A 126-year-old Christmas present speaks across the years

Christmas 1888 letter photo RS

Christmas Letter from 1888

By Christmas of 1888, Reconstruction had been over for 12 years, but toys were scarce in the South and money with which to buy them was even scarcer. Children, not understanding this, continued in good faith to make requests of Santa; my maternal grandmother pestered him for a trunk in which to keep the clothes that had been hand-made for her dolls, Dinah and Sallie and Grover Cleveland.

Now, my family never throws anything away. The detritus of all previous generations is passed along to the next. Thus it was that, after my mother’s death in 1990, my brother and I were tasked with sifting through and divvying up her personal effects. Among these was a smallish and quite old wooden chest, plain, utilitarian and with the words “Richmond Va” stenciled on one side in faded black paint. I had seen it before – had in fact been told that another of my ancestors kept his spare Confederate uniform and pistols in it – but I had never looked inside it, so Brother James and I did that.

The little chest was full of letters. Dozens upon dozens of them, all lying around loose as though somebody had just dumped a sack of mail. But they were from many different time periods. After examining a couple of handfuls, we discovered the whole history of part of the family, from the 1840’s to the 1940’s, as filtered through the U.S. Postal Service.

But that wasn’t all. Underneath the letters was another, much smaller chest. It’s on the desk before me as I write this. It is bound in leather that has grown dry and paper-thin with age; in places the leather has flaked off altogether, exposing the wood beneath. The lid is studded with domed tacks of now-blackened brass and is fitted with a leather carrying handle now striated with cracks. The once brass latch is broken.

When I first opened it, I found that it contained a number of scraps of moth-eaten cloth. These had been carefully rolled and tagged, by means of long-rusted straight pins, with withered paper labels written in the spidery hand I had come to recognize (after going through all those labels) as belong to Aunt Mollie, one of my great-great grandmother’s sisters and the family historian until her death as a very old lady in Richmond in 1942. The fabric scraps, which were thoroughly moth eaten, were from dresses made for significant family events — weddings, funerals, christenings – though one bit of dark Richmond gray twill was labelled “Pa’s Confed. coat.”

And pasted to the inside of the lid was – and still is, for I am afraid to try to remove it – this letter, written in blue ink long since faded gray, in the hand I had also come to recognize as belonging to my grandmother’s grandmother herself:

“Spartanburg, S.C., December 25, 1888

“My Dear Little Caryl,

“You say Santa Claus must bring you a trunk, so ‘Ma’ gives you this with its history. More than thirty years ago we got it for a medicine chest & it has traveled a great deal. In 1864 we were living in Prince Geo. Co. Va. not far from Fort Powhatan on James River. When Grant advanced on Petersburg we could see from our yard the smoke of the gunboats. Your mother was a little baby then drinking ‘ninny milk’ as you do and when the yankees took all my cows I had nothing for her to eat so we went to Petersburg where yr. grandfather was with the soldiers. We could not carry much with us but we took the little trunk filled with medicine & business papers. It had been hidden by your Aunts Mollie and Vie in a ditch covered with briars, for the yankees were searching our house and taking whatever they wished. You like to have the trunk now for Dinah’s and Sallie’s and Grover Cleveland’s clothes, but when you are a big girl you will like it for its history. Keep it always for the sake of your grandmother who loves you very much & prays for you every day that you may be a good girl & a noble Christian woman.

“Elvira F. Woodward”

The ancients believed that on Halloween the veil that separates this world from the one beyond it becomes very thin and sheer. I submit the same thing happens at Christmas, which is why I make a point of opening the little trunk (carefully) and rereading this letter about this time every year. After I’m gone it will pass to my children, and hopefully to theirs. It is easy to lose one’s way in this loud and distracting world, and as my grandmother, the little girl to whom the trunk was given all those Christmases ago, was wont to say, “You can’t fully understand how to get where you’re going without understanding where you came from.”

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