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Roger Barbee: Those who came before us

Roger Barbee

By Roger Barbee

In the living room of the house where I grew up, my mother had an oval table that she had, according to family lore, been given as a young war-bride. It had one drawer, two smooth columned legs between the top and base, and four simple curved feet at each corner. Made of gum, a common wood used for cheap furniture, it had along the top edges cuts where two young brothers had used her only good kitchen butcher knife one long afternoon to practice carving.

Upon moving to Juniper Street, she refinished the table, but left the cuts made by her two sons. It had a mellow, honey brown color and she gave it a prime location next to the small fireplace. It was the first piece of furniture anyone would notice upon entering the front door.

Slowly, over the years of our lives on Juniper Street, the drawer became the depository for family photographs, various news clippings, and other important items of memory. The top became a place for a multitude of framed photographs of family members, grandchildren, and finally great-grandchildren. That table held the history of our family and on each adult visit any of us would remove the drawer and travel back while looking at the items it held.

Some years ago, before moving to the valley full time, I happened upon a table much like that one at a local flea market. It was the same shape, had a middle drawer, columned legs, and curved feet. On our drive to the valley that Friday, Mary Ann had asked me what I most wanted in my mother's house, and I told her the table, but my siblings would want it because of its family history.

Now, the next day of that weekend, here was one much like the one in my mother's house, so I purchased it and we placed it in the front bay window of our dining room. Not long after that, the drawer began to fill with photographs, news clippings, and various items of importance for Mary Ann and me.

On the top was placed a white, starched doily. Then came the framed photographs of those people important in our lives: parents, grandparents, great grandparents, a pair of in-laws, and the mother of my college roommate -- 11 photographs in all. All pictured are deceased but for my mother, and all are special in their own way.

The picture of Mary Ann's parents, Hugh and Jo Ann, shows a mature couple who have grown comfortable in their marriage of four children, some crushing heart aches, and the sharing their combined life brought to them.

Hugh, a 17-year-old Marine in World War II, came home, married his Birmingham belle, and went on to build over 700 houses in the Falls Church area, doing this without a high school diploma.

The one of my father, in his Navy uniform, shows a handsome, young man full of promise before the alcohol. The photograph in the middle is of Mary, the mother of my college roommate. Her knowing smile hides the pain from the deaths of her husband and son, both of which came too soon. Yet her countenance is that of the tough, Irish Catholic she was. Many hours I spent as a young man at her table, the receiver of her grace and wisdom.

All ancestors arrayed here are important and liked, but the photograph that intrigues me the most is on the left , almost hidden by the one of her husband. Lucy Doerr, Mary Ann's great grandmother, is a young married woman in 1892. In the photograph, she looks to her right, and the high-necked, buttoned dress is clasped at her throat by a cameo. Her dark, curly hair is pulled up off of her neck, and a diamond earring gleams from her left ear. I like to think that she, a newly married woman, is looking to something only she sees and it is her rose-gold wedding band from April 28, 1892 that I wear. Mary Ann wears the one of Charles Doe

In Beowulf, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, the people who came before Beowulf and his clan are remembered by words and in deeds. In this way, Beowulf and his people honor and preserve the memory of ancestors and the contributions they made for the betterment of the clan. We should do as much.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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