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Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family's Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Timeby Lisa Tracy
The day we packed the house, i was in the living room sorting family pictures and papers when the movers came. One mover, to be precise: He was the advance guard, the packing man.
It was a beautiful October day in 1992, still warm but with an edge in the air. Fall had come to the mountains around the small Virginia town where I’d grown up, but the flame-colored ridges weren’t what I’d come for. I was wrestling with the contents of a chest of drawers where my mother had deposited a pile of family papers. There were genealogy charts, military commendations, fragments of biographies, letters from the War of 1812, a photocopy of a journal dating from the 1840s, and what seemed like dozens of little framed daguerreotypes of people whose identity was a complete mystery to me. All had to be sorted and packed, because when my sister, Jeanne, came later that week, we’d be helping our eighty-three-year-old mother move—not particularly willingly—to a retirement home from the house she’d occupied for forty years. It had been her parents’ house, then hers and Daddy’s.
She had been living alone for almost twenty-five years now, and people had recently started calling us with worrisome anecdotes and dire predictions, all of course veiled in polite concern, this being a small town where certain formalities still obtained. She was making unexplained withdrawals from her bank account. She would walk aimlessly, turning up at the church at unexpected times. Her driving was atrocious, had been for years.
Mother had told us herself that she really didn’t think she should be living alone, and for a while my nephew had lived at the house with her. We’d looked for live-in help without much success. There weren’t many options. I’d found only one candidate, a woman who didn’t drive and who smoked. We’re a small family, just Jeanne and me in our generation, and we were both living hundreds of miles away. What were we to do?
The only retirement home—we didn’t want a nursing home, just someplace safe where she would have help—was the old hotel, a relic of an earlier time, as the worn carpet and small, rather dark rooms reminded us when I went with her to look at it. She agreed to the corner room overlooking the street all too close to our house—her house—just a quick walk down to the corner, across the street, and down the alley. Acceded with teeth clenched, a gracious face, and the steely determination to fight again as soon as the opponent’s back was turned. We thought she was adjusting remarkably well to the inevitable. She fooled us.
The men of the family—on both sides, Mother’s and Daddy’s—had been high-ranking military officers, their wives gracious hostesses. The accumulated social power of that household, reflected in all its furnishings and memorabilia, made moving out quite a comedown. For Mother, leaving all that gentility behind must have seemed like an admission of weakness, a failure, a defeat. She was abandoning ship, and I think it broke her heart. But, as was typical of our true-blue military family with its Victorian ways, she didn’t say, and we didn’t ask, how she felt about it. She put on her stiffest upper lip and moved.
She would be dead within six months. But we didn’t know that then, of course. On this mid-October day, the move and all that would follow were still ahead of us, and I was on an archaeological dig, plowing through layers of family possessions we’d managed to ignore for decades, or in some cases had never seen before. And that’s when the man we would come to know as Roger arrived.
“Where would you like me to start?” he asked, surveying the living room I’d strewn with papers. Not here, I thought. The last thing I needed in the living room at this point was helping hands. I took him to the dining room and showed him the contents of the Hepplewhite cabinet that we used as a china closet, which I figured would keep him busy for a while, even with his fancy shrink-wrap.
But in less than an hour, he was back. “I’m finished with the china,” he said, looking pretty pleased with himself. “What would you like me to do next?”
I was still excavating the bowfront chest of drawers—a homely thing with an ashen-colored veneer and drawers that tended to jam. I was also probably irritated that this guy was interrupting me again already; I was on a short leash, with a demanding job and a teenage son six hours up the East Coast, and I had just a few days here to get as much packed as possible. Mother—who was in no real hurry to move anywhere—wasn’t helping. Now it was dawning on me that movers required supervision. What, they didn’t come with a floor plan of your house and telepathic powers?
I took Roger to the kitchen and opened the cabinets where the daily china lived: parts of a set of Noritake, badly faded from the dishwasher; all the glassware; the Italian faience creamers and sugar bowls; the remnants of blue-and-white Canton my grandmother had used for breakfast dishes, and we after her; the tea sets and coffee cups.
