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In Atchison, Kansas

Dr. Ernst F. Tonsing

Thousand Oaks, California
July 20,1999
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I. Introduction to the Stories

n. The Wonderful Old House

HI. A Wedding Announcement

IV. Dundee Marmalade

V. The Spice Cabinet

VI. Wood Can Talk

VII. The Dilapidated Shoebox

VIII. George Washington Did Not Sit Here

IX. An Editor Nearly Murdered

X. "You'll Hurt Yourselves"

XI. A Cold Night

XII. Before Vitamins

XIII. Icicles and Michael the Archangel

XIV. How God Writes

XV. The Photograph Album

XVI. A Coal Oil Lamp and Jealous Angels


I hope to call attention to Grandmother Ruth (Martin) Tonsing and her house at
315 North Terrace, Atchison, Kansas. With so many illustrious persons in the family
whose lives are rehearsed not only at family gatherings but also in history books, this
remarkable individual is usually unnoticed. Yet, as will be seen, this woman is every bit
as noteworthy. In addition, the great house in which she lived has tales that should be
told. Following the description of the house are a few of these stories.

These are personal reminiscences. Details may have become dimmed with the
passage of so many years and the pressures of a busy life as a professor, and, in telling
them, there may be some elaboration, yet, they are true. Each anecdote stands alone.
Occasionally, in the quiet of an evening, certain words, associations or scents would
evoke the narratives. They would simply rise out of the subconscious and take form, and
compel me to grab paper and pen and write them down. Several were vivid enough to
awaken me in the middle of the night. The morning's light would reveal scratches in
long, uncertain lines stretching from one side of the paper to the other. Deciphering and
typing was more laborious, but, as I worked, new details would reveal themselves. After
some reshaping, the results are as you see below. Now, long after it is gone and its bricks
hauled away, each account is cherished as a commemoration of that home and the person
who lived in it. Perhaps these stories will encourage others who have some recollections
of the house to write their own versions, or share new tales, and, then, that wonderful old
home will arise again, howbeit only in our imagination.


Memories of the "House," as it was called, tumble out not in any particular
order, the latest ones crowding the earlier ones. To fix them in print somehow causes
their dynamic character to become prosaic. Words are but pale abstractions of what once
had place, mass and vitality. But, words, while lacking the technological charm of
computer simulation, yet have the power to call forth images, sounds and smells, and
have them rise, fall, approach, recede, and tumble about with a limberness not attainable
on a two-dimensional monitor.

For those who never had the opportunity to see the house, perhaps the following
description can enable one to make an imaginary visit, and to revive the sense of
spaciousness, the sounds, the smells of food, and the joys of family gatherings that
continued into the 1960's. As a grandson of Ruth (Martin) Tonsing, I lived in that house
while my father, the Rev. Ern(e)st F. Tonsing, later of First Lutheran Church, Topeka,
was serving as an U. S. Army chaplain in World War Two. Afterwards, we paid frequent
visits until it was sold.


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The structure was located on two lots at 315 North Terrace, overlooking the
Missouri River. According to a letter that grandmother wrote to me, October 27, 1955,
the house was on "The Hill," at the site of the first printing office in Atchison, the old
Squatter Sovereign, "the Rebel paper that Grandpa bought and changed its name to
Freedoms Champion." The house was Italianate in style, with the characteristic
modillions, or decorative horizontal brackets, under the eaves of the roof. The fourteen-
room house was built by Colonel John Alexander Martin, editor of The Freedom's
Champion, later Mayor of Atchison, and then Governor of the State of Kansas (1884-
1889). It was finished in time for the Colonel and his new bride, Ida Challiss, daughter of
Mary Ann and William Challiss, M.D., to take up residence after their marriage on June
1, 1871. The couple's seven children were born in the mansion. Ida Martin owned the
house until her death in 1932, and it was passed, in turn, to her daughter, Ruth, and her
husband, the Rev. Paul Gerhardt Tonsing. Widowed in 1935, Grandmother Ruth lived in
it until her death on March 20, 1967.

In looking at a map of Atchison, one notes a peculiarity in the street name for the
house. The streets extending west of the house are named, "Second," "Third," etc.
According to Paul Tonsing, Jr., who grew up in the house as son of Ruth and Paul
Tonsing, technically the street was to have been named "First Street," but, he suggests,
perhaps due to his grandfather's influence as mayor of the town, it received the much
more attractive name of "Terrace."
The building was built of locally-made bricks upon a foundation of native
limestone.. These bricks were of a dark red color, much different from the rather orange-
red color of the bricks in the adjacent homes built some twenty-five years later. The
double walls of the exterior enclosed an air space to prevent the penetration of moisture
and cold or heat from the outside. The arched, casement windows were tall, but the
bottom panes could be raised only with difficulty. In a letter to me from grandmother
Ruth, May 14, 1960, she mentions a storm: "Many yrs ago we had similar hail here, and
lost 30 window-lights on the side of the house..." Paul Tonsing, Jr., notes that in the
year 1935, a hail storm from the north shattered all of the north windows, and that "the
hail flew clear across the library and bat on the bookcases and doors on the south wall."
The south, oriel window illuminated the dining room. Next to it, the chimney held a
trellis with orange, "trumpet-flowers" that always gave delight to the children who could
pick them, bite off the ends, and run about tooting through the hollow blossoms.


Nearby was the well that furnished water for the house. Once, I was curious, and
opened the three and one-half foot high, metal, tombstone-shaped apparatus. I was able
to discover that it operated by a mechanism consisting of a chain with little, triangular
buckets. One turned the crank, and, soon, a stream flowed through the spout extending
from the front panel. It was getting a bit rickety by the 1950's, and we were told not to
walk on the wood platform that held the wellhead. But, of course, grandmother's
warning was not enough to stop a little boy from stepping up gingerly and giving the
crank a turn just to hear the chain rattle and echo up from the depths. Paul Tonsing, Jr.,
recalls that it was his duty just before the meals that he would have to go out to this well
to fill a pitcher. He mentioned that it had a distinctive taste about which the guests
"raved." He didn't care for it, however.


