The grafting trunk

The clickety-clack of my great-grandmother’s ‘old lady shoes’[1] resonated as I toddled after her down the narrow hallway to the old trunk. There, in that back bedroom she and I would sit in the dark brilliance of polished woods, with the old trunk somehow beckoning us as if the face of some minor deity or oracle. Indeed, my great-grandmother treated the old trunk as if it held all the wonders of the world, which, in many ways, it certainly did (and still does…). While I was far too young to understand “it all,” still I would watch her as she carefully opened up the old trunk and filed through its many layered accoutrements. Occasionally, I found her smiling with pride or joy; more often than not, she coughed back an inevitable tear.

My great-grandmother with her daughter Katheryn in 1915.

And, yes, she was the only great-grandmother I ever knew, she, an eighth-generation descendant of William Bradford’s. Say what you will about the course of adoptions and such things, about the sanctity of the old holy bloodlines, and about how being only legally related to her somehow negates my ties to her – and to the old trunk – and I will cry balderdash, and probably call you a flibbertigibbet, as I am ever mindful of the wards in Governor Bradford’s original household.[2]

And while I have wandered many years on my quest for her daughter’s (and my grandmother’s[3]) biological ties (seeking at every corner to find some sort of cosmic understanding or justice in it all) … I only have to look at the old trunk to see the truth of where I have truly come from. In the end they were Mrs. Ogle’s choices that mattered. It was she who grafted us onto her tree – forming not so much a new branch, but rather a newly grafted trunk.

It goes without saying that her old trunk is dear to my family. Where it came from originally I don’t think anyone ever really knew. Somewhere in Kansas, I guess – shortly after the Civil War, I suppose. I think back about those days in the early 1960s and of being shown its contents. I wonder sometimes if it was some sort of a dream.

To open the trunk was unthinkable! It was not an option.

The years passed for my great-grandmother just as they do for anyone of us. By 1970, the ever stolid trunk had passed into my grandmother’s hands. It traveled with my grandmother much as it had done with her mother, somehow always moving, making its journeys with its contents bound up and ever secret. Still we did not open the trunk. To open the trunk was unthinkable! It was not an option. My grandmother safeguarded her mother’s trunk with a lion’s ferocity. No, the trunk remained closed with its keeper (in this era, my grandmother) only removing certain objects (an antique doll comes to mind) on very special occasions – usually at the birth of a new generation: a new graft.

A little over two decades ago the trunk passed into my father’s hands. Through the often misaligned rules of primogeniture, it was to be his for safekeeping, and it is his now. The same rules certainly apply. After all, who would go against one’s mother and grandmother and not have to answer for it in the next life?

Yet, as with all family stories there comes a time for true confession. You see, a little over ten years ago my father became very ill. He was dying, and might have died if not for an operation that saved his life. At this point I need to mention what you may have already surmised – as an extension of my great-grandmother’s world, I have always felt intensely possessive about the trunk. For me, the old trunk might well serve as a time portal back to the signing of the Mayflower Compact … and given those same laws of primogeniture … well, you can see where I might be going with this.

So one night, when dad was very ill, my sisters and I gathered around the old trunk. It spoke to us! I swear it did. It spoke to the inner child in each one of us. It spoke to our graying middle-aged selves. It said, “Which one among you will open me to see what has been hidden away for the last 130 years or so? Your father is ill. He is not here…”

And we opened the lid – the lid of the old “grafted” trunk. The secrets were deep, and they seemed to exhale their dusty contents as we touched (yes, touched!) the layered contents. My sisters and I were bedeviled! No one ever opened the trunk! What were we doing?

We made our way through the old trunk’s contents, barely, coming out and closing it up while we still had “our skins” intact. The contents were just too deep. Florid love letters, portraits, eulogies, locks of hair, odd knickknacks … it didn’t seem to end. We had to close it up. We had danced too long in the dangerous moonlight. Fortunately, my dad soon recovered. We confessed our transgression to him; he grimaced as we did. Not another word of it was spoken.

So the old trunk sits and waits. My plan is that someday it shall come to me, the first son of its first son whose mother was the only daughter of–– I know that if the house were to catch fire (God forbid) we would all run to save Great-Grandmother’s trunk. It’s in all of our blood – the blood that comes from a grafted family tree.


[1] Mary Elizabeth (Kraus) Ogle (1886–1970).

[2] Kieran Doherty, William Bradford Rock of Plymouth (Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 1999), 137.

[3] Katheryn Elizabeth (Ogle) Record (1914–1993).

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

14 thoughts on “The grafting trunk

  1. This reminds me of the blog that asked, “If you had a picture in the bureau drawer of your great grandmother, would you get it out and show all the cousins? OR would you leave it in the drawer and let it be thrown out when you die?” And that’s when I put my tree public knowing that there are other people “out there” who will download it and upload it as their own and I will loose any hope of connecting with unknown cousins. If only they would keep my contact information with it…

  2. Jeff,

    What a touching story. I hope you, or someone, opens your great grandmother’s trunk and explores all its contents. You’ll be standing on holy ground, learning considerably more about her, and her progenitors than you do now. I suspect that in the long run, she’d have wanted that.

