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Jaspersohn: The Rocking Chair

02/10/10 7:55AM By Bill Jaspersohn
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(HOST) The approach of Valentine's Day this Sunday has commentator Bill Jaspersohn thinking about a family heirloom.

(JASPERSOHN)  A few years back my mother broke up housekeeping and gave my wife and me some furniture. One of the pieces, a beautiful bentwood rocker with curved arms and a carved headboard, caught my attention. I asked mom where it came from.

"Oh this," she said. "This was your great-grandmother's porch rocker. It survived the family fire."

"What family fire?"

"Oh," said mom. "Didn't I ever tell you about the family fire?"

"No... no, you didn't."

"Oh!" she said. "Well, I guess I'd better."

This is what I learned.

On February 14, 1940, my great aunt Nellie was in the kitchen of the family house in upstate New York, baking Valentine's Day cookies for the neighborhood children. Small and silver-haired, a spinster all her life, Nellie was a retired art teacher who had studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and now cared for my great-grandmother, an invalid paralyzed from a recent stroke.

Outside, a snowstorm raged, but inside, the house was warm and cozy. After rolling out the dough and shaping the cookies, Nellie turned the knob on the gas oven, then went to check on her mother who lay in bed in the front parlor.

"You all right, mother?" Nellie held her mother's hand. The old lady, unable to speak, gave Nellie's hand a feeble squeeze.

Returning to the kitchen, Nellie saw that a downdraft had blown out the pilot flame. The oven hadn't lit.

So, Nellie found a wooden match, opened the oven door, and struck the match against the oven wall.

The force of the explosion blew my eighty-pound great aunt backwards off her feet. The wall behind the stove burst into flame. Fire was suddenly everywhere.

Singed, bruised, but otherwise unhurt, Nellie remembered her mother in the front parlor. "I've got to get her out of the house," she thought. But how?

With the bedquilt, she wrapped her mother like a baby and carefully lowered her to the floor.

Then she hauled her mother into the porch rocker (kept indoors indoors for the winter) and, using it like a wheelchair, slid the rocker out the front door, off the porch, and into the safety of a snowdrift. She ran to a neighbor's for help, but by the time the fire department arrived, the house was already gone.

The moment my mother finished that story, I looked at her and thought, I've got work to do.

As a budding writer, I used to think I had to go out into the world for stories. But the truth of the matter? There are stories right under our noses, just waiting to be told. And those stories, like my mother herself, are fragile.

So, these days when I phone mom, who just turned ninety-three, I'll sit in the rocker and ask her to tell me more about this relative or that, this heirloom, that family recipe. She never disappoints. There's always a new wrinkle.

And the rocker that helped save my great-grandmother? It's become my own talismanic time machine. I ask you, who needs StarTrek anyway?

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