Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hope Chest

by Karen Utter Jennings
The first seven years of my life were spent at Rocky Comfort. We lived on the old home place down by the Indian Creek Bridge south of the post office. My paternal great-grandmother, Ollie Johnson Utter Brier lived on the hill south of the school. I was in her house just as much as I was in our own.

I remember each room in Great-grandma Ollie’s house and the furniture she owned.   One of the pieces of furniture I loved was the cedar chest. The chest is small, sets on the floor (there are no legs) and has carved-wood handles on each end of the lid. Rectangular diamond-shaped wooden pieces adorn the front and sides of the cedar chest and it is very heavy.    

As I grew into a young girl, one day when I went to visit, the cedar chest was setting in the living room under the front window. Great-grandma Ollie and I sat on the hardwood floor next to the chest. She explained that the chest would be mine when she died or I got married, whichever came first. She called the cedar chest a hope chest and explained the meaning of it.  She said she was “setting things back” for me when I grew up and married, so the things inside were mine.

Great-grandma Ollie said my grandfather, her only son, Perry Utter, made the chest when he was a boy.  She said Perry was talented in wood working and he loved to make things.  He also made the wooden sewing machine stand that housed her Singer sewing machine. I later learned that Ollie’s father, Thomas “Bud” Johnson, worked in the woods, hewing lumber after he came to Missouri from Indiana in 1876. That is the topic of another column someday.

As Ollie’s gnarled hands lifted the lid, I was delighted to spy several things inside wrapped up with doilies and handkerchiefs (hankies as we called them) and laying next to each other. She lifted the first item out of the chest, unwrapped it, and handed me a pickle or condiment dish that was very old and worth a lot of money. She told the story of the dish. It had belonged to a female family member.  

Ollie brought out a square box that housed her Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. Her story about cameras and her love of taking pictures is one that I will always remember.  As soon as cameras became available, she bought her first one and began snapping pictures of everything around her, especially her family. Along with the camera, she gave me her photo album. That photograph album is a topic of another column in weeks to come.

When we reached the bottom of the cedar chest, we rewrapped each item and placed them into their safe place. She closed the lid on the chest and I ran off to get out my paper doll collection and other toys and spread them on the floor to play.   

I am happy to say, I got married before her death, so the cedar chest came to live at my house.  Over the years, it lost its strong scent of cedar and it needed a good cleaning and a few repairs. I used a good soap for wooden furniture and left it as it is. The chest now holds my important memorabilia. As time goes by, I add things to the old chest and someday I will sit with my grandchildren to explain the history of the items. 

I am in the process of taking pictures of the heirlooms I own and writing about what I know of them. I teach my grandchildren about their heritage and the genealogy work I do. One day, years from now, family members will harvest the benefits of my genealogy work, so that they may pass on the story of the old cedar chest.