by Celia Randall
A house that is more than 200 years old must hold secrets. The structure may be bought and sold over and over. New owners come and go, changing things along the way. But the history within its walls remains and grows. Those walls stand in mute witness to all that has transpired within them.
Twenty-four years ago we settled into this 1780’s house, and began our own plans for small change, which required the tearing out of some horsehair plaster walls. With choking white dust settling all around us, we removed crumbling chunks of the stuff as carefully as possible. Behind those chunks we uncovered treasures, tokens of the lives that have been a part of the history here.
I drew out a fragile wooden spatula, blackened with age at the bowl. My husband, Bill, held up a clean-picked corncob, finished off and dragged there by a red squirrel, we guessed. And we lost considerable work time when out of the crumbling plaster spilled several pages from a 19th century newspaper.
Each part of this home offered up hints at earlier occupants: a tarnished silver spoon resting on a sill in the cellar; early maple syrup taps left on a shelf in the woodshed; and one particular item that intrigues us more than all the others.
Bill drew from inside an attic wall a fabric covered object coated in dust. He called to me from upstairs, “Hey, Ceal, look at this.” I can still see him delicately blowing the dust from it as he descended the steep stairway, revealing its fine details. It is bell shaped, with three sides. The covering is a patchwork of varying fabrics, hand-stitched together with the different stitches a beginner might practice: blanket-stitch, cross-stitch, birdfoot, and various other decorative stitches that I cannot name.
The inner structure is cardboard, which can be seen through worn places in the less durable material scraps. The various fabric pieces must record the contents of some long ago scrap bag—snippits of the clothing sewn for former inhabitants of this house. Here I imagine a black and white checkered housedress, there a boy’s red and white pinstriped shirt. On another side I can see a section of gold satin drapes that may have hung in the front parlor. I can see too the special occasion clothing. I imagine a gentleman’s Sunday meeting suit, navy with tiny gold striping. And I see a lady’s plum colored satin ball gown, worn perhaps to a dinner at Governor John Wentworth’s mansion, a short carriage ride away.
My imagination runs wild with the colors and fabrics of old, but it is the stitching that invokes vivid images of a young girl on a pewter velvet Queen Anne settee, her work settled in her petticoated lap. My mind has decided her name was Ellen, and she practiced the stitching her mother had been teaching her on a gift for her father. The basic stitches are uniform and tight, still holding today. The more elaborate stitches also seem to have been mastered, though a few are lost to age. In one or two areas of the bell the stitching is amateurish, as if Ellen allowed her much younger sister to try her hand at sewing.
There is a feeling about the bell, a sense that there is something more permanent than ourselves. Ellen exists in the creation and gifting of her work, her father in its acceptance, and her mother in passing on the sewing skills, if for no other reason than I have willed it. Like the farmer in my mind who tapped the still standing sugar maples with the now worn wooden taps, and his wife who stirred their supper with the wooden spatula, Ellen and her family are wrapped up in this old house, as my family will one day be, chapters in a progressive history.
We have attached a hook to the looped thread protruding from the top of the bell in order to hang it every year from a topmost branch of our Christmas tree. It is a fair guess that the bell serves the same purpose now that it always has. Each December, as it is lifted from the box reserved for special ornaments, I wonder about its eventual fate. When our girls go off to live their own lives, and Bill and I leave the spaciousness of this house, as we surely must, will we ceremoniously tuck Ellen’s bell into some beamed corner in the attic for the next participants to find? Or will we take it with us when we go, passing it on through the generations of our family as a reminder of what we have shared?
I vacillate annually between the two options. This year I lean toward taking it, leaving in its place items handmade by each of our daughters. I think that I will place with each object some identifying information to aid future antiquarians: the name of the item and its creator, date of completion, materials used, and the object’s purpose.
But, no. Let’s not steal from those who follow, the right to their own historical contemplation. And had there been descriptive information inside Ellen’s bell, it would surely not be “Ellen’s Bell”.