Treasure Chest Thursday: Grampa Anderson’s Chest of Drawers

One summer many moons ago, my grandmother Maw-Maw and I were cleaning out her attic. (This was my maternal grandmother, Ruth Anderson Ledford.) Over in one corner, hidden behind the detritis of several generations, was a chest of drawers. As best as I can remember, it had four drawers and was made entirely of wood, except perhaps for the drawer pulls. It was even held together by wooden pins rather than iron nails.

What was so remarkable about this piece of furniture was not its craftsmanship but the identity of its maker: My grandmother’s paternal grandfather, Robert Alexander Anderson (1857 – 1928). Maw-Maw was not quite seven years old when R. A. died, so this piece was a treasure to her, a reminder of a man she had barely known.

After we had finished hauling and sweeping, we were standing in her back yard looking out over the pasture toward the creek that ran near her house. We weren’t talking, just standing there listening to the water bubbling across its bed and the sounds of my cousins playing in the front yard. Without turning to me, she told me that if I wanted it, I could have Grampa Anderson’s chest of drawers, as a reward for helping her clean out the attic.

I was in my late teens then, but I knew what a treasure that chest of drawers was. I knew what my grandmother was entrusting me with, as well. She was well-aware of my interest in the family history. I think she knew I would take care of that piece of furniture, and through it somehow keep the memories of its maker alive.

But time passed and so did my grandmother, on Thanksgiving day, 1990. I never did get that chest of drawers. First, because I had no home of my own in which to store it, but later because I was an Army wife. I was terrified that that link to my grandmother’s family would be destroyed during one of our frequent moves. I just knew it was safer in that attic than it would be with me.

After moving back to Rabun County in 2004, I visited my grandmother’s home, intending to at least see if Grampa Anderson’s chest of drawers was intact and moveable. My mother’s siblings had been using the house for storage, and I knew the roof had been re-done by one of my mother’s younger brothers. Alas, I couldn’t even get through the front room, let alone could I muscle my way up to the attic.

Not long after, I asked one of my mother’s sisters about the piece. I had to describe it in detail, including its location in the house, before she remembered it. “Oh, that old thing,” she said with a laugh. “We threw it away.”

Those were her exact words, I kid you not. I suppose the shock of hearing that it had been destroyed burned those words into my memory. I don’t even remember how I reacted, but I do remember those words.

I can’t blame my aunt or any of my mother’s generation for getting rid of that chest of drawers. None of them likely knew its significance, or realized that it could be fixed and maintained for another generation or two to enjoy and treasure.

I do blame myself, however, because I did know what it meant, and especially what it meant to my grandmother who had very few mementos of her family. In my efforts to protect a wonderful reminder of a man long dead, I had unwittingly brought about its destruction by allowing it to remain in my grandmother’s house, something for which I can never forgive myself.

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4 Comments to “Treasure Chest Thursday: Grampa Anderson’s Chest of Drawers”

  1. Wow, what a story. My dad passed away a few years ago and he was the family historian and genealogist. I’ve continued on where his research has left off. He has a lot of very old antiques and family momentos. Your story gives me added incentive to make sure my mom and siblings know I want certain items in case they think some of that stuff is no good anymore.

    Regards, Jim
    Hidden Genealogy Nuggets

    • Please do! I recently heard of a woman who was going to throw all of her parents’ notes on the family history away. They meant nothing to her, but imagine all the treasures buried within.

  2. I felt a gut punch at the last part of your story. How did you find you way through the realization that the chest of family treasure, entrusted to you, was lost forever? We had a tornado blow through here two weeks ago and a large storage unit was hit, safeguarded items broken and lost. How can we protect family treasures and information from unexpected causes?

    • I believe we have to face the reality that life is often beyond our control. We simply do what we can and then hope for the best.

      Beyond that, for those who are worried about protecting heirlooms, the best practice might be to consult conservationists; that is, people who have knowledge and experience in restoring and preserving furniture, photos, and paper documents. Your local antique dealer, for instance, might be able to put you in touch with someone who could help you repair or restore at least a few of those damaged items. If any heirlooms were paper-based, then try contacting your state-level archives for assistance.

      Other than that, perhaps taking the time to write down physical descriptions of the items with a list of their owners will help at least preserve them in the memories of your descendants, if not in actuality.

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