Grandma's Lovely Looking Glass, A Mirror to the Past

HE moving men heaved the old oak dresser into my living room, thumped it against a wall, and unwrapped quilts from its tall, imposing mirror. I breathed a sigh of relief to see the beveled, carved-frame looking glass completely smooth and unmarred. It stood before me unscathed after a journey across many states and a century of reflecting passages in the lives of my family.

My grandmother, the dresser's original owner, must have had her own trepidations when it was delivered to her new in the early 1900s. She was then a young school teacher in the remote mountains of Tennessee and had ordered the piece from a Chattanooga department store, her first major purchase as a working woman. It was brought to her by a horse-drawn wagon rattling noisily over dirt roads, stirring up red clay dust and not a little gossip in its wake.

Although mountain people have a fierce respect for privacy, the most self-contained neighbor couldn't help but notice the ungainly piece of furniture headed in the direction of the school mistress's house, its mirror over six feet tall, the sun dancing off it in a thousand silver shards.

"That big looking glass for Miss Mitchell?" I can hear them say. "She primping for someone? Bet she's got herself a fella."

Miss Mitchell was pretty, but not given to primping. She was small, scholarly, hard-working, and practical. Her energies were spent in trying to bring classical literature to that rural community. And her life in a one-room schoolhouse was far from glamorous. She taught eight grades, served as school nurse, lunchroom attendant, and stoker of the school's potbellied stove.

She rose at dawn and made biscuits, some for her own breakfast, others for students who might forget to bring lunch. She once sent a boy home for coming to school without shoes, then when he arrived without them again, walking barefoot through the snow, she used her scant pay to order him a pair from a Sears, Roebuck catalog.

No one knows why she fancied having a tall mirror, but those who saw the wagon pass that day were right about one thing: Miss Mitchell had herself a beau - the handsome foreman of a lumberyard.

The two married, and the oak dresser became part of their clamoring household, residing in their living room, reflecting the personalities of those who lingered before it.

When willowy Aunt Lula came to call, she stood sideways to admire herself, hands on her slender waist. "This waist was so small on my wedding day," she loved to tell her nieces, "my husband could span it with his two hands."

Miss Mitchell, often worn thin by her sister's vanity, countered with, "Lula's husband had the biggest hands in the county."

Uncle James stopped to check out his stiff new uniform before leaving for Europe during World War II. He stopped again on his way home, sporting crutches and carrying the Medal of Honor.

Seven children straightened out coattails and checked hemlines before heading to dances, going North to seek work during the Great Depression, leaving to marry and start families.

I spent several summers of my youth with Miss Mitchell. I sat upon that dresser, my back to its mirror, as she shared family history and her love of literature with me. By that time, her marriage had faltered and her children had left to make lives of their own. She was sustained by two things she loved - teaching and books.

Her housekeeping was not pristine. From her, I learned that it's more important to clean the cobwebs out of the mind than out of the corners of a house. I read her favorite books, piled upon the oak dresser, and came to know Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Silas Mariner - those who embodied the human condition and survived in spite of life's inequities.

"Those who read," Miss Mitchell said, "need never be lonely."

She's been gone for 30 years now, and her dresser has been willed into my care. I keep it as she did, in my living room, and she'd be pleased to know it sits across from a wall of books. Were she to look in her long mirror today, she'd smile to see reflected there Robert Frost, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Walt Whitman - her old and trusted friends.

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