"Gram's Trunk" -- A story and activities to motivate students to investigate history (K-8th)
Gram's Trunk is a story about a family's memories being saved by the grandmother. The mother and daughter have gone to Grandmother B's house to visit and look at objects stored in the trunk.
Gram's Trunk can be used as a starting point to motivate students to investigate the past, especially as it relates to themselves.
Grandmother B' keeps things. She always puts the date, month, day and year on birthday cards she gets or sends. Corsages and boutonnieres from parties or big celebrations rest tied up with ribbon in their boxes with a note on top about the event, the dress or the jacket it was worn on and the date.
Gram is the family historian. She doesn't call herself that; she just says she is sentimental, "she keeps memories."
Mom and I have come to Gram's to see inside the trunk.
Gram lives a half mile off the highway down a gravel road. Grandpa and Gram built the two story house in 1951. Grandpa died in 1989 but Gram still lives in their home. The house is white with green shutters now but it's been other colors too. I remember it blue and a soft green. White is new last summer.
"Gram, we're here!" Susan calls through the back door into the kitchen. Nobody but company uses Gram's front door. It's not used much because Gram knows lots of people, so nobody's company.
The kitchen is the heart of the home. It's a large room with a table and chairs. The table always has a centerpiece, whatever treasure Gram has found on her daily walk. In the spring or summer she picks little wild flowers along the road. She gathers leaves and sticks in the fall and rocks or pine cones in the winter. "Look for the little surprises." She always says the little ones are best.
Cooking smells always greet you at Grams. Blackberry cobbler is today's treat. It smells warm and sweet.
"We'll have a tea party later, Susan," Gram says as she sees me eyeing the cobbler resting on the breadboard Grandpa had built into the baking cabinet. Beneath the bread board is a flour bin that holds 50 lbs. of flour for bread, rolls, cobblers and sometimes pies.
Tea Parties are one of Grandmother's little surprises. Tea Parties come after hard work, afternoon naps, (Gram grew up in the south, where people work hard early in the day and rest when it's hot, in the afternoon), when she knows we are sad, or for no good reason.
Tea parties always have pretty napkins, and a full set of silverware, real plates. Food can range from rolls hot from the oven to a glass of pop with a straw that bends, but the emphasis is on little. One roll, or a tiny cup of hot chocolate, a little juice glass of pop or a single oatmeal cookie are on the menu of Gram's tea parties. I know now they are a chance for us to talk. Gram and I have had them in the middle of the night when I had a nightmare or just woke up. All her grandkids love Tea Parties although my brothers are not always pleased with just a cookie or tiny glass of pop.
"Lets go upstairs and see the trunk!" Gram was excited about sharing her treasures with us. We crossed the living room to the stairway door. The living room at Gram's is just that, a living room. There is no family room. This room dresses up for parties and down for games of Dominos and Rook.
Upstairs at Gram's house are four bedrooms. The trunk is in the last room on the right.
"Gram, how did you choose what you kept in the trunk?" I asked as we approached it under a west window.
"It was hard sometimes, when I was busy, to remember to include memories. This trunk is a history of our family, it's like digging up the ruins of a civilization. There are layers of items with the oldest things on the bottom layer and the newest on top."
"Do you still add items to the trunk?" my mother asked, "Or did you stop after all of us were gone from home?"
"I didn't exactly stop but items go in much more slowly now," Grandmother said. "Now I put in items from a big family party or things around the house I think should be saved for grandchildren. I thought we could go through the stuff in the trunk and I'd tell you about each item. Does that sound okay?"
"Sure, that would be great!" Mom said.
We three raised the trunk lid with a sense of excitement. I thought how amazing it was that a family's history would be gathered and kept over the years so faithfully.
The very top layer of the trunk were grandchildren's tiny hand prints, some painted on paper and some imprinted in clay, Christmas presents made, signed, dated and kept with love.
