The chair sat beneath a shady elm by the side of the road amidst several tables covered with flea market finds and a cardboard sign that read “127 Yard Sale.” The hot August sun broke through the canopy in places, stippling the rocker’s scarred hickory frame with dancing gold leaves.
It creaked and sighed whenever someone sat in it, and a few of the back spindles wiggled a bit in their moorings, like loose teeth. The hand-carved dogwood blossoms adorning the headrest were worn down to indistinguishable forms in some places. But the chair was in remarkably good shape for its age.
The current owner had picked it up for a steal at an estate sale in north Texas. He brought it home to this tiny Tennessee hamlet in hopes of making a tidy profit over the long weekend. The last known owner, a widow from Amarillo, thought the chair might have been made around 1910 or so. She was off by more than fifty years.
The rocker came to life in the spring of 1862 at the hands of a skilled Massachusetts slave named Cornelius Price. It took him two months to finish the piece. It was the last chair he crafted before leaving his owner’s woodworking shop, a wealthy Boston businessman, to join the 54th Massachusetts Infantry under Captain Robert Gould Shaw. He died ten months later during the raid of Fort Wagnor on the South Carolina coast and was buried in a mass grave .
A local judge by the name of Thomas Hartman bought the rocker as a wedding present for his youngest daughter, Elizabeth. An elaborate ceremony was planned for late June, and all of Boston society was invited. But instead of marrying the young aspiring attorney her father admired so much, headstrong Elizabeth Hartman eloped with a man named George Steadman, nearly fifteen years her senior, who owned a cotton plantation in northwest Georgia. She took the chair with her.
The rocking chair was placed on the deep front porch of the spacious plantation home overlooking Horseshoe Ridge. The following fall in 1863, the chair bore silent witness to one of the bloodiest battles in Civil War history as it played out in the valley below. When Union soldiers were pushed back from Chickamauga, Mr. Steadman offered up his home as a makeshift hospital for the injured and dying. After a soldier died in the rocker from a mortal bayonet wound, Mrs. Steadman refused to allow her children or any of the servants to sit in it.
In the spring of 1875, after a poor harvest the previous summer and a frigid winter, Elizabeth Steadman found herself without a husband when a horse George was shoeing was startled by a shoofly and fatally kicked him in the head.
With no means of supporting herself and her three children, the young widow had no choice but to beg for her father’s forgiveness and return to the family home in Boston. She sold the house and most of its contents at auction. A traveling salesman named Percy Dawson from Delaware thought the rocker had a lot of character, but was concerned about the dark stain on the back of the chair between the spindles.
“A slight blemish in the wood, I do believe,” was Mrs. Steadman’s reply. “Hickory is known for that, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
He offered a lower price and got it. He took it back home to his wife, who promptly stuck her nose up at the simple craftsmanship of the piece and declared it clashed horribly with their French Parisian furnishings. Disappointed, but not enough to quibble with his wife over it, he stowed the rocker in the attic of their home, where it remained for nearly forty years.
In 1914, the Dawson’s two grown sons inherited their parents’ home after their deaths. The late Mr. and Mrs. Dawson, both of whom had a tendency never to throw anything away, had accumulated a tremendous amount of junk. The attic was filled to the brim with discarded items. A month after their parents’ funerals, the two men began the daunting task of sorting through the mess.
The oldest son, Theodore, removed a heavy sheet of muslin covering the rocker. A cloud of dust motes danced in a thick slice of sunshine filtering through a nearby window.
He frowned. “I never knew Mother to like this style of furniture.”
“Me neither,” said his brother Thomas. “I wonder where it came from.” He looked at the chair from every angle and ran a hand over the smooth wood of the seat. “I like it.”
Theodore grabbed a handkerchief from his vest pocket and sneezed three times in quick succession. “You can have it then,” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Thomas took the chair back to his tiny brownstone in Brooklyn, where his wife Emma put it to good use a few months later when she gave birth to two healthy twin boys in the spring of 1916.
Two summers later, the flu pandemic shrouded New York City in death’s gray wings. Several of the Dawson’s neighbors and friends caught the bug. Most died within days. The couple’s two toddlers were playing in the nursery when little Stephen began coughing. Then his brother John, the eldest by three minutes, started doing the same. The children quickly grew ill, flushed with fever.
“They’re so hot, Thomas!” a panicked Emma told her husband.
The couple tried every home remedy they could think of, but the boys’ condition only worsened. Emma neither slept nor ate, rocking her babies throughout the night in an effort to soothe them. She continued rocking and singing even as their crying stopped and they no longer struggled to breathe. Emma let out a guttural wail as her husband pried the babies from her arms and handed them over to the undertaker.
Miraculously, neither Emma nor Thomas became ill. Emma didn’t see it that way. “What a cruel God we serve,” she lamented.
Inconsolable after burying their boys, Emma couldn’t bear even the presence of the rocker in her home. “Get rid of it,” she told Thomas. He did.
The chair went through a few more ownerships, but none were the right fit. Blistering summers spent in dusty storage sheds and cramped attics warped the wood in places, and only a dull sheen of its original finish remained.
Now it sat in the shade of an elm tree in this sleepy Tennessee town, silent and waiting.
Numerous bargain hunters passed by. A few stopped to look at the chair and inquired about the price, but there were no takers. The current owner had just scratched through the price tag for the third time and scribbled a lower figure when a young couple approached his cluster of tables.
“Honey, you need to sit down,” the man said. “You’ve been on your feet too long today.”
“I’m okay,” the woman said. “All this walking will get this baby here sooner.”
She laid a hand on her swollen belly and leaned her head back to stretch her neck. Her hand moved to her aching lower back.
She sighed. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Here ya go,” the proprietor said, as he offered her the rocking chair. “Try this one out and see how you like it.”
She thanked him and lowered herself into the chair. She stretched out her legs and looked down at her feet. Her ankles were puffy, and her toes reminded her of little stuffed sausages. Oh, how she needed this baby to come!
“You just sit here in the shade and rest,” her husband said, as the seller went over to another table to discuss the price on an antique kerosene lantern. “I’m going back to that lemonade stand we passed a little ways back and get you something to drink.”
She closed her eyes. “Sounds good.”
A breeze lifted her dark hair from her forehead as she rocked. She felt herself drifting. Strange images and snippets of dreams filled her mind.
A woodworking shop and a pair of dark hands holding a carving knife...
A large plantation house shimmering in the summer heat while children played in the fields...
Soldiers in blue and gray uniforms running through a misty forest, their muskets held close to their chests...
A sweltering attic with cobwebs crocheted in the rafters, and dusty white sheets covering a lumpy sofa and other odds and ends...
The images began to blur and merge. Suddenly, she was standing in the doorway of a sun-filled room. The smell of talcum powder and fresh paint filled her nose. The walls were pale yellow. Against the far wall stood a cherry wood crib filled with stuffed animals and soft toys. The bumper set and comforter were white with a daisy pattern. On the other wall stood a matching dresser and changing table. The gurgling sound of a baby's laughter floated around the room.
“Honey?” she heard someone say.
She awoke with a start. Her husband was standing in front of her, holding two large Styrofoam cups.
“Sorry it took so long,” he said. “Did you fall asleep?”
She looked down at the arms of the rocker, confused. The chair seemed smaller somehow, closer, as if it were embracing her. That’s just silly, she thought. Then she remembered her dream.
“It’s a girl,” she said, and looked up at her husband. “I’m sure of it.”
Her husband stared at her. “But... how do you know? We said we wanted it to be a surprise.”
She smiled and looked at the price tag tied to the chair. “I just do.”
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