Over the past few weeks, my colleagues at Kansas Farm Bureau have seen more of my basement than either I or they ever envisioned they would. Their riveting view consists of two doors, one to the laundry room and one to a spare bedroom. Between the two hangs a painting from my grandmother.
It’s a fall scene of a barn with hay bales stacked next to it. The sky is blue with fluffy, white clouds. Autumn has turned the grass reddish brown and yellowed the leaves on the oak trees. It’s a scene taken from countless farms across the country. It’s also one of several family heirlooms surrounding me in my new workspace.
Most of my work is done at a desk that once belonged to my great-grandfather. According to family lore, it resided in the office of the movie theatre he owned and operated through the Great Depression until he died in the early ‘70s. My father used it in his office at my childhood home until I took possession of it.
The desk has been in my basement for just shy of a decade now, mostly accumulating the junk flat surfaces tend to attract. Built of solid red oak, it’s still plenty capable of serving its intended function, even though a laptop has replaced the inkwell and typewriter.
I’ve also rediscovered an open-faced Waltham pocket watch. I’ve kept it nearby, winding it periodically to hear the rhythmic ticking. It’s older than the desk, dating to at least my great-great-grandfather, Artemas L. Barton. There’s an outside chance the watch originally belonged to his father who had the same initials.
The case is made of brass and is engraved with ALB in the center of the back cover, which is dented in a couple of spots. A semi-circle of polished metal is evidence it slid in and out of its owner’s pocket. It’s missing the second hand and the face is a little faded, but it still keeps time.
All of these are amusing distractions that allow my mind to wander.
I ponder if my great-grandfather leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the same corner I do. I wonder if Artemas checked the watch before an important meeting. And I ask myself what item of mine might one day spark such questions from my descendants.
My grandmother probably didn’t set out to create an heirloom when she crafted her painting. My great-grand-father would have never envisioned his office desk from a cinema holding a computer capable of streaming endless movies and TV shows. I doubt my great-great-grandfather imagined his everyday watch becoming an inheritance spanning generations.
These items are connections to just a fraction of my ancestors. Others include a Lutheran minister in Germany at the beginning of the European Reformation and an accused witch in Salem, Massachusetts. She eventually fled to Framingham, which is just west of Boston. Between the two is Waltham, birthplace of the pocket watch now ticking away on my desk.
Everyone comes from somewhere, and that’s why I find these items fascinating. I think about what small items of mine might find their way to my descendants long after I’m gone.
It’s also a reminder that life will continue without you. And the most inconsequential decisions — creating a painting, choosing a desk, buying a pocket watch — become the little legacies we leave.