Just under the hand prints were Gram's very best linen and lace tablecloths.
"The linen cloth and napkins belonged to my grandmother" Gram said. "I use this only on special occasions, like wedding receptions or graduation parties. Mother gave it to me after my Grandmother died."
"You never machine wash linens like this. I wash them by hand and line dry them. Linen can't be starched either, that causes the fabric to rot in the trunk. I wrap these cloths in tissue paper to help protect them," Gram said as she gently laid the tissue back over them.
Two quilts were on the next layer. One was a wedding ring pattern quilt with many small colored shapes.
"The pieces of this quilt came from dresses my sisters and I had," Gram told us. "When a dress was outgrown Mother would cut out the best areas for quilt pieces. She made quilts in the wintertime when there were fewer outside chores to be done. After dinner, while we did homework, mother sat and pieced the quilt top. Quilting is a very long process, but the result is worth it."
Several boxes of various sizes came next. Some had labels on top and others were plain.
"Gram, what did you save in the boxes?" I asked, eager to continue the trip back though the family's history.
"Women always wore gloves to church, weddings and funerals. Since Grandpa was a minister I always needed clean gloves so I had several pairs of white and black ones. I wore the white ones to church Sundays and Wednesday nights and to weddings. Grandpa got phone calls or unplanned visits from couples wanting him to marry them and I'd be expected to be the witness so I kept an outfit with gloves always ready. You never wore totally white outfits to a wedding. Only the bride wore white. I don't think anyone follows that practice anymore."
The gloves in the box were neatly divided, three black pairs on one side and five pairs of white on the other. Gram has small hands so the gloves seemed rather small. Not one pair was identical to another.
One black pair had three buttons on the inside so it fit snug at the wrist. Another pair had three diamonds cut out on the top of the hand. I could tell by watching Gram as she held each pair that these gloves had been to many events in her life.
"I've always loved pretty greeting cards," Gram said almost apologetically. "Grandpa always gave me special cards and so did you kids, and I'd write the date on the envelope and add it to this box. I've had to change boxes a few times to hold the ones I've saved.
"Gram?" I asked "Have you ever written down the stories that go with the things in your chest?"
"I dated items as I included them but I haven't written stories about them." Gram replied quietly.
"There is so much family history in this chest," I said, "you should start a family history notebook with stories about the item and the events around it. How did you decide what to save?"
"Sometimes that was easy. I kept favorite baby clothes, a first dress or a sweater, and the first shoes were taken to a jewelry store and bronzed, but as the three children got older and I was busy, items went in much more slowly."
Gram took out a long box and put it out on her bed. It was a wedding dress. A full length gown of white chantilly lace, taffeta and tulle. Gram had worn this dress when she married Grandpa in 1940.
In the bottom corner was a tiny white dress and a little lace cap. Very gently, Gram lifted them out. "This was Grandpa's baby dress and his hat." Gram said as she gently straightened the fabric. "When we were babies, girls and boys both wore dresses while they were newborns. This outfit came from your great-grandmother's chest. There is a long line of treasure keepers in the family," Gram said with a hug for both mother and me.
"Let's go have a tea party," Gram said. "The chest needs to air and I'll repack it later. And Susan I will start a collection of stories."
One way to learn about a period in history is to study what was happening in your own family at that time. You can also develop the ability to conduct interviews and write from oral accounts.
A. Conduct two interviews with individuals who lived through earlier times, either a grandparent or someone else that age.
B. Study a collection of photographs from earlier times, perhaps obtained from someone you interviewed. Consider several questions about the photographs:
C. Do newspaper and/or magazine research in the library or search the Internet. Find out when your parents were born and investigate what was happening on the dates of their birth. Investigate what was happening on your birthday in any year in the past. Choose the date of an important event or a date important to your family. Check for information such as:
D. Research what was happening to your family, (grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc.), during an earlier decade. Take notes as you ask questions such as these:
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum