. I find myself writing down the little stories connected to various old objects, in hopes of passing along their true value to my grandchildren. No amount of writing can pass along the gentle voices that told them to me.

I was always taught that it’s people, not things, that matter in this life. But sometimes things can connect us to people we never knew, simply through the stories that connect one generation to another.

The spoons now belong to my granddaughters, except for Julia Caroline’s. Those will go to my daughter-in-law, a loving woman who will perhaps tell their story to her own grandchildren, in her own gentle voice.

 

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