The front porch was located on the east, Missouri River side, where the sidewalk
descended the slope to steps which went over a limestone wall that lined North Terrace
Street. Access to the house was gained by ascending steps in the middle of the porch.
Sometime later the steps were moved over to the south side and the banister on the front
side was added. This open porch held a swinging seat that provided amusement and
some cooling during the hot, Kansas summers for the Martin and Tonsing children and
their cousins, including members of the Challiss families and Amelia Earhart who lived
several doors down. From there one could observe the rapid currents and eddies of the
Missouri River far below the cliffs.


There was a doorbell on the front and two back doors. They were attached to the
middle, wood panel, just below the frosted glass panes, and made a loud noise when one
turned the butterfly handle. As one entered the front entrance hall, a door to the right
gave access to the library, and one on the left to the parlor. Straight ahead was the dining
room, and, further, a little hallway held the hat and jacket rack, and doors, left, to the
outside, and, right, to the kitchen. The ceilings throughout the house were twelve feet
high, and the rooms were decorated with wallpaper with rich, Victorian designs and
colors. The front, entrance hall had stairs that ascended along the left wall and wrapped
around to the right to give access to the upper floor. The steps and banisters were
identical to those of the Amelia Earhart House, one house and a street away to the south.
The sturdy banisters were some eight or ten inches across, as Paul Tonsing, Jr.,
remembers, "with a slight hump in the middle, and a round newel at the bottom." He
recalls the hours of fiin sliding down it. By my days in the house, however, it was getting
somewhat rickety, and such pleasures were strictly forbidden.


Throughout the house were fireplaces with decorative tile-surrounds. These tiles
were mostly very dark green or very dark brown. They had stamped flowers and
geometric designs under the glaze, and the tiles glittered in the light of the lamp bulbs.
As one entered the dining room from the parlor, a fireplace on the left was built at an
angle facing the center of the room, and was used to heat both rooms. Later, a large
wood-burning stove was placed in front of thefireplace,its flue extending back to a hole
in the chimney. A couple of vases and a black clock with four pillars on the front and
lions holding rings on the side, ticked merrily away from its place on the mantel, away
from investigating fingers of little children.

As the house was never warm enough during the winter, the family enacted a
ritual that lasted into the 1960's, according to Paul Tonsing, Jr. The fire in the stove
would be "banked," that is, the live coals would be heaped up in a mound and covered
with ash, and bricks would be placed on the mound, one brick per bed to be occupied that
night. After the bricks were hot, they would be wrapped in newspapers, carried to the
bedrooms and placed under the covers at the foot of the bed. They would actually keep
one's toes warm until one had to get up in the morning. Paul Tonsing, Jr., remembers
"the smell of the scorching paper as it was wrapped around these bricks..."


The parlor became Mrs. Ida Martin's bedroom when she was unable to mount the
steps and was bound to the large, oak and rattan wheelchair. It was well lighted and
ventilated by windows on the east that opened on to the front porch, and to the south.
This room also held a bookcase, more elegant than the rest, eight feet high and five feet
wide. Low drawers with oak-leaf pulls were below, and the high, arched doors above
held two panes of "wavy" glass. Circles and lozenges decorated the dark wood of the
case. Among the furnishings of this room was a large picture, forty-one inches high and
thirty five and one-half wide, identified as "Photographed and Copyright by M. B.
Parkinson," of New York, in 1886. The oakframehas a boarder of oak leaves and acorns.
Depicted is an elderly woman seated in a large chair, wearing a black dress with a lace
scarf crossed and pinned in front, and a ruffled, lace bonnet. A young girl dressed in a
plaid skirt and dark blouse, two large buttons on her sleeve and lace around her neck.
grasps the wrist of her left hand with her right hand, encircling the neck of the elderly
woman. Cheek-to-cheek, both smile sweetly. The title of the picture is below: "I'll
Take Care of You." Grandmother Ruth declared it to be her favorite picture when she
gave it to me sometime in 1953 or '55, and remarked that the eyes of that woman
probably saw the American Revolution and the great history of the nation since. I am yet
unsure why she made that gift, but it is cherished just as much today.

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When the parlor was transformed into a bedroom, two iron beds were placed
along the walls in the parlor. Among the devices in the head and foot frames were
medallions with an eagle, wings spread, above a wheel with crossed sword and key. In
places the rust showed through the brown paint. The "springs" of the bed were lattice
works of wires attached to little, perforated, metal squares. The whole was then attached
to springs at the long ends of the beds. Puzzled about the origin of these cots,
grandmother told me that they had been "Civil War surplus" bought when the bedrooms
had to be furnished for the growing family. Moving from the parlor, "pocket doors" slid
apart to gain access to the former dining room.


The dining room was a living room by the mid-twentieth century. It contained a
circular oak table and chairs, a large bookcase on the north wall, and an oak glass-fronted
cabinet which, as Paul Tonsing remembers, was "filled with little souvenirs and costume
jewelry... all the things that Mom loved so dearly." It also held a number of vases and
her cherished Haviland china with their scalloped edges and light pink, rose designs.
Only grandmother could open this case, and the plates had to be carried slowly, with
extreme care, to the table, or back. A bit to the left of this cabinet was the door to a cloak
closet that extended back under the stairs in the hallway. Along the southwest wall below
the windows was a large, transitional, empire style couch, which had thick, turned legs.
It was covered with a black material and offered little "give" when one sat on it. During
the days this room became the sitting room for "grandma" Martin, her wheelchair was
usually placed with its back to the oriel window. Paul Tonsing, Jr., had the irksome duty
to close the wood shutters of this window at night, and to open them at first light.


On the northeast side of the house was the largest room of the house, the library.
All of the glass transoms above the doorways in the house were painted bouquets of
various flowers. Above the entrance to the library from the dining room, I recall, was a
cluster of red roses. This room had huge walnut bookcases, eight and one-half feet high
and five feet two inches wide. They were divided into a lower section with two, wide
doors which opened onto wide, deep shelves, and an upper section which held two doors,
each having two panels of "wavy" glass, the upper panels having a scalloped top. The
lower cabinets held all sorts of wonders, including a Stereopticon with a small suitcase
for slides, and some music boxes.

