The Breadstick: Week #6 of 52 Mini-Essays Project

On family heirlooms, useless Pilgrim ancestors, and Laura Ingalls Wilder wannabes

Topic Idea: C. A. Carlson


For years before my parents died, I would ghoulishly remind them what stuff I wanted them to leave me in their wills. By the time they were in their 80s they had no money left and their home equity had been consumed (and then some) by a reverse mortgage, so all my sister and I could expect by way of inheritance was a few tchotchkes, a doddering toy poodle, and a slough of unorganized photos. I had my eye on a pale lilac porcelain bowl with gilt trim and matching candlesticks and a big wooden box of “special occasion” silverware. I didn’t think these items were worth anything in terms of actual money, and they had no particular sentimental family associations; I just thought they were pretty. After my dad died, my mom moved into a nursing home, and I came into possession of the requested bibelots, I did a bit of research and discovered that the bowl was made in the late 19th century by a German china company and was worth a tiny bit to collectors; the candlesticks were knockoffs made to match the bowl. The flatware was silver plate, manufactured in 1948 by the Oneida Community company1 in an Art Noveau-esque pattern called “Morning Star.” These were my only clues.

I have no idea what the provenance is of these keepsakes, which I find both bizarre and completely predictable. My parents didn’t seem to possess anything that was handed down to them by their parents or grandparents. It might have been an accident of birth order: my mom was the youngest of three daughters and my dad the middle of three brothers (Cindy married to Peter), so it’s possible that Jan, Marcia, and Greg snapped up all the good stuff. But I don’t think so—it’s not like I remember seeing lots of priceless antiques lying around the houses of my aunts and uncles2 when I was growing up. It’s more likely that their families didn’t have anything valuable enough to bother preserving and passing down in the first place. My folks did have a few objects that clearly predated their marriage (the Oneida silver being one of them), but even these older things had no stories attached to them.3 The only “heirlooms” we had in my house growing up were a raft of old ceramic milk jugs my dad kept from the dairy farm where he grew up; they squatted in the corners of every room like stout little sentinels warding off rickets. When I was a kid I was puzzled by the nude spaces in my friends’ families’ living rooms (where are their milk jugs?) and to this day I’m not really sure what to do with the corner spaces in my house.

The dearth of context for my inherited objects is of a piece with my parents’ general unsentimentality and lack of interest in history. Of my four grandparents, only my paternal grandfather ever discussed where his family had come from; my patronym has an obvious origin in the Old World and Granddaddy Kreisel remembered his parents talking about coming over from Germany in the late 19th century. My other three grandparents (Johnson and Blakeman on my mom’s side, Hayes on my dad’s) never alluded to their immigrant ancestors or mentioned anything at all about their family history. My white friends all had heartwarming family emigration stories: the boat coming over, Ellis Island, involuntary name changes, tenements on the Lower East Side, scraping by selling pickles and fingernail parings, anti-Irish/Jewish/Polish/Italian prejudice, struggling into the middle class, finally the suburbs, ungrateful kids and spoiled grandkids, the whole coming-to-America megillah writ a million times over. Aside from knowing I was partly descended from a teenaged German couple who met in the middle of the Atlantic in the 1880s, I had just a blank.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40s and ancestry.com started to take off that anyone in my family started to piece together our history. My sister and I both independently started doing the research, and then combined notes and family trees. Once we started finding people—relatives! at last!—and adding their dates, our tree kept growing back and back and back, like an uncontrolled invasive vine taking over a garden,4 sprawling into the 19th century, the 18th, the 17th ... and everyone still here in the “New World.” (The names were the best part; I am thrilled to report that I am the direct descendant not only of a Theophilus, an Ebenezer, and an Ogilvy—amateur stuff—but also of a Charity, a Mercy, a Silence, an Experience, and a Seaborn.5) After racking up dozens of Civil and Revolutionary War veterans, we kept digging until we struck amateur-genealogy gold: a Mayflower passenger, one Richard Warren.6 Suddenly it made sense that no one on those three sides of my family ever talked about where they had come from; it was all shrouded in the mists of time.

