Michiana Chronicles: Rocking Chair

Jul 2, 2020

In our house is a rocking chair. It is all wood, with no padding, and it has no arm rests. It squeaks when you use it, and you don’t have to look too closely to see that its base is held together by wire, fashioned by a farmer who took whatever was handy to fix a split in the wood.

Credit Marilyn Thompson

The rocking chair shows its age, but it is one of the most precious items in our house, because it belonged to my grandfather—a grandfather I rarely saw.

When I was three, my father’s job prompted our family’s move away from Nebraska, away from my grandparents, and, in fact, away from nearly all our relatives. I had aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins, and second cousins who lived there. But our new home was in Indiana, hundreds of miles away.

And so, with two states between us and our extended family, my parents, siblings, and I spent two weeks every summer of my childhood driving back to Nebraska to visit. It was our vacation—the only vacation we ever took. My friends went with their families to visit the Grand Canyon, Disney World, and the ocean. But our family vacation was always—and only—a trip to a state in the middle of the country. I listened with wide eyes as my friends talked about their experiences with roller coasters, the Rocky Mountains, and Mickey Mouse. None of my friends ever responded to stories about my vacation to Nebraska with any type of envy. It was never “Oooooooh!” It was always “Oh?”

But to Nebraska we would go. It took two days to drive there, and we usually went in the hot month of July. Mom and Dad sat in the front seat, and we three kids in the back. I was the youngest, so a window seat was never mine.

Our time was split as evenly as possible between my dad’s relatives in eastern Nebraska and my mom’s in the western part of the state. At best, we had about five days with each side of the family.

Grandma and Grandpa Debban—where the rocking chair resided—were my mother’s parents. Their home was much different from ours. They lived on a farm in the middle of wide, open spaces, dusty roads, and cows within ear’s reach. When I was younger, I thought all grandparents lived in houses like this one, houses that had a barn nearby, an outside cellar for refuge during storms, and old furniture, including a rocking chair held together by wire.

During those drives back to Nebraska, we passed the time listening to Mom’s stories about her life as a young girl. The rocking chair was part of some of those stories. She spoke of Grandpa sitting in the rocking chair after a long, hot day in the field tending the crops. She told us how he would sing hymns as he rocked her younger brother on his lap. The rocking chair, it seems, was a place of refuge, a place to rest and ponder stresses of the day—rocking away the frustration of not enough rain and too much wind to grow the crops…rocking away the worry of having the bank on the doorstep for money owed…rocking away the fear when there was too long of time between letters from a son fighting in a war far away. Even though I saw my grandfather only five days a year, when my mother relived her memories with us, I would close my eyes and hear the squeaking of the rocker, imagining Grandpa sitting in the chair. I could hear his voice, picture his expression, and in my mind’s eye, relive the journeys he had traveled, although they were many decades away.

In later years, after my grandparents died, my mother was given the rocking chair, and she, in turn, gave it to me.

Though my time with my grandpa was limited to the five days every summer we visited him in Nebraska, my recollections are vivid, and I believe it’s because of my parents’ determination to return each summer to their roots--my roots. Those trips happened because family was one of my parents’ most precious values.

Did I miss seeing the Grand Canyon and Mickey Mouse as I child? Of course! But I now see why my parents chose these vacations for us. I was learning at an early age the importance of having a sense of where I can from, a feeling of family that extended back many generations, and the knowledge that I had people from long ago to whom I belonged.

My grandfather died when I was not yet a teen. But, oh, the times we have shared on that rocking chair.

Music: "Rockin' Chair" sung by Louis Armstrong, written by Hoagy Carmichael