When the home was the mayor's house, and then the governor's mansion, guests
would be feasted in the dining room, after which the women would retire to the parlor,
the men to this room. A desk was placed under the north east window, a large, library
table in the center of the room, and various chairs along with an upright piano were other
furnishings of this room. One chair had white, ceramic wheels on the front, turned legs,
and a back that curved sharply back in an arc. Grandmother called this chair the "back-

Above the fireplace in the center of the north wall was a large engraving of, "The
Highland Hearth," published by George Stinson of Portland, Maine in 1881. The wood
frame, forty-five inches wide and thirty five and one-half high, shows a collie dog resting
before a low hearth which has bread being cooked on a flat pan suspended from a chain
and hook. Behind it is a bench with a draped cloth, ball of yarn with knitting needles,
and a vase behind a stack of flat loaves. To the left of this is depicted a wood door left
ajar. The picture embodied the sentimental Victorian spirit, but the friendly eyes of the
dog followed one as one walked around the room! Many of the books in the cases had
leather covers with stamped gold decorations. In the light that entered the windows or
the glow of the evening lamps, these glittered like stars in the dark sky above, but, here,
these were the golden gleams of a book-lover's heaven. At Governor Martin's death in
1889 the shelves held some six thousand volumes, the largest library of any kind in the


The kitchen extended the full width of the west side of the house. Access was
gained from a small hallway on the south, as well as a screened porch and the "back
steps" on the north. The room had gleaming, white wainscotting of wood. The sink,
stove and "icebox" were along the west wall. Above the sideboard, an eight-drawer spice
box furnished seasoning, and on the counter was a white, ceramic, "Dundee Marmalade"
jar that held wood spoons and various other implements for cooking. Paul Tonsing, Jr.,
remembers that, "Mom was great on making pies, using apples, cherries, rheubarb [sic],
gooseberries and mulberries that grew from trees in the yard. (I realize these don't all
growfromtrees.) As I was an avid crust person, she'd bake me a little crust on the side."
He also remembered that, "Mom was extremely indulgent, and would let us kids cook
fudge, popcorn balls (which would never stick together...but we ate them anyway) and
divinity, using one of her cook books." In the southwest comer, below a window, was
the large, oak table at which the family ate. Later, several steps and a door was added to
this corner which gave admittance to the stairs that led left, up to the master bedroom. In
the mid-1950's a door was added with its own little porch so that a woman who was
renting an upstairs room could enterfromthe outside without disturbing the family.

On the east side of the kitchen was a little table, always covered with a white
cloth, and, above it, a frosted glass window which opened high in the wall, perhaps
giving some illumination to a closet in the dining room's west wall. Near it, close to the
top of the ceiling, was a gas light fixture remaining from the very "modern" installation
when the house was new. When the house was "electrified" (yes, that was the word
used), the wires were simply attached with insulators over ceilings and around the corners
of the rooms.


A door on the right side of the east wall of the kitchen led to the steps that
descended into the full basement paved with cement. Paul Tonsing, Jr., remembered that
just below the steep steps was a large, wooden door flush in the floor. He wrote, "Lifting
the handle of this door revealed two depths of cement, perhaps two and three feet down.
This was the cooler, and watermelons and other perishables were put in there during the
summer to stay in the relatively lower temperatures." Just to the right of the bottom of
the stairs was a pantry with shelves of preserves in Mason jars. Occasionally winter
freezes caused the jars to burst. Paul Tonsing, Jr., remembers the terrible mess that made,
and the trouble it took to clean it up. The water pipes were suspended from the wood
beams of the cellar. These, too, would freeze and burst, and sections would have to be
replaced quickly.

A little farther in the basement was the large coal furnace, some four feet in
diameter and five feet high. However, according to Paul Tonsing, Jr., it never worked,
and the various rooms were heated by individual stoves. Extending through the south
wall of the basement were steps that led up to a nearly horizontal, very heavy, metal trap
door. There was a large iron ring in the middle of the door outside, and a curved pipe
railing kept one from falling over the raised cement surround of the door. When needed,
loads of coal, wood or corncobs were poured through that door. I remember what a
frightening racket was made when the coal was dumped down the curved, metal "shoot"
which rested on the steps. With modern furnaces, we forget the chores involved in
providing warmth for the house. After the coal or wood was carried up to the rooms and
placed on the grates of the stoves, corncobs, soaked a few minutes in kerosene, were
lighted, and, soon, the radiant heat would dispel the frosty clouds of one's breath.


The north porch was not large, as I recall, some eight feet by fifteen. There were
several, large, copper tubs there, with a contraption with two rubber rollers. These were
used for washing clothes. Bars of soap would be carved in little curls and dropped into
the hot water and stirred. The dirty clothes were added and the switch turned to start the
wood paddle swishing back and forth. After a while the steaming clothes were picked up
and rung through the rollers into arinsetub, and then, once more into another. Placed in
wood baskets with metal, wire handles, the clothes would be carried out to be hung to
dry, attached to the clotheslines with wood clothespins. However, one had to keep
looking out of the windows for any rain clouds that might appear suddenly. With the first
drops of rain there would be a flurry of activity, clothespins flung into a sack handing on
the line and sheets and shirts gathered quickly into the arms. Once inside, a few sox and
"long Johns" could be dried on a wood scaffold set up in the kitchen. This was a
mechanical and architectural wonder to one who needed to figure out how it could stand
so well and yet collapse neatly into a low, rectangular group of poles and posts.

Among the wash tubs oh the porch stood a "pie keep," with tin sides pierced by
many holes, and a large "settle." The latter was a bench with a large, square back that
swiveled down on wooden, peg hinges that went through the back of the arm rests. The
arms, themselves, formed the platform upon which the back laid, making, instantly, a
sturdy table. It was very old, as grandmother told me, and had come from a cabin at the
town of Woodlawn owned by the Challiss family. The porch was screened in, and the
swinging door leading to the steps made a cheery "bang" when the coiled spring pulled it
back. At least the sound was cheerful for the children. The adults minded, however, as
they always do.


Back in the kitchen, except for the door which led to the porch on the left side, the
north wall was filled with cabinets above and below, with a counter running the full
length, some twelve or fifteen feet. Another door to the right led to the "little hallway,"
that had what I think was a pantry on the left side. But, Paul Tonsing, Jr., remembers it
had a box with a wooden lid, perhaps for dirty clothes. The bathroom was on the right
side, with toilet, sink and tub. As I recall, the hot water heater was not large, and was
behind the tub at its head. Above the tub and water heater were shelves that held the
large, bound, newspaper file copies of the Atchison Champion. In the bathroom door and
below the low ceiling on the east side of the room were windows which had been covered
with translucent paper. I was always amused by this paper's' design of blue, red, yellow
and white geometric shapes, each surrounded by a black border. Another door on the
east wall led to the dining room. From the little hallway between the clothes hamper and
the toilet one continued through another door back into the library.


Upstairs were spacious bedrooms, a bathroom on the north side in the middle, and
the huge, master bedroom on the west. From the master bedroom a door on the north of
the east wall led to a large closet and a dressing room with its built-in dressing table
facing a north window. A door in the middle of that wall gave access to the hallway that
led by the bathroom on the left, and bedrooms on the right. Through another door one
found the landing, the stairs descending down from the right. In the middle of the
hallway was a door on the north of a bedroom occupied in the earlier part of the twentieth
century by Ida (Denton), and, to the east of this, the room occupied by Ernest (Ernie).
Across the front of the house was a little landing which led to the southwest bedroom.
The bedroom in the middle of the south side was reserved for guests, and its large size
and south-facing windows made them feel welcomed.


To the south of the house was a large lot that was tilled for a vegetable garden,
some thirty by forty feet. Paul Tonsing, Jr., remembers that, "it was my duty to till this
thing, plant some of, and go out before meals and get the radishes, carrots, rheubarb [sic]
and whatever we were growing that season to serve fresh at meals. Tomatoes were
prominent, also, and corn." The garden also held the beautiful roses so beloved by Ida
Martin and her daughter, Ruth. Grandmother Ruth recalled in the May 14, 1960 letter,
that, "Grandma Martin and I watched the hail tear our flowers to shreds." She also
recalled in her letter to mefromMay 12, 1961, that there was a mulberry tree in the yard:
"Usually I get enuf for jelly, but none last yr." Her letter of November 5, 1962, also
mentions the death of the old cherry tree. I remember the wonderful cherry pies
grandmother madefromthe fruit of that tree planted by Colonel Martin.

Parallel to the house and north was a gymnasium, entered by a door opposite the
back steps of the house. This large, two story structure, too, was built of brick upon a
limestone foundation, but had windows continuing around three sides for light and
ventilation. A stairway going up the west wall led to the story above the stables attached
to the building. When I was a child the gymnasium still contained some parallel bars,
rings hanging from the ceiling, and an assortment of the peculiar bowling-pin-shaped
weights that were popular athletic equipment in the nineteenth century. This building
was pulled down and its equipment taken to the town's dump in the late 1940's.


Attached to the gymnasium, the carriage house was located some forty feet to the
northwest of the house, and was accessible from the alley. About forty by fifty feet in
size, it once held the carriages and horses for the family. Paul Tonsing, Jr., recalls, 'It
was during the Depression, and as my brothers were pretty good mechanics, Ernie in
particular taught me, and it was a habit of Dad's to go out somewhere and find a '23 or
'24 Chevy in the weeds, pay $5 for it, and drag it home for us to fix.. In the upper story
of the barn was an old winch that had a cable that led to a pulley in a big cottonwood tree,
and it was our want to put one of the old Chevys under that tree and pull the motor or
other part."


In the years that Colonel John A. Martin was an editor, the mayor of Atchison, the
house saw many receptions and dinners. The house saw little of him, however, while he
was governor of the state. As grandmother, Ruth, mentions in her letter of June 12, 1962,
that, "...we saw so little of him the last 4 years of his life as he was in Topeka all the
time. There was no Governors mansion there then, so he went back and forth on that old
Sfe [Santa Fe] plug train Mondays and Saturdays." Paul Tonsing, Jr., remembers many
visitors: "We had a very active household...the aunts and uncles came frequently, and
Grandma was continually entertaining as she was prominent in the Baptist church, the
Women's Christian Temperance Union and other associations. I guess being a
governor's widow brought her prominence. Dad was also very convivial, and as different
preachers would hit town, he'd ask them home for lunch or supper. And salesmen who
called on him at the print shop were often guests. Of course the siblings were almost
daily visitors..."


The Martin-Tonsing residence served as a home for the family nearly one hundred
years. When none of the immediate family was living in Atchison at the time of
Grandmother Ruth's death in 1967, it was put up for sale. The asking price was $700.
The house's restoration and refurbishing was a condition of the transaction in 1968.
Sadly, the person who purchased this venerable, historic house merely wanted to sell the
bricks. Without removing the elaborately paneled doors, tile fireplaces and those
beautifully painted transoms, he soon demolished it with a wrecking ball. A market for
bricks did not exist, and the large pile of rubble lasted a long time. Only the large ash
trees planted by the newly married couple who built and enjoyed the home nearly a
century and a half-ago now mark the site. It remains, however, cherished in memory.


Miss Ruth Martin and Paul G. Tonsing, formerly of Cleveland, Ohio, were
married at Atchison, Kansas, Sept 7, 1893. Some of the Relatives present were F. D.
Mills, and daughters of Kansas City, Mrs. Judge Otis, Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Challiss, Mr.
and Mrs. Paul Challiss, great grandmother Harris, Mrs. William A. Otis, Miss Irene
Challiss. Miss Grace Martin, Miss Alice Rodgers, sister and cousin of the bride acted
as bridesmaids. The bride wore the same dress that her mother was married in 21 years
before, and also the same orange blossoms which every one of Dr. Challiss' daughters
wore when they were married.


I don't know when the little jar came to our home in Topeka. It may have been in
the mid-nineteen sixties. Its original function long expired, it stood for many years in my
parent's bedroom by the telephone, holding a variety of pencils and pens. I remember the
noise made after a note had been written on the pad and the pen was no longer needed
and simply tossed into the pot. "Chink," it sounded. The vase never really caught my
attention. It was simply there, jostling for space on the tripod table that not only held the
candlestick phone, pad and pot, but a variety of household magazines atop the directory

The vessel is not particularly attractive, so I wondered why it was kept. It is

rather graceless, with straight-up sides and a deep groove below the rim. Merely four and
three-quarters of an inch high, three and one-quarter inches in diameter, it is of white clay
with a glossy glaze containing hairline cracks. It original purpose is announced in capital
letters within a wreath of oak leaves tied by a ribbon on the bottom:



Outside, above, in an arc, is:


And, below the wreath:


LONDON, 1862
lLb Net.

In the agonizing flurry to discard a lifetime of possessions in the closing down of

my parent's house, however, I retrieved it from certain crushing and burial in the city's
dump. Perhaps its vertical lines, its tidy, white appearance, and its bold, black letters
evoked some aesthetic sense and caused me to hold my hand from completing the
graceful arc towards the trash can. But, no, there was something else. Through the grief
of emptying out a residence long occupied, the little vase called forth the memory of
another home in another time long past. I set it aside.


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In grandmother's house in Atchison, the jar was placed on the counter along the
west wall, next to the four-burner, gas stove. It held an odd collection of wood spoons,
darkened and dented by use in the preparation of year after year of meals, and of a
hundred Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, and Fourth of Julys. It held the spoons,
sentinel-like, alert, and ready for action in the stovetop battlefield of bacon, beef, butter
and beets, alerting the thyme and basil to fulfill their obligations! Erect, proud, gleaming,
this diminutive pot stood its post splendidly, doing its duty! Ever handy! Ever
serviceable! Ever functional! Ever vigilant!

How long the jar had been in grandmother's kitchen no one can say. It must have
arrived in the mid-eighteen seventies or eighties to her parents' house with its original,
costly filling making the lengthy voyage across the Atlantic, and just as long journey
across to the young state of Kansas. While life was not devoid of luxuries on the frontier,
imported marmalades rarely found a place on the large, oak table. Much more likely
were the preserves that great grandmother would make from the fruit of the trees in the
south garden. Marmalade would have been special, rationed, and savored, for lemons
and oranges grew only in distant regions, places of sunlight and balmy breezes, lands so
far from the eastern hills of Kansas as to be as mythical as the Greek paradise of Arcadia.

The tiny slivers of the orange skins, the golden-yellow glow of the translucent
syrup, and the scent of lemon as it melted with butter on warm toast excited the senses
and brought the sweet odor of flowers and shimmering visions of deep green trees
festooned with oranges into the minds of the family sitting around the table. For
grandmother and her siblings, it was sweetness beyond comparison, a touch of heaven
even more inviting than a few more minutes upstairs in bed with the covers pulled over
the head. For great grandmother, it may have evoked the memories of her childhood
home in Philadelphia, of jelly in shallow dishes of bone china served with scalloped,
silver spoons. But, for great grandfather, perhaps it brought back memories of his service
twenty years before as a Union general in the War, of a peaceful camp at night where
rows of tents, illuminated by camp fires, were perfumed by the orange blossoms of
Georgia and Mississippi, masking the stench of death from the morning's battle and the
smell of fear of the morrow's morning.

The pot of "Dundee Marmalade" lost the scent of its original contents years ago.
No longer does it hold spoons for preparation of meals, or pencils for recording
messages. Its function now has surpassed these mundane uses, for it now stands proudly,
promoted to a higher station. It holds pride of place among the silver tea set and the
crystal glasses in the china cabinet, reminding these more pretentious pieces of the
mutability of things, and the mystical powers of lesser objects to evoke scents, sounds
and memories of sweet times past. Hmmm! Come to think of it, some of that orange
marmalade now would be great!


When I was young, kitchens held many marvels. None were so intriguing as a
wood, spice cabinet at grandmother's house that had eight small drawers and an arched
top with holes for fastening it to the wall. Perhaps brought to the room when
grandmother's parents first entered the house in 1871 as bride and groom, it had
furnished seasonings for countless stews, roasts and desserts. It was not on the wall, for
some one small like me could not have opened it, even standing on one of the pressed
wood chairs pulled over from the table. I could reach it where it stood on the counter. I
went over to smell the spice boxes as often as I could, but only when grandmother was
not in the room, of course. Grandmothers do not like children to engage in such
suspicious activities. Often, I pulled out its boxes and peered into them, shutting my eyes
to "see" far away places. At first, these were always peaceful places where the realities
of World War Two could not reach. I did not understand the war, but I heard the
newscasts and conversations of adults, and knew that my father, somehow, was "over
there" and in danger. I vaguely perceived the purposes of dictators to compel nations to
fall under their rule, to end dreams and hopes, and make of human minds a desert.

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I do not dislike deserts. I have spent much time in the barren regions of the
world—the Negev of Israel, the arid sands of Egypt, Sinai and Jordan, and the awful
wastelands of Death Valley. I am not afraid of the fierce sun, the quavering, mirage-
filled landscapes of frightening emptiness, for these Saharas hold delicate plants,
beautiful reptiles and hardy mammals that live within dazzling cliffs and brilliant salt
flats. It is the other desert of which I speak, the measureless, trackless wastes that form
within in human minds.