Partly I find this information kind of interesting, but mostly I use it to torture myself. To say that I feel guilt over the fact that my ancestors were most certainly genocidists and owners of people is like saying that the Pope is a little bit religious.7 (As soon as I typed that sentence I felt guilty about it. Is that joke okay? I don’t know. I think it’s probably still acceptable to take aim at the Catholic Church, oil companies, Elon Musk, and Minecraft, so I’m going to risk it.) My only comfort is that my ancestors, albethey settler colonists, were apparently also a bunch of total losers. There is literally no one famous or influential in my family tree—which is why no one in my family knew our history. We have no connections to power or buildings named after us at Harvard or anything like that; as far as I can tell my Pilgrim ancestors came over in the 1600s, planted themselves in the dirt like potatoes, and did nothing notable for nearly 400 years.

Which is also why they left us no stuff. Up to and including my parents’ generation, they were poor.8 My mom and dad were both born in the early 1930s and grew up without very much; my mom was the daughter of a tool and die maker9 in Syracuse and my dad’s family’s dairy farm was not far from there. One of their favorite conversational gambits was to compete over how poor they were as kids; my mom usually won because growing up on a farm meant that at least you got plenty to eat. (Dad: “We had one bath a week and on Saturday nights supper was bread and milk.” Mom: “Bread and milk! What luxury! We had bread and water on Saturday nights.” And, scene.) So the fact that they had even a single bowl (that probably came from my German great-grandmother? maybe?) and some silver plate (probably from my mom’s mom?) to pass on to me was kind of a big deal. These objects could not be called “heirlooms,” exactly—in order to qualify as such I think they would need a proper back story—but I like to think that someone in my family once dusted the bowl and turned it just so on a sideboard, and that the silver was hauled out a couple times a year in a modest bungalow in upstate New York.

My friend C.A. has an even more complicated history with family heirlooms. She grew up on a farm in Iowa as a late-in-life child of parents even older than mine: Buster Carlson10 was a WWII vet and Mary Frances a self-described “career girl” who had deliberately not learned to cook as a kind of early feminist protest. Very shortly after they were married, Mary made her first meal for her new husband: an exotic dinner of Italian pasta, which was unheard of in mid-century Iowa. Buster had been stationed on Capri during the War and she was trying to recreate for him some of the food he had enjoyed during his sojourn. As an accompaniment to the pasta, Mary made breadsticks—or as C.A. likes to say, she produced an “attempted breadstick.” Something went horribly wrong (current speculation is that she switched the quantities of salt and baking soda in the recipe) and the object she placed before her new groom was as obdurate as obsidian. After nearly breaking a tooth trying to bite into it, Buster reportedly exclaimed, “Mary Frances, this breadstick will be just as good 25 years from now as it is at this moment!” 

And so with that benediction, that performative utterance, the breadstick was placed in a reliquary (an old satin-lined watch box) and preserved for future generations. Family lore does not record whether the breadstick was tested for continued (in)edibility at age 25, but certainly it still existed at that point—as indeed it does now, coming up on 70 years later. It’s also not clear what the exact motivation was behind the original act of preservation. Was Buster Carlson amused or annoyed? Was his jest an attempt to comfort his mortified bride, or an attempt (perhaps unconscious) to put her in her place? Is the petrified breadstick the memento of a loving gesture or, like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake, the artefact of a grudge? Indifferent to the answers to these questions, the relic slept on through the decades, tucked away in its cozy box (which is clearly decaying at a faster rate than its contents) until C.A. returned to her family home for one last time a year after Buster Carlson died. Her brother had inherited the farm, and she suspected it might be the last time she saw the house her grandparents had built with their own hands. With a feeling that she was fleeing a burning building, she grabbed what she could carry, what seemed the most valuable thing to her at the time—the breadstick. 

