Its contents were unknown, until one Christmas Eve in December 1957.
Christmas had never meant much to me growing up in South West City, Missouri. We had almost no extended family.
Our lives become much more difficult after we left the farm in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas in 1955 when daddy became too ill to farm. My grandparents had died years earlier and my father was an only child. Though I had one sister, Alice, I felt rootless.
I also had no self-esteem. During class assignments I felt inferior to classmates who had so much to proclaim about their family histories. One boy proudly spoke of his father having fought in World War II, others told of ancestors arriving in covered wagons.
My taciturn parents had never had much to say about our heritage. All I knew was that until my daddy's health failed both of them worked very hard to provide for our meager existence. Daddy plowed all day behind mules just to feed us. So when my teacher called on me I slumped in my seat and let someone else tell of their relative's accomplishments.
When class resumed after Christmas week and others excitedly spoke of their many gifts, I remained silent. For me Christmas meant only one gift. One year it was homemade candy, another it was a toy watch.
But when I was nine I was blessed with the gift that would sustain me for life. It was 1957 and that Christmas Eve we sat around our blazing cast-iron wood stove. I received my gift, a wool scarf, and our father read the Bible to us by the light of a kerosene lamp.
As the flickering lamp cast shadows about the room I found myself staring at the steamer trunk that sat in a corner, an embroidered scarf covering it's rounded lid. It was kept locked, safe from childish hands. I had long begged to look inside, but our father would shake his head.
"Nothing to play with, child," he said. "Just a lot of old stuff." That only whetted my curiosity, and I prayed God would somehow get my father to open it. On that Christmas I felt even more compelled to see what was inside. I clung to Mother's waist almost in tears, pleading for her to have our daddy to open it.
Finally he got up and said, "Seeing it's Christmas and all, I guess it won't do any harm."
He took a key from a high shelf, knelt and unlocked the trunk. As the lid creaked open, the first thing I saw was an old tobacco can. Our father showed us the blonde curls inside it, saved from his first haircut in 1899. When he saw my delight it seemed to open some kind of emotional dam within him. He began telling about the other items he took out of the trunk. He proudly showed an old sepia-tinted picture of his father, George Washington McClellan Hudson, my circuit-riding preacher grandpa, born in 1865 in Greenfield, Indiana. In yellowed journals, in fine cursive script, my grandpa wrote how in 1888 he came to Licking, Missouri, where he met Sarah Alice Ritz-Hudson, my namesake. Their wedding picture on stiff board showed a handsome couple.
I was thrilled and captivated all through Christmas Day as I studied the trunk's treasures. I found a tin type of great-grandfather Nicholas Ritz, who I later learned had emigrated to America from Bern, Switzerland, in 1851. His diary spoke of his despair of ever seeing land again as he spent three months crossing the Atlantic on a small sailing ship. I learned of my great-grandpa Robert Hudson, born on February 20, 1822,who had brought the steamer trunk over from Hull, England, in 1830. And I was fascinated by my second removed great-grandfather Joseph C. Morris, who I later learned was born in Monmouth County, New Jersey. His son, my great grandfather, W. H. Morris, became a doctor in Keokuk, Medical College, located in Lee County Iowa at Keokuk, during the Civil War. I later learned that my Morris family history connects back to Lewis Morris, governor of New Jersey.
I fondly fingered great-grandmother Sarah Alice Ritz-Hudson's hand-carved wooden crochet hooks, and reverently touched hair and scraps of my great-grandmother Elizabeth Andres-Ritz's burial clothing that was mailed to my grandmother Hudson, who had been unable to attend the funeral.
I held the golden locket that contained the picture our mother cherished most--of her mother, Myrtle Mae Maples-Morris, who died of typhoid fever when Mother was only two. And I was told how my maternal grandparents had raced their wagon in the Oklahoma land rush in what would later be known as Woods County and how my mother was born in an underground Indian dwelling in 1906, about the time Oklahoma became a state.
Less than three months later, my father died in that same room, known as the front room, and we later went to an orphanage because of my mother's inability to cope as a mother. In spite of my mother's accident, I have managed with God's help, to find deep meaning in life as I delved deep into the trunk and was so blessed from what I found out about our family heritage which causes me to know the importance of family history which should be preserved to help future generations get over the hard knocks that life sometimes dishes out.
It took me years to fully grasp all of the wonderful gifts in the old steamer trunk that planted a seed of self-esteem that would blossom and grow, enriching my life. Not only did I feel pride in my ancestry, but I had ample stories to tell not only my schoolmates but others who cross my life because everyone has obstacles to overcome whether they are rich, poor, or in between. Life is like that. I wonder how my life would have turned out had it not been for the gifts inside that old trunk which have kept on giving for the past fifty-five years.
With God's help He always gets me to the right place at the right time because Jesus is the same yesterday today and forever.
With this knowledge I am comforted knowing everything will be OK.
Sarah Hudson Pierce is a syndicated columnist and president of Ritz Publications of Shreveport, Louisiana