Reflections on a Wooden Bowl

Is it possible to conjure the spirit of an ancestor from one of her possessions?

Posted Nov 30, 2017

Wooden Bowl photograph copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper
Source: Wooden Bowl photograph copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper

Until a few weeks ago, I had not realized that one of the branches of my family tree was missing a name.

Thanks to diligent record-keeping by relatives who have long since departed this life, I know a surprising amount about my female ancestors on both sides of my family.

I have photographs of my mother’s grandmothers, both of whom were born in the mid-19th century to Irish parents who emigrated to America. One was tiny and elegant, with piercing blue eyes. The other, wearing a long black dress and seated in a wicker chair when she was perhaps in her early 80s, seems to be regarding the photographer with wry amusement, barely suppressing a smile while her black eyes twinkle with mirth.

On my father’s side of the family, his paternal aunt left him a trove of family photos, including several of her mother—my father’s paternal grandmother. She was from the Boston area, and she was an exceptionally beautiful young woman whose life as an adult was full of sorrow. A photograph of her taken late in her life shows a careworn soul with soft white hair and a face etched with sadness.

Given how much I know about these three great-grandmothers, it was a shock to me to realize a few weeks ago that I knew virtually nothing about my fourth great-grandmother—my father’s mother’s mother.

I began to think about her when, in preparation for Thanksgiving this year, I opened several boxes of treasures I inherited from my mother but stored away for nearly 15 years, until I bought my first house in 2016. There, amid the cut glass, good china and silver, was a large, oval wooden bowl that for years had sat on my mother’s dining room table, usually holding fruit—apples, peaches and bananas.

My mother, who died in 2009, had the soul of an archivist. With every stored object, she included a piece of paper describing how she acquired it and, in the case of a family heirloom, to whom it had originally belonged. So, as I unwrapped the wooden bowl, I eagerly looked for the paper that would describe it.

I was not disappointed, but I was a bit surprised. The note with this bowl was in my handwriting—written in the summer of 2001 as I was helping to pack up my mother’s things before she moved to an assisted-living facility. “Dough-mixing bowl from Dad’s maternal grandmother, Mom thinks,” the note read.

During that difficult summer 16 years ago, when my mother was reluctantly coming to terms with the fact that her worsening Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for her to live on her own any longer, I didn’t have time to think about the previous owner of this bowl. But now I did, and for the first time I began to wonder what this woman, my fourth great-grandmother, was like.

After washing the bowl, I looked at it closely. It was stained a dark cherry, and the wood on the inside of the bowl was scored with dozens of shallow knife marks, all running lengthwise. I wondered if my great-grandmother might have used a sharp knife to divide her bread dough as it rose. Running the length of the bowl, about an inch from the center, was a deep crack that had been carefully filled with glue long ago. The handles at each end of the bowl had curved lines cut into their undersides, as if the maker of the bowl wanted the user to have a secure grip on the handles.

The bowl had such a quiet, utilitarian grace that I wondered if it had been carved by hand, and from a single piece of wood. It occurred to me that it might well have been a family heirloom even in my great-grandmother’s day.

After examining the bowl, I set it aside and continued on to another box of my mother's things. To my surprise, I found a dark red flannel pouch containing a small rectangular leather case, about 5 inches by 6 inches, that clearly came from the 19th century. A cloth label on the bag read “A. Schmidt & Son, 587 Boylston Street, Boston, Mass.” I must have stored this in 2001, but for some reason I had no memory of ever having seen it before.

When I opened the leather case, I saw nine small silver table implements whose use was, I confess, unknown to me. Luckily, I also saw a note from my mother, written long before her Parkinson’s had made her writing hard to decipher, that said, “Nut picks (or for lobster), from your Great Grandmother Willey (Dad’s mother’s mother).”

Here was another clue to the character of this mysterious ancestor! A Google check revealed that silver or silver-plated nut picks were commonly found in certain late-19th-century New England homes. These were manufactured in Connecticut by the firm Rogers Bros.; the pattern was, I was pleased to learn from Google, the exotically named “Persian,” designed in 1871 by one Charles P. Hall.

So now I knew that this great-grandmother not only made her own bread (or at least someone in her family did or had), but she also kept a home elegant enough to have silver nut picks.  

At this point I realized that, although I was beginning to form an impression of this great-grandmother, I had no idea what her full name was. My father adored his mother, but I don’t remember him ever talking about her parents or even the town where his mother grew up. And he died suddenly when I was 29, long before it might have occurred to me to ask him about his mother’s family.

