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Legacies

By Emily Herring Wilson / October 23, 1981



The legacies of my grandmothers are now in my keeping. From Nanny, the bentwood rocker from Grandmother Allen, the pearl-handled buttonhook. This morning the rocker withdraws into a silence amid the contemporary furniture of my glass house. On my desk, the buttonhook is alien among pencils and papers. Yet having them brings home to me the years of my childhood. Not yet confortable in her chair, feeling traitorous when I slide her buttonhook into my jeans pocket, I am not ready to take possession of worlds that spun like planets in the galaxy of my first and last heaven.

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It was time for the inheritance. Louise Jessop Allen in her 92nd year sleeps like a child in the clean efficiency of a nursing home in Columbus, Ga. Musa Blackmon Herring, a decade younger, has broken up housekeeping after more than half a century in rural towns in Alabama to go and live in Atlanta with her youngest son and his family. All the china closets and oak-tables and teapots of their lives have been scattered to the children and grandchildren. The bentwood rocker and the buttonhook traveled with me to North Carolina, and there are, family members from California to Massachusetts who shared in the last ritual. From one century to another. From one world to another. From Grandmother Allen and Nanny to Emily Herring Wilson, child of Louise Allen's third daughter and Musa Herring's first son.

When I see them now, they are not aslep in nursing homes and distant cities. Grandmother Allen. is sitting in the gooseneck chair reading The Old Curiosity Shopm to her sister Edna. She stops to clear her throat and to have a drink of water; no one says anything, and Aunt Edna's eyes are closed. The reading will go on all morning until Louise coms to the end of another chapter, closes the book, and stands for a moment by her sister. Whose sorrow she sighs for I would not know. They will sit for a while on the porch, waiting for the postman, calling to neighbors, listening to the traffic on the Avenue. After lunch, they will lie down for a rest in a bed they have shared for most of their lives. Louise will wake first and will go upstairs to a back room, where she will finger old letters. When she was a young mother, she wrote verses, mostly jingles for Lydia Pinkham Compounds and Health Spot Shoes. But later we will find others, poems with a rhyme and tender and self-deprecating humor. When I turned 8, she gave me a small red leather book for the poems she knew that I would write.

Hers the pearl-handled buttonhook, already a symbol of the past when it lay on her dresser and I studied it among the combs and pins and cut-glass bowls. The world she came from which I would never know-when ladies fastened their black buttonshoes--she put away like old letters. If I asked, she would tell about her father, Alfred Jessop, a Pennsylvania Quaker, who invented practical devices for the house; he had told her of his own distant world, of cutting ice off the pond to bury in straw for summer.

Into my world she brought decks of cards and patience for teaching canasta to children; she brought instructions on how to wash a girl's face so as not to turn up the nose; she brought Charles Dickens. A mild and soft lady, my Grandmother Allen.

Nanny was tougher and had to be. Was she 16 when she married? How recently had she closed her geography book at the desk in the two-story frame schoolhouse we would pass by, abandoned in Mountain Hill, Ga.? When she goes back now, she cannot find the home. I think I could find it, near the branch and the apple trees, near where my daddy, waiked to school with his lunch pail.

Nanny, also a: writer, who told us stories as we warmed in our gowns by the fire-who also wrote them down and sent them off to the Atlanta Journalm , which paid her $1, and printed them in the Sunday magazine. Now as she closes up her house, she looks through the desk drawers for her stories. I know them by heart.

Once, after the birth of my son she wrote to me, "I have had my cup of joy."

Making something out of words, she could make something out of nothing. Oatmeal boxes into doll beds; crab, apple trees into tree houses; coal bins into hiding places. She made a blue organdy dress for me and a pink one for my sister , Janis, and she took us to the photographer in Lanett, Alabama. See, here, are the pictures--Nanny made those dresses. Yes, yes, we nod at her. We remember.

Nanny made good biscuits and we smothered them in syrup. Her garden yielded corn and beans, okra and potatoes. We ate big meals in the middle of the day, and we took our grandfater's lunch to him at the Dye Works; he came out smelling strong like work. Work was what Nanny and Tol knew. And play--that was what Nanny saved for grandchildren.

Once we went fishing and a bull scared us. We still talk about it. We sat on the porch at Reid Street and watched the townsmen walk their cows home from the community pasture. We can still hear the low mooing. The embers glowed as she banked the fire and we scrambled into her big bed; in the morning, she stirred them up and gave us hot chocolate.

Everything is gone: the house on Fourth Avenue and the pasture on Reid Street; the box of old letters and the little stories; the, imagination which held children for all these years.

The bentwood rocker and the buttonhook are mine. I know where they come from; I have been there; I will go back. Memory draws me to a comfortable place.