Life in the Family Museum

What shall I do with the scarred dresser that crossed the sea in steerage with my great-grandparents in the late 1870s? Josephine, an impoverished girl from Oslo and pregnant, made the journey with her arms crossed tightly around her belly as the baby tumbled around inside her, while Christian tried to keep a grip on lifelong mental fragility and an increasing dependence on alcohol, one ice-blue eye on his expectant wife and the other on his stoic, elderly parents, both in their 80s, who had just said goodbye to Gudbrandsdalen, the beautiful valley where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

The dresser landed first in a crowded workers’ cabin at a sawmill in Wisconsin. Josephine and her mother-in-law were the cooks; the old man and Christian stacked lumber onto wagons and Christian drank up most of the money he earned. Then it joined the family for a jog west by train, only it made the journey in a cattle car, a parakeet in a cage on top, a cat and newborn kittens snuggled in one of its drawers, and a cow roped to it. After arriving in North Dakota, it sat within a sod hut on a homestead that yielded little. (Josephine squirreled away the butter money behind a block of dirt wall so Christian wouldn’t steal it and she’d be able to leave something to her three daughters).

There, on the prairie, far from the green hills of Gudbrandsdalen, the two old folks died. A couple of decades later, in a small Dakota town, the reliable bureau contained the home-made clothing of my grandparents and their seven children. By the time I met this stalwart family friend, my grandmother was a widow in Bismarck and used it to hold her flannel nightgowns, handkerchiefs, wool mittens, head scarves, and other sundries. I never dreamed it would one day be mine and that I would have to fret about its destiny.

In an article about older people and downsizing, I read that my children, if I’d had any, would reject what is now called the “brown furniture” of the past, furniture like this dresser. They’d prefer the stackable, the modular, the easily moved. Would they be interested in the fact that one of my first memories is of my four-year-old self stretching up high to stuff a squirming baby rattlesnake into a Kleenex box on this dresser’s top because I was being called to lunch and needed to stash my new playmate somewhere for the time being? Would they like to know that the baby snake was never seen again? I’d disown these nonexistent children if they didn’t care to hear that story.

But what can people past fifty, sixty and beyond really expect of those who follow us? It probably isn’t right to ask them to hang onto something that once held meaning for a family and a time but has served its purpose.

No one explicitly asked me to take this dresser; it was understood by my Aunt Mattie, its previous caretaker, that someone would take it and the likely someone was me. I drove to Bismarck with a friend to fetch it, along with some other things, after Mattie died.

Sometimes I regret that fetching. For almost twenty years the dresser has been sitting in my bedroom in Oregon, mismatching the light, modern lines of my home with its blunt, stocky shape, present as a faithful dog who will never die or leave me, one I cannot put up for adoption to anyone because a) I don’t have the heart to kick it out after 150 (or more) years of family service, and b) no one else would want it. This is not a fine Victorian-era piece. It’s made of a dark and heavy wood gouged roughly from some primeval Norwegian forest. It’s three feet high with four broad drawers, each with a big key hole worthy of a pirate’s chest (key long lost). This history of lockability must have seeped into the bureau’s sense of importance because the drawers put up a struggle whenever I try to open them. You’d think they were fighting to protect a store of jewels and not my socks and piles of well-worn sweaters. Yet, those rickety drawers are the single charming thing about it. Their pulls are carved right out of the wood itself and are in the shape of fat, round fruit. Grapes? Lingonberries? Marionberries? It’s probably a reflection of my conflicted relationship with this dresser that I have never tried to figure out exactly what sort of fruit those rounded bumps with their trailing leaves are supposed to be.

I probably wouldn’t be so conflicted if this were my single piece of old, valueless, scarred-up family furniture to daily observe, protect, and worry over as if I were a guard at the Getty, but that’s not the case. I have some other pieces —a coffee table, for example, that looks like it’s been a theater prop for several hundred plays, and a banged-up desk—as well as old letters, diaries, photographs, and newspaper clippings about the comings, goings, and significant life events of people long dead. I am the self-appointed caretaker of a deep past that absolutely no one in the next generation or two, at least as far as I can see, has the slightest interest in.

Articles about downsizing don’t really begin to address the sense of responsibility involved in this role. The writers think we all have the same issue. On a practical level we do, but our feelings and our connections to these things are unique. Each tells us a story that is not daily or routine but lives in some other part of the forests of our minds, over in the magic wood where the old ones gather and speak.

I have let go of many items from the family and from my own life, just as lots of my peers have done, whether or not they’ve read about the brown furniture or bothered to flip through countless other magazine tips about getting organized. I can’t say I miss what’s gone.

Still, it seems to be getting harder, at least for me and maybe for many others, to release all of it, even if we know where to send or give it. All I can say is that I once loved running into my grandmother’s bedroom, bursting with some news from the rush of life among the kids in our neighborhood, and finding her bent over a drawer in the bureau searching for her hairbrush or a pair of wool gloves so that she could go hang clothes on the backyard line in cold weather, or lifting out a carefully pressed pillowcase embroidered by the sewing wizard in the family, my Aunt Marie, one that she would slip over the feather pillow on her single bed. I loved her and I loved that whole lovely, funny, and hearty gang of people, descendants of Gudbrandsdalen and Oslo.

I stuffed as many of their stories as I could into a blog, Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. The majority of that is archived behind the scenes on my web site now. For seven years I kept a record about caretaking my mother. I hope for it to be a book one of these days, a cache of Great Plains history as well as a log of the dynamics of our relationship, which often felt to me more like being the straight woman in a comedy team than an extension of the mother/daughter past we’d shared back in the Midwest.

So this is my role for now: keeper of the family stories and the family museum. The dresser is mine. Mine to live with. Mine to die with. Mine to pass on to…no one. Late in her life, my mother informed me that it once supported a large mirror. I’m glad that mirror is gone so that I don’t have to see my reflection as I approach the old bureau each day, bracing myself for a wrestling match in order to grab a pair of socks, my face filled with both a regard for the past and a longing to put something light and airy in its place, something with drawers that glide open. But then, I don’t think I’d care much about whatever a bright new thing like that would have to tell me.

Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at

11 Replies to “Life in the Family Museum”

  1. Memories. Furniture. A battery powered transistor radio that accompanied us to Ferry Point Part in the Bronx. Various kitchen implements. I too have those from Sam (my non-bio dad). There is a 50’s dresser that Sam inherited from an old, very close friend and Sam gave to me. Dresser has traveled from the Bronx, to Marietta, GA, to Seattle, back to Georgia and now lives with me in Marblehead. The stories it could tell. MANY more stories could be told by the old, heavy bedroom furniture that lives with Beryl: a “set,” including a mirror. My sister Beryl cannot part with any of it.
    thanks for this story, this remembrance.

  2. Beautiful and touching. I have a house filled with books which are my memories and was my life with Jim. The house itself is redolent of us. To move would be to wipe away my past. To break up my books destroy a small community that comforted, strengthened, consoled us.

  3. Grateful for this piece. I write at my grandmother’s federal style desk, the one at which I learned to write as a child. It’s heavy and ugly and it’s not a fit in my blond wood and glass home. And I will be the last one to love it, so I do.

  4. Thank you for telling the story of your dresser. I wish I knew as much about my grandparent’s fruitwood bedroom set: my mother has the vanity with mirror and I have my grandfather’s dresser. I love the word “fruitwood.” I loaned their maple rocker to a person in my synagogue when his home was destroyed by fire, but I don’t think it is ever coming back. I remember my grandmother sitting in it, with a McCalls magazine and a Leon Uris hardcover on the tin TV table pulled up beside it. My grandma Lily showed me the Betsy McCall’s paper doll in each issue. And when she got up to push the carpet sweeper around the apartment, I sat in her rocker and read, too.

  5. Andrea,
    This piece made me think of the pieces of family furniture and bric-a-brac I first toted to Florida, then Oregon, then back to Kentucky before I moved here. Some are stored at a brother’s, others rest in a friend’s basement, and still others have been distributed to nieces and nephews. I can’t either seem to get rid of these treasures of memories even though I no longer see them now that I live in Europe…but somehow they give me comfort knowing that if I ever do return, they will again be part of my life. Thanks for writing about something so mundane yet such an extraordinary part your family history!

  6. Thank you for these comments and for the window into a few of your own museums of kitchen implements and a traveling dresser, the small community of book that brings comfort, the heavy old desk where a child’s new skill of writing was born, the fruitwood dresser and a rocker where a grandmother read and and which she shared with her granddaughter, the furniture toted back and forth across the country and stored in fact and mind as a comfort should an ex-pat ever return home. I loved reading about these attachments. Thanks so much for sharing them.

  7. Hi Cousin Andrea. I just read this piece and I remember that dresser! I don’t remember Grandma very well but Aunt Mattie had hankies in the top drawer and they always smelled so good when she would pull them out. I have my mom’s lefse stick hanging in my kitchen and a casserole bowl that is old and well used that I don’t bake with anymore but use it for buns and breads when we have company. I have her old Betty Crocker cookbook with all her notes and newpaper articles that she would cut out and stick in there. Karen has the old cake pan with the lid that mom always used for Rice Krispie bars. There were just things that we couldn’t get rid of because of the memories. I love those memories and hope I never lose them. Love you! Marty

    1. Hey there, dear Cousin Marty. Thanks for checking in. I’m so glad you remember the dresser. You’re right. I think Mattie kept handkerchiefs in that top drawer later on. I was just thinking about making lefse the other day. Maybe I’ll borrow Pearl’s stick. Pearl liked to cook more than Alice did, though I do have a box of my mother’s recipes. I keep them all not because I want to make them but because I love opening the box and seeing her handwriting. All of those sisters wrote so beautifully, but I think only Pearl and LaRue were the true cooks and bakers. I miss you. xoxoxo

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