A black hump-backed immigration trunk sits modestly in my dining room. Most people don't notice its presence. But oh! the stories that trunk could tell.
The trunk began in the shop of a German cabinetmaker. It is made of walnut with embossed tin detail. I imagine my Prussian great-great grandparents fitting their lives into the confines of the trunk in preparation for emigration to the United States in 1852 They had been promised acres of rich farm land. I'm sure they stuffed the trunk with food for travel, warm clothes, basic tools and household items, and a few precious mementos. Whatever they put in, it was not enough. After months of arduous travel, they arrived at a wooded land that had to be cleared before it could be farmed. I imagine them cold and hungry and fearful and exhausted. Just them and this trunk. With great ingenuity and creativeness, they successfully made a satisfying life and strong foundation for descendants.
I never met those ancestors. The trunk comes to me through their granddaughter, my grandmother, Mary Massman. And it is for her story that I originally wanted this trunk in my home. She was in her late teens when her parents died. Her two older brothers expected her to have no other dream than to continue housekeeping for them. "It is what Mom and Dad would want," they reminded her. "Keep the family together." She saw through that selfishness and so did the young man who wanted to marry her. When her brothers saw her talking to him after church, they started a campaign against him. "Ridge farmer. Never amount to anything. Stay away from him." Her family had a wealthy bottomland farm. Mary liked her pretty clothes and the brothers were certain the fear of being poor would convince her to stay with them. But one spring day Martin Veltrop, her beau, pulled up to the house in a shiny rented carriage pulled by two magnificent bay horses. He came to the door dressed formally in a black suit and said he was there to take Mary with him. The brothers tried to close the door on him but Mary pushed past. "Martin, bring my trunk to the carriage. I'm ready." Grandma too had fitted the confines of this trunk with the things she would need for a new life. I picture her placing handcrafted tablecloths, quilts, doilies and mementos of her parents as well as clothing in the trunk. I imagine her brothers being astounded at the audacity of this little sister who didn't know her place. Martin and Mary, my grandparents, successfully created a productive farm and a beautiful family.
Although not limited to the confines of the trunk as my ancestors were, I too have stuffed the trunk on each of our moves. With each move we ruthlessly shed possessions meaning to simplify our life. But we've held onto the trunk .
I use that unassuming trunk and its stories as a symbol of hard truths: "Life is cyclic. Everything repeats itself just as in nature. Nothing of these past lives remains except their spirit of creative living." And that is enough for me.
Cherie Dupuis is a member of the Jottings Group at The Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.
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