129-Year-Old Christmas Present Speaks Across the Years

“… pasted to the inside of the lid is this letter, written in blue ink long since faded to gray, in the spidery but perfectly legible hand of my grandmother’s own grandmother … “

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1888 letter - Christmas

A 129-Year-Old Christmas present can speak across the years. It did for me.

Shortly after the earth’s crust cooled, God invented the Commonwealth of Virginia and installed my mother’s people in it. They were not wealthy landowners; in fact the men ran to small-time educators and preachers, which was how my great-great grandfather Woodward ended up a chaplain in the Confederate army. The War (the only one that ever mattered) and the time that — with cruel irony — was called “Reconstruction” hit these folks pretty hard and they migrated to South Carolina.

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, whom we called Ma-Ma, 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.

I found out about this because 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, one of which is sitting on my desk as I write this.

It’s a little wooden chest, about the size of a shoebox. It is bound in leather that has grown dry and paper-thin with age and in places has flaked off altogether, exposing the wood beneath. The lid is studded with domed tacks of blackened brass and is fitted with a leather carrying handle now striated with cracks.

And pasted to the inside of the lid is this letter, written in blue ink long since faded to gray, in the spidery but perfectly legible hand of my grandmother’s own grandmother:

“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”

My grandmother, the little girl to whom the little chest was given all those Christmases ago, was buried on Christmas Eve eighty years after Santa brought it to her. 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 Ma-Ma herself used to say, “You can’t know where you’re going without knowing where you came from.”

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