And so the history of the world’s most dangerous farinaceous object continues to unfold in the mountains of North Carolina. The breadstick knows that it’s an heirloom, but it doesn’t care about the original reason for its preservation—kind of like the crack in the Liberty Bell or the Prince of Wales. After all, maybe Buster Carlson had some other, unguessed motivation in saving his leftovers that fateful day? The breadstick has bigger lessons in mind. It understands that a detailed provenance is not what makes a keepsake valuable; all you have to have is a story of some kind. The objects are just props, screens for projection—you don’t need stuff to make a family, or make a history. The breadstick understands that it is just a glorified doggie bag, but it is happy to fulfill its role. To bond a young couple, to succor a grieving daughter, to bring new friends together. And now I offer it to you.

1

The Oneida silverware company has not only a fascinating history, but also a Wikipedia entry containing the most perfect example of bathos since The Rape of the Lock: “The Oneida Community was a perfectionist religious communal society founded by John Humphrey Noyes and his followers in 1848 near Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus's millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world.... The Oneida Community practiced communalism, complex marriage, male sexual continence, and mutual criticism. The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, and eventually became the silverware company Oneida Limited.”

2

Whose actual names IRL are/were Bernice Winifred, Retha Alma, and George Reinhardt. I don’t include Lyndon Hayes (Bobby Brady) since he is younger than my dad and thus further down the primogeniture food chain.

3

The only exceptions were a small box of Masonic jewelry—an Order of the Eastern Star ring and other esoterica—that came to my father from his father, and a large wooden chest of rubber alphabet stamps dating from the turn of the century, also from my paternal grandfather’s side. The stamp chest had metal hasps to keep it closed, rickety wooden dividers for holding the individual letter and word stamps and—the best, best part—bigger stamps representing objects like a tractor, a cow, an ear of corn. Clearly the stamps were meant to teach young farm children the alphabet through association with the objects surrounding them every day. You could imagine it being used in a one-room schoolhouse (like the one my father attended until high school) or maybe around a wood stove of an evening under the gentle tutelage of Ma Apronstrings or Pa Whittlingknife.

4

I find it fascinating to think about the shapes of these trees. If you take yourself as the fulcrum—because of course you do—then your relatives expand out from you exponentially in both directions: thousands of people funneling down through the centuries to produce You (and your siblings), and then potentially thousands of people emanating from You, like a fan, in centuries to come. You are at the dead-center point of a sprawling hourglass of people.

5

I wonder what happened there.

6

Apparently Richard had seven children who all survived to propagate, making him the most fecund of all the Mayflower passengers. His descendants include (I am listing only the ones I care to claim as kin): Ulysses S. Grant, FDR, L. L. Bean, Longfellow, Thoreau, Hemingway, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Orson Welles, Richard Gere, and Taylor Swift. It’s estimated that there are 35 million Mayflower descendants altogether, or more than 10% of the U.S. population. It seems just perfect, somehow, that our family would discover something pretty cool about our ancestry, only to immediately learn that it isn’t really that cool.

7

The current list of things I feel guilty about include: my white evil ancestors, my own white privilege, being an American, my paid-in-full Ivy League education, having tenure, my carbon footprint, not having children (N.B. if I had children I would totally feel guilty about that), working too hard, not working hard enough, being vain, dieting, not dieting, still eating meat and dairy, being a crap swimmer, being angry, being sad, being anxious, and not practicing the piano. Check back tomorrow!

8

Scott’s comment upon reading over this essay: “It really is remarkable that your white family has been here for 14 generations and managed to amass no generational wealth whatsoever.”

9

Still not sure what that actually means, but I do know that it’s members of that profession who walk out of the factory in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike—which makes me feel much prouder than being descended from Simon Tuttle or whoever.

10

C.A. only ever refers to her father as “Buster Carlson.” After her mother died when C.A. was 13 and it was just the two of them on the farm, Buster Carlson used to make hot baked potatoes for her to carry in her pockets on her way to school in the middle of the Iowa winters. I have a friend who basically is Laura Ingalls Wilder.