    It reminded me of a trunk in my family. It’s not as beautiful as your great grandmother’s, or perhaps just hasn’t been as well taken care of. And no one still alive remembers the great grandfather who made it in Norway in 1865. He was a carpenter, and it shows in the workmanship. He made it slightly wider at the bottom, for stability. He must have been thinking already about emigrating to America, which he did about three years after he painted the year he made it below the lock on the front. There is a tray which lifts out, and leather loops, presumably to hold tools. By the time it formed part of the trousseau of his oldest granddaughter, it held linens, however, not tools. One of her sons now uses it as a coffee table, and it holds important papers. But everyone in the extended family knows the story of who built it, and its trip to America. Thank you for the reminder.


  3. A trunk from my parents, really my mother, sits in my guest room waiting for the time its contents can be distributed and the trunk stored away…but how?? what do I do with the bride and groom from the top of my parent’s wedding cake? or his boutonniere? the brown silk dress,with its bustle and handmade buttonholes, a work of my mother’s grandmother, or the lace jacket from the twenties? the pinafores my mother made for my sister and me during The War. So, I open it, I look and touch, and then I close it. Someone else will have to solve all this.

  4. Oh, Jeff! I remember well Grandma Ogle’s trunk and its secrets. And of course the night we opened it. It was magical! It will be yours to guard someday, hopefully not really soon. We need its current guard to keep watch over it for a long time to come.

  5. Have a trunk almost exactly like the one pictured, which was passed down from my grandparents. Unfortunately I don’t know the age or origin, other than remembering it was in their attic, where we played in the ’50s. They were born 1875 and 1879, but never traveled much beyond the small village in western NY where they lived. Who used the trunk? Where had it been? We were allowed to play with its contents, but we never asked where it came from or which side of the family owned it. Always wished the trunk could talk!

  6. How wonderfully lucky you are to have such a treasure in your family. I have only a few papers from my maternal grandmother and that’s about it. My husband’s family is mostly Polish and we have nothing from their struggles nor their triumphs. When I think about starting such a trunk, I wonder if anybody will care for it as lovingly as your family has cared for Great Grandma’s trunk. I sure hope so because I’m going to start one!

  7. How can you resist? The history – oh my gosh! I felt a bit odd about opening an old letter that had been unopened since the 1930s. It had been written by my grandfather to a relative in Ireland but had been returned to sender. How could I not open it to see my grandfather’s words? With a little trepidation and a good bit of care, I did. It was really interesting to see how he spoke of his family – including his children – his daughter, my mother. I can only wonder at how my own mother never opened it first …..

  8. I spy a double wedding ring quilt. I have one of those in my hope chest as well—from my grandmother. And in the recent fires—that chest’s content are what was packed into our car. Luckily we all survived along with our house….some not so fortunate—Photograph all contents and distribute broadly. You never think that it could happen—but it did.

  9. I hope you will gather your sisters and open the trunk again. Just to inventory and photograph every item.
    A few years after she died in 1988, 2 cousins and I opened my mother’s trunk, containing items dating back to our great grandmother. We did not inventory or photograph, and now realize we should have treated that trunk like an archaeological dig.
    We have infinite regrets of not recording each item as it was unpacked. Your sisters and other family may have stories about those items that need to be told. And the items may have stories to tell you.

  10. What a wonderful story!~ My mother-in-law in her late age showed me the contents of trunk that had come back East to her family from the Gold Rush days in California. It belonged to her ancestor Jane [Winslow] Moffat and contained a velvet and silk “crazy” quilt top, all embroidered; an oak and acorns red-and-green-and-white quilt top of cotton, hand stitched; and a rosewood (?) sewing box with ivory spools, laden with some intriguing, unidentified, family daguerreotypes. These contents still hold fascination for me. Jane’s first husband was a descendant of the Pilgrim Winslows; her 2nd husband was the Mr. Moffat.
    The trunk is no longer with us but the contents are cherished and labelled with as much information as we can garner. LHC

  11. Thanks once more, Jeff. There’s such a tender feeling when we feel of the “vibrations” which are given off coming from the hands that touched things. Definitely takes me back to my own experiences of going thru boxes, drawers, etc. of loved ones who have died.


  12. Jeff, your story is beautiful. It reminds me of the smell of a musty attic and several old trunks. My mother used to tell me “we just have our stuff!” in regard to ANYTHING we wanted to use for a costume when we were growing up. I have now received a plethora of “stuff” that I have to figure out what to do with. I just wish that the rest of my family could care about it too. Even the oldest trunk has been sold, as there is not room enough where I live now, but I am aging…

  13. Jeff, you are your family’s historian and writer of what you have found. I know your family is interested because they post after your articles on Vita Brevis. I picture another family gathering, this time including your father, around the trunk and discovering the contents together. Else how are you going to write about your discoveries of that long ago time? I am itching to go through that trunk!!

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