Because my family was coming to my house for Thanksgiving, I put the mystery aside for the moment. But I did find an honored place in my dining room for the wooden bowl, and when my brother and my nephews came for Thanksgiving, I asked them and our other guests to indulge me by laying their hands on the bowl, as a way of connecting with our ancestor.     
After Thanksgiving I eagerly returned to my sleuthing. In my filing cabinet I found a family tree my brother developed in the 1990s for our father’s family; it stretched back to 1635 but, as I suspected, it did not include my father's maternal grandmother. Next I turned to—where else?—Google. I tried several searches with no luck untiI I typed in my father’s mother’s full name and hit the jackpot.

Google directed me to an online version of the very genealogy book my brother had used to compile his family tree. There I found an entry on my father’s father, including his date and place of birth (Fall River, Massachusetts), his date and place of marriage (Boston), the name of his wife, her date and place of birth (Rochester, New Hampshire), and—bingo!—the name of her parents.

Staring back at me from my laptop screen was the full name of my fourth great-grandmother: Eliza Ann (Brown) Willey.     

“Her name was Eliza Ann,” I whispered to myself. Suddenly this shadowy figure from my family’s distant past began to seem more distinct. I listed the facts I knew about her: She lived in Rochester, New Hampshire. Her husband’s first name was George. She had at least two children—my father’s mother, Eva, born in 1878, and Eva's sister, Edna.

I knew of Edna because my father had spent time with Edna and her husband in Rochester when he was a teenager. Furthermore, among the trove of Hooper family photos is one of my grandmother, my Great-Aunt Edna and my grandfather in 1908 or 1909—all dressed in the latest fashions of the day, with Eva and Edna wearing the enormous, faintly ludicrous hats that stylish women favored then. Both Eva and Edna are smiling delightedly, and it seems clear that they enjoyed each other’s company.

Based on these few but certain facts, I began to extrapolate a few less certain assumptions. My father always spoke in the highest terms of his mother, who had raised him and his three brothers in a suburb of Boston after their father died of a heart attack when my father was 15. My Grandmother Eva was a wonderful cook, I knew, and she went to work as a bookkeeper after her husband died—a fact that had long struck me as both admirable and courageous.

Some years after my father died, my father’s younger brother told me that, while their mother was not outwardly demonstrative, he was certain that she loved him and his brothers. And I sensed that my grandmother and her sister Edna were very close, because, my uncle told me, Edna offered to take my father in when he was misbehaving and doing poorly in school after his father died.

(My grandmother took her sister up on her offer; my father lived with his aunt and uncle in Rochester, New Hampshire during his last years of high school. The change worked wonders: He not only graduated from high school there, but he also became the first in his family to attend college when he enrolled in the University of New Hampshire.)

I deduced from these facts that Great-Grandmother Eliza might had been a good and loving role model for her two daughters, who remained close as adults. Also, because my grandmother worked as a bookkeeper, her mother might have been progressive in her thinking about what women in the early 20th century could accomplish outside the home. There was still so much I didn’t know about her, including—of course—what she looked like. But I knew much more than I had when I unwrapped her wooden bowl and began to wonder about its owner.

After my mother died in 2009, my brother found a Unitarian Universalist reading titled “We Remember Them” to say at her funeral. Its theme is that those we loved who have died live on in our memories and in that way they remain alive. “So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them,” the reading concludes.

In the years since my mother's death, I have derived great solace from this reading, and I still recite it every time I visit my parents’ grave. But as I contemplated the life of this great-grandmother about whom I know so little and who died years before I was born, I wondered how to properly honor her, too.

Could it be that, although I have no direct memories of her to carry with me, I can still have reverence and respect for the life she lived, which made my existence possible? Could it be that, by learning her name and adding it to the scroll in my mind on which my other great-grandmothers’ names are written—Ann Elizabeth, Cordelia Frances and Mary Elizabeth—I ensure that Eliza Ann will not be forgotten, at least in my lifetime? Could I prevail upon my brother to revise his Hooper family tree, adding her name and the name of her husband?  
I hope the answer to these questions is “yes.” I also hope that there is more to learn about her life and that, as I follow the clues I uncover, Eliza Ann’s graceful wooden bowl will continue to inspire me and remind me of all my ancestors, whether their names are known to me or not.

Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper

Wooden Bowl photograph copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper