out of the chifforobe

October 28th, 2011

Staring from family photographs, we look
older than we are. Even as children, our faces
are shadowed with doubt and parental disappointment,
as if to say to those looking years from now:
We persist. We persevere. We do this for you.

– from “In the Olden Days” by Richard Newman

My grandmother’s house held the scent of a mothballed century. Time had locked itself in a cabinet called a chifforobe. The very word was one of the secrets it contained. I considered it a double mystery: first, that a country washerwoman would have a chifforobe, and second, that she would call it by that name, the frill of the double consonant like a vestige of lost extravagance.

Inside hung the few fancy dresses worn by my mother and her sisters to dances and weddings. On summer visits we granddaughters made charades with them. (Such frocks are kept for the sake of girlish fantasy.) But there were other things that held me for a longer stretch — old photographs of the dead and unnamed — my phantom ancestors. I would flip through shoeboxes full of sepia images, staring into the stiff and grim faces of related strangers.

My mother’s people were Wends, an odd and oppressed sort of religious colony, which like all colonies, no longer exists. Run out of Prussia in the late-nineteenth century, they settled in the purgatory of Central Texas where they were mostly poor farmers. (Except for my grandfather, who out of enterprise or foolishness later made himself the town barber, ensuring that he would remain the poorest among poor relations.) The Wends were serious about faith, hard work, and economy. The wedding portraits captured their high sobriety: the brides wearing black to signify the life of toil awaiting them. This foresight was not in the least bit faulty.

These were my kin, somber in face and fashion, weighted by work and gravity, and much younger than they looked. On the backs of some photos, salvaged from frames or torn from albums, were half-vanished names written in thin pencil.

What brings this to mind today? Is it the season? A poem about olden days drifted into my hands and moved me. I have been taken of late with the matter of lineage, and how we have largely disposed of its umbrage. We are a do-it-yourself culture. We believe we can manufacture anything with independence and initiative. Our heroes are the self-made who suggest that by clever sorcery we can conjure our own mythology. Perhaps it is my age that turns me back to face the accident of my birth, which was no accident.

I am not self-made. I have come from the persistent. I am the heir of disappointment and doubt. I came out of the chifforobe and I will yet join the ranks of its unremembered. Like all those before me, I do this for you, and it is all I can do.

Leaving me to wonder and to grieve.

Also inspired by the work of Michael Douglas Jones.


  1. I was adopted as an infant and I’ve felt the absence of my own lineage most acutely. So it puzzles and saddens me that our culture has “largely disposed of its umbrage”. You’re lucky to have been able to play in and explore your grandmother’s chifforobe.

    Comment by Kara — October 28, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

  2. I never thought more about mortality until I became a mother. It has also been amplified by the holidays and recent loss of my Grandmother and my Great Aunt Clare-the last of my Nana’s nine brothers and sisters. I feel similar when I look at old photographs.

    I don’t want my sons to forget (or me to forget) where we come from and that we are interdependent.

    I come from seemingly opposite families, although both hard working and persistent. My mother’s parents (Nana & Papa) came from Polish settlers that also landed in Galveston in 1867, they stuck close and we had huge family reunions. I have a book on the Notzon family history that one of our cousins wrote. My father’s parents (Grandmother & Grandfather) came from hard working farmers that settled in the Ozark Mountains, were fiercely independent and set off to travel the US and “make it” on their own. They did “make it” but seemed disconnected from family.

    I think the ties that bind us all together and make us interdependent also come from having similar histories (no matter how dissimilar and independent we think we are). Our ancestors all worked hard to ensure that we are where we are and to have the resources (spiritual and physical) to be who we are. And I am grateful for each and every one of them. That alone gives me hope that when I join the ranks of the unremembered that somehow a part of all of us lives on in everything, just as our ancestors do. I hope to instill in our children the importance of family, lineage and tradition.

    Comment by Nichole — October 29, 2011 @ 6:21 am

  3. Chifforobe; one of my favorite words, along with palimpsest. Both contain mystery and history; the whisper of our past.
    Beautifully written, this essay captures why all of history is our story, each and all. The history taught at school is a book of dry dates containing little; the true history is contained in our chifforobes. We each have a sacred lineage; all that came before.

    Comment by Michael Douglas Jones — October 29, 2011 @ 8:05 am

  4. Beautiful, Karen. I loved this poem too as I love the precisely organized archives of family photos my mother tends. I have my own Prussian forebears, but on the other side, Italian, and their photos reflect the persistence of FUN despite the toil of slate quarries and garment factories. I keep a few up and in sight, including the single photo from ‘The Old Country’ to remind myself of a demarcation between past and future I will never face.

    Comment by laura — October 29, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

  5. What a lovely piece this is. I’m fascinated by the portrait and I’m undone by that last paragraph. Beautiful.

    Comment by Bobbi — October 29, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  6. A new word for me, chifforobe! I shall use it and watch the heads turn!
    Isn’t delving into our ancestry/DNA a fascinating endeavour? And to think we are who they were.

    Comment by Jim Cuvelier — October 29, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  7. Like Bobbi, I too am undone by that last paragraph. Four sentences somehow capturing the essence of living this profoundly confounding mystery we call “life”. We all eventually slip into “the ranks of the unremembered”. Being one who looks upon memory with squinty eyes and guarded mistrust, I find that of curious comfort.

    Comment by Connie — October 30, 2011 @ 7:23 am

  8. And you do so much.

    Comment by Swirly — October 30, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

  9. I agree, Karen, we inherit so much from our ancestors. Not just DNA, but also behaviour and attitudes – helpful or otherwise – which we learn from our relatives and others around us and become embedded in our consciousness. Reincarnation is one word you could use to describe this – in social science it is generally called social reproduction.

    As well as being thankful to our ancestors for the good things they have given us – our life first and foremost – awakening means letting go of behaviour and attidudes and ideas we inherited that don’t help us to function in the here and now. The most important reason being that we don’t want to hand those down to the next generation. That way they can start on a better footing.

    Comment by Daniel Hake — October 31, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  10. All of life is a lineage, and not just biological, is one point I’m making here. We owe everything to those who came before.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 31, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

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