Many years ago my grandfather, Carl Warfel, entrusted me with an item of great value to him—an old rocking chair. He could not say that he enjoyed sitting in it. I had the impression that no one had sat in it in for many years. It was in several pieces, having come unglued. It was missing its upholstered seat. He could not say that it was good looking either. Black and red casein stain covered its parts in random patches, a stain that came from soot and iron ore mixed with sour milk. The colors had worn to dull hues, bare where hands and other body parts had rubbed them off. Its claim to value lay in the family story that this rocker had sat by the fireplace in a cabin near Charleston, Illinois, in the 1840’s and 50’s. The owner, a cabinetmaker and carpenter, may have fashioned this one-of-a-kind design, and the rare times his lawyer son visited, while riding his court circuit through nearby Charleston, his son would sit in that chair and call it his favorite.
So the rocker came to me, as one entrusted with a pearl of great price. Of his many grandchildren I was the one who had shown some interest in antique furniture and refinishing, therefore the natural choice for its stewardship or rockership. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with it. My first inclination was to get rid of that awful black and red color, because the worn places revealed an unidentifiable wood of some quality, and the hand-lathed spools on back and legs and arms had charm. Fortunately no paint stripper or chemical that I had knew about could touch the stain. I say fortunately because those ugly colors date and locate the piece.
Since I did not know what to do with it, I took the remaining pieces apart and kept it in a large box where it sat for forty years. The chair challenged me to glue it back together, tung oil its wood back to a satin luster, and take it to an upholsterer for covering with a period fabric and pattern. No one alive could vouch for the story that came with the chair, but the thing is obviously old enough. Thomas Lincoln’s next door neighbors were my grandmother’s great aunt and uncle, and they may have purchased Lincoln’s household furniture when he died, but I have not been able to verify that family story.
Finally, in the year that I retired, I finished the rocking chair. Do you have any such prizes in your possession? Probably you are a better caretaker than I have been. Do you have a story worth telling, and can you vouch for it better than I? No object can mean that much, but sometimes with certain objects we can bear a testimony to values worth treasuring.
Our treasure should never be consigned to a box, stored out of sight and forgotten. Alas, that is where many people keep their stories and their valuables. The value is not available until you bring it out and put it to use, reassemble and try it out in daily life, and put the story into words and actions that echo the original experience, faint or dim or ugly though they may sometimes be in our rockership.