In physical Saharas, humans seek caves. The relief of shaded spaces, the
comforts of closed places, the pregnant potentials of cool emptiness is far more attractive
than the crowded expanses of dunes and dust devils, and the blinding glare of sizzling
granite. The appeal of dark refuges and constricting spaces is that they do not so much
confine or contain, as offer promise. Although life, itself, forces one to venture out to
gather, to hunt, to engage in the tempestuous transactions of the world, always, one must
go back to that primeval, silent cavern where gestates all ideas, hopes, dreams and
In grandmother's kitchen, one by one I would pull out a box of the spice cabinet,
peer into its dark void, and inhale the scents remaining after a century's service in
guarding the precious spices. Each was like a miniature grotto, a diminutive sanctuary.
As the odor found its way to my nostrils, contrary scenes would be evoked. Some were
exotic and called up pictures I had seen in the books of the great library of the house.
But, more and more, as the war progressed, sobering, increasingly menacing scenes
crowded out these images. The smell of Organo would bring visions and tastes of
spaghetti eaten at a little table alongside the great, curved, glittering shore of Naples, the
massive, smoking mountain of Vesuvius rising in the background. Then, suddenly,
Roman streets would appear in which strutted furious fascists and slow columns of
humans enslaved. With the fragrance of thyme, the sunny marbles of the Acropolis in
Athens would come to mind, which would then be transformed into a ghostly, frantic
flight offreedombefore hosts of Nazis. A whiff of cinnamon would bring an image of
Bali women in exotic costumes performing a stiffly contorted dance. But, this would
dissolve into a swirling swastika marched by Storm Troopers. A smell of cloves, and
Christmas trees and presents and bowl-filled-with-jelly laughter would twinkle before the
eyes. But, then, tree ornaments would turn into bombs descending upon the city of
London like hail in a summer, Kansas storm. Only years later did the horrors of the war
diminish, and the scents of the spice chest remain just sweet smells, and visions stay just
beautiful scenes.

When I was about fourteen years old, grandmother gave me the cabinet, and I
went right to work scraping off the white and the green paint that had covered it. As the
layers came off, gradually beautiful oak emerged. After sanding, a clear varnish brought
out the golden color of the wood and several words above the knobs of the drawers.
Inscriptions were not necessary, however, as the odors yet remained with each container.
The cabinet stood by the stove in my parent's home for many years. When that house
was sold, I asked to have it, and, now, it is on my kitchen counter. Occasionally, I walk
over to it and smell the scent in a drawer, and, once again, images from far away appear.

All of us look into dark boxes to see visions of distant and exotic places. We are
still cave dwellers. But, we have automated caves today—televisions. There are great
differences. Television gives images, the spice cabinet conjures them. The former
programs what we are to see, the other opens up space for us to create whatever we wish.
One allows us to receive only what is proffered us, the other provides stimulus to
experience new things. One furnishes mirages moving on a two-dimensional glass
screen, the other opens up the limitless scope of the universe. And, one suppresses the
human spirit and makes of it a wasteland, the other evokes dreams and givesflightto that
imagination which humans need to ponder, design, and build.
We are cave dwellers. Nightly, we seek refuge from the world in an electronic
box, and, nightly, new deserts increase within human minds. For my part, I'll choose the
spice cabinet. Thank you, grandmother!


When I visit the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and walk into the
library of the mansion, I always experience a moment of "deja vue." The tall, elegant
bookcases, the leather-bound volumes, their gold-stamped titles and boarders, the heavy
fireplace and furniture, remind me of a room where, once, I read old-fashioned poetry,
studied etchings of Pompeian artifacts, learned of Alexander the Great, and gazed at Civil
War prints. Its books have long since been dispersed, the furniture and even the wood
and bricks of the home that enclosed these treasures are just rubble in some landfill
outside Atchison, Kansas. But the golden-glow-memory remains—and also one
bookcase. It stands in my living room, all eight feet six inches of it, "chocolate-black," as
that is how the nineteenth-century varnishes age, with peaked cornice, upper and lower
wavy-glass panels in each of the two doors, and a double-door chest below.

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Scribbled on the back in chalk are the words, "Mrs. Ida Martin, Ottawa, Kansas.'
While the case was probably made in Atchison for the house built in 1869-71 by her
husband as a wedding gift, the case accompanied the widow of Governor John Alexander
Martin to Ottawa where her children attended school for several years. But, soon it
returned to its place in the library on the north side of the mansion that looked out high on
the bluffs over the Missouri River.

"If wood could talk!" What would it tell?—of quiet moments of reading by coal-
oil lamps, of children playing on dark red carpets, of reflected light of wood burning in
the fireplace, of neighbors and senators, of family and diplomats, of lawyers and Civil
War veterans, of intimacies and political planning, of one hundred and thirty years of a
family. Wood, of course, can't talk. But, the bookcase stands tall and elegant, still
offering treasures to read, still reflecting light in its rippled glass, still echoing the busy
lives of those living in its presence. It stands proudly, reminding one of a Kansas frontier
town straining to be a metropolis, of Victorian times, of past elegance, and of a family
who read and were inspired by its books. The children of that family have now dispersed
throughout the United States, but, each of these people have led remarkable lives, and
have inspired and led others to appreciate those values learned from that old bookcase
which offered those dusty, musty, wonderful volumes. Come to think of it, wood does
talk, doesn't it?


A trip to grandmother's house was always special. The excitement would mount
as we would drive up the steep hills of the eastern Kansas town of Atchison. When the
grand, brick house built high on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River appeared,
hands already grasped the latches to open the car doors even before the vehicle stopped.

Hugs and greetings would be exchanged, and the adults would engage in some
conversation as we entered the large, mysterious rooms of the mansion. Then, food
would be set out and consumed. After lunch, grandmother would lead the children into
the library with its rows of nearly nine-foot bookcases filled with volumes. She would
tell us that if we were good, she would show us something special. She would show us
anyway, as she was fond of her grandchildren, and also of her father, Colonel John A.
Martin, and would hesitate momentarily and sigh when recalling this parent who died
suddenly when she was just sixteen years old.

From the drawers beneath the shelves grandmother would draw out a wonderful
sword which had been presented to the Colonel by the appreciative citizens of Nashville,
Tennessee, or three, rusty bayonets gathered from confederate guns lying on a southern
battlefield. Another time she led us to a blanket chest under the stairs in the front
hallway, and carefully withdrew a dark blue military uniform with dull brass buttons for
us to view.
Occasionally, grandmother brought out a dilapidated shoebox. When the lid was
off, she held the carton low so that we could see the rows of small yellow, goldenrod and
blue envelopes. She would select one, carefully pull out the contents and unfold it, and
read a portion of the letter. Once more, adventures of soldiers and civilians during the
Civil War would come alive with campfires in green meadows, lizards running across
bedrolls, hot dusty marches and fearsome battles, concerns for a younger brother also
participating in the war, and with an impatient brother complaining that his sister was not
keeping up her pledge to write frequently!

Letters are the most intimate record of a person's life. They reveal the attitudes,
motivations and concerns that mould and drive an individual. Thesefirst-personaccounts
record the tragedies, struggles, and, especially, the frustrations of a soldier swept up in
the flow of a massive and terrible war. As grandmother read, we heard of short rations
and emergency maneuvers, and of grinding boredom punctuated by furious fights. Never
absent was an intense longing for home, for news of familiar things, and, especially, for
reassurance from loved ones. Only those who have been long absent from their homes
can understand this. Especially for combat soldiers, the "life-line" home through the
mails is of considerable importance. One does not know what the next day will bring,
and if there will be one after that. So, one pours one's thoughts into letters—but, not all,
of course. These frail pages cannot tell fully of bright hope shattered by the realities of
battle, and of peaceful contemplation routed by terror. That is left for sleepless nights
after the war, and for nightmares that intrude even into one's daylight hours decades later.

After a while—all too short—grandmother would replace the lid on the box and it
would be restored to its shelf to await another visit. In 1963 or '64, my father received
the letters, and, in more time, they came to me. The dilapidated shoebox is now replaced
withfireproofstorage, and the letters and envelopes are protected within archival, plastic
sleeves. Yet, the messages drafted on page after yellowed page during the War Between
the States are as fascinating and thrilling as those days so many years ago when a
grandmother lovingly read the words of a beloved father to her grandchildren, and gently


Its big, and its ugly, and, always, I have to warn those who are about to sit on it,
that it's like sitting on cement. That's what horsehair stuffing feels like after one hundred
fifty years of use. The couch has Empire lines, but the heavy turned Victorian legs of a
provincially made piece of furniture of about 1830-40. Perhaps attractive before the
original varnish turned to the chocolate-black, it represents a bit of Kansas history.

As grandmother Ruth Martin-Tonsing told me, it belonged to "Aunt Belle (Anna

Isabel) Smith, sister of Governor John A. Martin, when her husband was Commanding
Officer of Fort Leavenworth. From the style and construction, the sofa must have been at
Fort Leavenworth from its earliest days. Once, I was talking with grandmother about her
aunt, and also about General George Custer who was stationed at the fort. Suddenly, she
said something so bad about Gen. Custer, that it caused me to exclaim in surprise:
"Grandmother! I never heard you talk like that before!"

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Talking with my father about this conversation some years later, he related that
General and Mrs. Smith would have an "at home" each Sunday afternoon, meaning that
the officers and their wives were expected to pay a call on the Commander. They were
served nothing stronger than tea or punch, mind you! My father speculated that, of
course, General and Mrs. George Custer were among those who attended these affairs.
Perhaps they sat on this very couch during these obligatory visits. Perhaps, even such
famous visitors to Leavenworth as General Grant, or even Abraham Lincoln, who would
have called on the Commanding Officer, also sat on that couch!

If so, I hope that the horsehair stuffing was a bit more forgiving back then than
when one sits on it now!


Grandfather Paul Gerhardt Tonsing, according to Ernest Tonsing, always pursued

his subjects with a passion. In the deepest days of Prohibition he discovered that the
Atchison Elks Lodge was operating a bar for its members. He wrote the Kansas State
Attorney General reporting the violation of the law. When he received no response, he
wrote again, threatening to expose the lodge in the paper he was publishing for the
Lutheran Evangelical General Synod of Kansas. The Church Visitor. This was enough to
move the Attorney General, and the bar was closed. Grandfather then proceeded to
publish a story on the incident.
It was clear to the members of the lodge who was behind the closure. One day, as
grandfather left the Atchison Post Office, four men, the sheriff and three of his cronies,
obviously inebriated, tumbled out of the door of the nearby lodge and began to pursue
him. One of the men named Billinger had a very large frame that towered over the very
portly Tonsing. He was able to trip grandfather, holding him by the leg. Only by kicking
him in the head was grandfather able to escape. Grandfather Tonsing then ran down the
street and entered the Telephone Office, and so escaped. The irony of the event was that
it was liquor itself, which had prevented the men from catching and thrashing him!

Possibly connected with the same closure was another event late one evening.
Grandfather was walking home over the viaduct that went over the railroad tracks in
Atchison. Part way over the bridge he noticed a large black man walking behind him.
When he quickened his steps, the man did the same. Grandfather went down the steps
alongside the automobile road on the viaduct, going toward Commercial Street, and the
man again followed. When grandfather broke into a run, the man did also. It was then
that grandfather saw the flash of a knife, and there was no question about the man's
intent. Grandfather ran to Commercial Street and rounded the corner to the office of the
newspaper, The Globe, and began to pound on the door. Fortunately, there was someone
working there at night who opened the door. The man did not follow him inside. After a
long while, grandfather called a taxi, and thus returned home safely.

It seems as if the mayor of Atchison had known of the illegal activity in the Elks
Lodge but did nothing to intervene even after grandfather had brought it to his attention.
When grandfather went over his head, this was noted in an article in The Church Visitor.
Additional evidence of misconduct by the Mayor Frazer, a medical doctor, was reported
when it was discovered that he had used city horse teams and drivers to level and haul
dirt to a series of terraces in Atchison upon which he built the "Frazer Apartments."
With this revealed, the mayor was removed from office.

Irony, again, played its tricks, for when grandmother Ruth Tonsing gave birth to
her first child, Evan, at 315 North Terrace, the attending doctor was Dr. Frazer.


