The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

October 21, 2012

Old pieces connect us to the past


Twice in the last month, I’ve heard these words: “Dad, can I have that someday?”

Our older daughter, Ruth, wants the Chinese vase in our living room. Her great-great-grandfather bought it more than 100 years ago when he was appraising estates in Louisville, Ky. It’s blue, and covered with birds and flowers, gilded and painted by hand.

Ruth’s kid sister, Elizabeth, put first-dibs on my cylinder-top desk. It’s from the 1870s, made of polished black walnut with burl trim. When you open the cylinder top, the writing surface slides forward automatically.

I said “yes” both times. Whenever they get houses of their own, Ruth gets the vase, and Liz gets the desk. It’s nice that they like these things and want to keep them in the family.

I always have loved history, genealogy, and items that have come down through the generations. When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by old stuff, and often asked my grandmothers where different things came from.

Through the years, I rescued many odd pieces that would have been lost. I live with them. They connect me to loved ones, no longer living, and to ancestors I never even knew.

One of my prizes is a little ladder-back chair that sits in our bedroom. According to my grandmother, it is the last piece of a set that was given to her grandparents on their wedding day, Oct. 30, 1856. Their house burned in the late 1800s, but somehow, the chair survived. If it could talk …

Then there’s the marble-topped plant stand that was given to my great-grandparents when they were married in Danville in 1894. It sat in their sunroom at 1616 N. Vermilion St. for decades. I grew up with it and my mother gave it to me.

On my desk at work is an old kitchen knife that I use to open mail. It was made in the old C & EI Railroad Shops in Oaklawn when my Grandmother Cullen’s brother, Ferd Clifford, worked there in the 1930s. Every time I open letters, I can see “Mo” using it to slice potatoes, carrots, and rectangular pints of Sealtest ice cream.

In a drawer rests my Grandfather Dawless’ copy of “The Boy Scout Handbook.” He was scoutmaster of Troop 8 at Edison School for years; the kids called him “Chief.” When he died in 1959, my grandmother gave the handbook to me. Its pages are loose and the covers are barely hanging on, but it’s priceless.

Our dining room furniture always has consisted of a circa-1900 oak sideboard with a beveled mirror and the carved image of a frowning, bearded man, plus a five-legged oak table from the same period. They were the first pieces of furniture that Laurie and I bought when we were first married, 30 years ago. We added six oak chairs once used at the Soldiers Home.

Someday, I hope, one of the girls will say, “Dad, (or Mom) can I have the dining room set?”

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at