Withered Rose Petals

By Abbie Coogle

Stepping through the doorway of the McGuffey house on campus, a strange sense of nostalgia washes over me. I’m not sure whether the feeling is reminiscence of the family reunion trips my grandparents used to take me on, or an acknowledgement from my subconscious that I am entering a physical space that holds many memories and meanings of the deceased.

Maybe it’s both.

Real and imagined nostalgia combined, I listen as the tour guide tells stories of those who stepped in and out of this doorway long before I did. The way he talks of the McGuffey family, an endearing tone in his voice as if he had been a student of William McGuffey’s himself, reminds me of the tour guide that led me through the house of Adeline Blue, my great-great-great grandmother. A 9-year-old me had once listened, mesmerized, as a bespectacled woman with curly white hair told stories from Adeline’s youth with a wistful glaze over her eyes, as if speaking from the very echoes of her own memories. At the time, I was sure in my overconfident naiveté that Alice, the tour guide, must have been Adeline’s childhood best friend.  I was confused to discover that Adeline was not Alice’s friend but her great-grandmother. Alice had never met Adeline. She had only stitched together a patchwork image of the woman by gathering pieces of her life—stories told by her own mother and grandmother, letters, images, diaries. Back then, I did not understand how someone could feel such familiarity towards someone that could not possibly be more than a stranger.

Connecting that memory to this present moment, now 10 years later, alters my mindset towards the tour. My grandparents have always cherished my family history, and have admonished me from a young age to do likewise. At night, when I couldn’t fall asleep at my grandparents’ house, my grandma would lay in bed beside me and tell stories from her childhood and her mother’s childhood. I’d close my eyes and the musty guest bedroom would melt into images of her childhood farmhouse, one-room school building, the telephone company she worked at. Sometimes her voice was still brimming with the laughter of her younger self, other times it was so thick with heartbreak I could sense that she was crying even though it was too dark to know for sure. But after every story, happy or tragic, she would ask one thing of me—to remember. I felt that each story was being entrusted in me, that it was my duty to save them as best I could, like family heirlooms. Now, in the McGuffey House, I am struck with the same sense of responsibility—to understand, to remember. This connection drawn, everything in this moment is somehow endowed with a greater importance.

In the McGuffey House, there are copies of editions of the McGuffey reader, books developed by William McGuffey to teach reading, spelling and civic education during a time in history when literacy rates were incredibly low. As the tour guide begins talking about the development of the books, I peer onto the wooden table and realize I recognize the cover.

 

I am mentally transported into my grandparents’ attic, 12 years old and rummaging through a worn leather chest in their closet. There is a book stuffed in the pile of letters, a McGuffey reader from my great-great-great grandmother. Turning the yellowing pages, I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I am trespassing—snooping into her penciled margin-notes. If the pencil marks were nothing more than comments about spelling or verb tense agreement, perhaps I’d feel less this way—but the additions made to the margins of this McGuffey reader are often personal—drawings and snippets of poetry and a name signed over and over in girlish letters—Adeline. I think of the margins of some of my own class notebooks, the sideways scrawls of song lyrics and half-finished sentences crammed into the white space.

My experience with Adeline’s McGuffey reader stamps personality onto the book sitting on the table in front of me. But this book is not Adeline’s schoolbook—it belongs to a nameless “someone” and therefore might as well belong to anyone, or no one. It is reduced to an artifact, viewer and object effectively divided by two centuries of time and a foot or two of polite distance. I wonder if anyone has written in the margins of the book displayed in the McGuffey house, but I am too apprehensive to check.

It occurs to me, especially after listening to the video clip in which Mommaday recites poetry about the meaning of sacred spaces to native Americans, that we are all desperate to carve a place for ourselves—in our family histories, and in our physical Earth. We create meaning for ourselves through the words we write, the stories we tell, the objects we save. We make places ours by imagining a meaning for them, we guide tours of those places for others and pass on those meanings—all in hope that there is more significance to our lives, a significance stretching long before the first date on the tombstone and extending far beyond the second. It is what binds Mommaday, McGuffey, Adeline and myself together, that need to belong in the most spiritual sense. Knowing one’s family history feeds this desire, creates the sense that your life is a chapter in an ancient sacred book that will be passed on rather than a message in a bottle that will be cast out to sea.

Between the pages of Adeline’s McGuffey reader, near the middle of the book, there are a few dried rose petals pressed completely flat by the weight of the decades. I take one of the petals between my fingers. The corpse of this ancient plant, at once haunting and beautiful, illustrates a story I may never know. I imagine that my great-great-great grandfather—then Adeline’s high school lover—gave her a rose and that she, desperate to preserve something destined to die, plucked three of its petals and tucked them into the binding. Through these withered remnants, I touch a past that is beyond my reach and comprehend something of the poetic, artistic, sentimental woman that saved them within these note-filled pages. What irony it is that a dusty edition of the McGuffey reader and a dead flower should breathe new life into a name that was once nothing but a series of letters printed neatly on the underside of a book cover.

About Stephen Norris