He looked a little crestfallen, but rallied and got on with some more shrink-wrapping. After about another hour, he reemerged, grim but triumphant. “All right,” he said evenly. “I’m done with the china. What’s next?”
Here he was again. I really wanted to get all these papers into a box I would recognize next time I saw it—in the storage bin or wherever—in case we needed it in a hurry. And I wanted to get it done before Mother came back from whatever errand she’d gone out on, so we wouldn’t have to discuss the whole business: the unwelcome move and the odious packing, much less the papers and photos and all the family history they might represent, which we definitely didn’t have time to go into right now. Yes, Roger would have to be kept occupied until I’d at least dispatched the contents of these drawers.
I led him to the basement, to the walk-in closet that had held my grandmother’s preserves. Now it was a repository for Christmas decorations, broken lamps, bric-a-brac, and glassware. In the middle of the center shelves stood stacks of plates. One hundred thirty rose medallion Canton luncheon plates, to be exact. I gestured to them apologetically. Roger shot me a dirty look.
“Right,” he muttered. I left him there and went back to the papers in the living room. If he thought we had a lot of stuff, well, he’d only had to deal so far with the china. It was quite a while before I saw him again, but meanwhile I had begun to wonder. Granted, our family had quite an assortment of china, from years, I supposed, of entertaining, to say nothing of inheriting from forebears. But what exactly were we doing with a hundred-some luncheon plates of any kind, much less Canton?
The Canton Plates
The china, as much as anything, exemplifies the difficulty of dismissing the family furniture—or trying to. For me, it represents my grandmother Bess, the woman we called Granny.
Elizabeth “Bess” Egbert was born in 1872 into an Army family stationed at a remote outpost in California. Camp Independence, in Paiute territory at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, was far from the civilized world. In 1872, Thomas Edison had just earned $40,000—an astonishing sum—for improvements to the stock market’s ticker and was establishing his first real laboratory. A confederation of German states had stunned the world by trouncing France and invading Paris. But here in the Owens Valley of California’s high desert country, the earthshaking event was an 8.1 quake that tore a rift in the valley floor. Amazingly, it killed only a handful of people at the only settlement of any note in the area, Lone Pine, where they died in their beds under falling adobe bricks.
At Camp Independence, an Army post just up the road from Lone Pine, Capt. Harry Egbert and his wife, Nelly, were among those who shook in their beds that night but lived to tell the tale of how they’d escaped the quake. Nine months later, a few days after Christmas of that year, little Elizabeth—Bess, or Bessie, as they would call her—was born, the Egberts’ second child and their first daughter.
Bess would have little memory of the post or of the towering Sierra Nevada that loomed in the near distance. By the time she was six, her father had been transferred through at least seven assignments, including a trip to Washington escorting what his service papers describe simply as “an insane soldier,” and campaigns in Indian territory in Idaho. For longer postings, the family typically moved with him. It was probably with some road-weariness, then, that they arrived at Fort Verde, near the rich bottomland of Arizona’s aptly named Verde River. It was 1878, just before Bess’s sixth birthday. They might well have taken a steamboat up the Colorado River as far as Fort Yuma, a route favored by the Army. Nelly later recounted how they left Fort Yuma to cross the for-bidding Mojave Desert through Apache territory in Army ambulances— covered wagons with benches in the back that could convert into bunks— carrying all of their drinking water with them. They stayed for a full four years in Arizona, where Bess’s father—a Civil War veteran, and by now one of the Army’s more senior line officers—at one point served a term as the territory’s judge advocate.
In the course of dealing with the furniture after Mother died, I’d started looking for information to better understand who this woman, my grandmother, was. And when I did, I found Harry Egbert on the Web. Harry, it turned out, had led a sufficiently flamboyant life to show up more than once. The Egberts, moreover, had lived in times and places that went down in history for other reasons. More Web searches turned up not only Camp Independence but also Fort Verde. Fort Verde, I found, had a website: The fort had become an Arizona state historic park and museum, “the best preserved example of an Indian Wars period fort in Arizona.” In the heart of Apache territory, it was also, I learned, the primary base for scouts reporting to George Crook, the U.S. Army general who helped bring about the surrender and exile of the legendary Apache warrior Geronimo.
The day I stumbled on the Forte Verde website, I picked up the phone— why not?—and was soon talking with a staff curator at the fort, located somewhere in the foothills north of Phoenix. It was a slow day in the park, and she was happy to look for the Egberts in the museum files. It would have been in April of the year the Egberts arrived there, she mentioned in passing, that Geronimo had left the San Carlos reservation to the east of Fort Verde, passing within miles of the fort as he successfully evaded the U.S. Cavalry and fled south.
“Oh, this is interesting,” she said, moments later. “There’s a whole series of letters here—it looks like a real squabble!” It seemed that Captain Egbert, who was serving as Fort Verde’s commanding officer, had been accused by a junior officer of hogging the best house on the post. The Army, precise in its allotments, had prescribed three rooms for a commanding officer with family , and the Egberts had taken possession of their allotted space in the large adobe bungalow, while this lieutenant had a fourth room. They shared a common living and dining room and the kitchen. Although the lieutenant was surely an unsought-for boarder in the Egbert household (where the U.S. government was of course the undisputed landlord), they seem to have started out amicably enough. The trouble began when the lieutenant married and applied for an additional room. As things progressed, it appears tempers rose, and Lieutenant West and Captain Egbert sent a series of increasingly huffy letters via mail pouch to Army regional headquarters. And as the Army took its time to ponder their arguments— eventually denying the lieutenant his application—you can just imagine the two couples and the Egberts’ children crowding the common room of an evening: the children roughhousing, the officers gritting their teeth and trying to get some paperwork done, the wives—strangers, really—straining to make polite conversation over their mending, about the difficulty of getting the enlisted men to bring in the firewood, perhaps, or the surliness of the company’s laundresses. In front of the children, they’d likely have kept to themselves their thoughts about the remaining Apaches who might still be lurking in the foothills across the arroyo.
Rummaging in the park files, the curator also dredged up pictures of typical homes from isolated Army posts in the late 1880s, including interior photos that showed what she described as “a remarkable abundance of stuff”—all sorts of ornaments and small household objects that an officer’s family hauled with them to define their quarters as home wherever they traveled. Army families were allowed a certain number of pounds of household belongings, depending on rank and expected duration of stay. An officer of Harry Egbert’s rank would have had something like a one-thousand-pound allotment, and the Army Quartermaster Corps would have taken care of moving it by train and then wagon to the family’s new home in Fort Verde. Typically that thousand pounds would include clothing, personal effects, status symbols such as portraits and the good tableware, and a few precious pieces of decent furniture.
When officers and their families arrived at frontier posts like Fort Verde, the curator noted, they would cobble together a décor made up of their own possessions and whatever they could buy from those who were departing. A nineteenth-century manual at Fort Verde shows how to construct tables and chairs from packing boxes, just one indication of how strapped Army families were for furnishings, thousands of miles from anything resembling a department store. That, the curator said, explained the abundance of throws in photos from the museum’s archives. Easily packed squares of colorful fabric, woven or knitted, they could mask a dilapidated chair or settee or cover a scarred table while providing the comfort of familiarity as their owners moved from place to place.
The Canton china was still decades in the family’s future at this point, but Army records tell us that even on the frontier, on the edge of Indian territory with scorpions and centipedes, 110-degree summers and freezing winters, the typical Army wife brought as much as she could carry of her silver, linens, china, and bric-a-brac. She had a position to maintain, appearances to keep up. She would, after all, have to marshal her forces on the only front available to a nineteenth- century Army wife, that of her husband’s advancement.
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