"Stop that! You'll hurt yourselves!" She said it with urgency. Grandmothers
always say such things. I guess that she was right. My brother and I had found three
Civil War bayonets, and were sparring, "Zorro" style, across the library floor. The
eighty-year old weapons were a bit rusty and already chipped. We were not the first
children to have employed them in imaginary duels and knightly combat.
Only years after, when grandmother hesitatingly gave them to an eager twelve or
thirteen year old, did she relate to me that they were historic artifacts of the great War,
one having been made for the Union Army, and two for the Confederate. One of the
latter was piteously thin, relying on its cross-shaped ridges for strength since its metal
was of inferior quality. Whether they had been sent from the battlefield by her father,
Colonel John A. Martin, or brought home by him when he mustered out of the Army, is
not known. They witness, however, to the nature of wars past.


Once, war was fought person-to-person, hand-to-hand and eye-to-eye, and one
didn't need to kill outright, only wound, since injury and infection brought death just as
surely, only a bit more slowly. Today, we kill by remote control, as easy as changing
channels on the television sets in our living rooms. But, these weapons from the Civil
War were as deadly as bullets, rockets and bombs. They killed up close, and they killed
just as well.

"You'll hurt yourselves!" was the cry of a daughter of War, and she should know.
"Those who take up the sword, will die by the sword, " said Jesus. Perhaps Jesus wasn't
talking only of swords!


In my bedroom is a "blanket chest" with iron handles on the sides, and white,
ceramic wheels, which I retrieved from 315 North Terrace in Atchison just before the
house was torn down. It is three feet five inches wide, twenty-two and one-half deep, and
twenty-six inches high, and appears chocolate-black, the color of most of the furniture
from the mid-nineteenth century. It has two stories.

The first I cannot confirm: I vaguely remember being told by my grandmother,

Ruth Tonsing, that her grandfather, William L. Challiss, had brought it with the family
when they moved to Atchison in 1857. Wm. Challiss was the first medical doctor in the
Kansas Territory, and one of the founders of the city of Atchison, and the founder of the
town of Woodlawn, Kansas.


The second story I can affirm: my father, the Rev. Ernest F. Tonsing, was a
chaplain in the United States Army in Germany during World War II, and my mother had
been invited to stay with her mother-in-law in the huge mansion above the Missouri
River. It was a cold, winter night, and my brother and I were shivering in beds placed in
the former parlor, located in the southeast ground floor just to the left of the entrance to
the house. Grandmother went to this chest which stood in the alcove beneath the
staircase and retrieved two blankets. As she spread the blankets on bis bed, my brother
exclaimed, "Oh, Grandma! These are smelly blankets!" I remember that she responded:
"Ah, yes, I guess they are. They were my father's during the War." They had lain in that
chest for eighty years.

What happened to those Civil War Army blankets and the general's uniform
which occupied the box I do not know, but a glance to that chest still brings back the
memory of those very warm blankets from that very cold night, very long ago.


As Grandmother Ruth Tonsing aged, she remained vigorous and intellectually

alert. Each Sunday she went down the steep hills of Atchison to the Lutheran Church to
teach her Sunday School class. This was one of the most important things in her life
outside her grandchildren. The women in that room were just as tenacious in attending.
While I was not present at any of their meetings, I'll bet a little mouse would have heard
more than Sunday School lessons of the day, however! Then, in the afternoons this
eighty-year old woman would visit the various "poor old dears," as she call them, all in
their sixty's or seventy's. They all seemed much morefrailthan she.

I once asked grandmother how she kept up her health. The only tip she
mentioned was that each morning, after dressing, she would go to the kitchen sink and
run the hot water tap a few minutes, and then drink two glasses of it. That done, she
would begin preparations for breakfast, which, summer or winter, consisted of a bowl of
cooked oatmeal. We called it "sticky" oatmeal, for it had remarkable qualities. It stuck
to the bowl. It stuck to the spoon. It stuck to the roof of the mouth, and it stuck to the
ribs, providing a steady dose of energy that would last throughout the morning until the
noon meal.

But, grandmother had another secret. It was an awe-inspiring beverage, thick

with vitamins, enervated with a dash of pepper, and served in a medium-sized, straight-
sided glass. Before vitamin pills, there was this foul-tasting beverage, deep red in color,
of tomato, pronounced, "tomaato," juice. A few draughts of the stiff mixture was
supposed to give one strength and stamina to confront all the trials that one could meet in
a day.

It must have been a "family thing." I don't know which part of the lineage,
whether Challiss, Martin, Earhart or Tonsing, one can blame for the perpetuation of this
assault on good taste buds. I recall that Amelia Earhart reported upon her landing at New
York after a coast to coast flight, that she took with her only one [uneaten] sandwich,
some hot chocolate, and that "tomaato" juice.

Well, Amelia drank it, and so did grandmother. Grandmother's secrets for long
life included not only two pre-breakfast glasses of hot water, therib-bracingoatmeal, but
the strong-tasting, crimson drink. Thus fortified, grandmother raised seven children, and
Amelia flew around the world.

Wait a moment! Amelia didn't make it. I'll bet it was that "tomaato" juice!
Hmmm! It rather shakes one's confidence in multi-vitamin pills as well, doesn't it?


Winter mornings in the old house in Atchison began before dawn when one had to
scrunch down into the blankets and draw oneself into a ball to keep warm. Finally, the
call to get up was heard. There would be a dash to the bathroom to wash and dress before
the cold brought the shivers. The bed would be made, then one could run and sit at the
kitchen table. Grandmother would set a bowl at each place, and we would pour milk and
watch it puddle on the surface of the thick, cooked oatmeal.
After eating, we would resume the ritual. We would wipe our mouth, and would
ask to be excused from the table, and then pick up the dishes and carry them carefully
over to the sink and run water over the bowl and spoon. That done, we raced to the
cloakroom to put on, first, the scarf, then the stocking hat, then the coat, then the
overshoes, then, finally the gloves. Thus encumbered, we opened the door and tramped
out over the porch and down into the snow, shouting with glee all the way. When one is
young, snow is not an obstacle to be shoveled or a impediment for a car. The white,
fluffy stuff is just one, huge playground, irresistibly beckoning children to run, jump and
roll around, making patterns of silly footprints and impressions of serious "angels."

Just as glorious were the marvelous "swords of winter." These grew in the gutters
below the eaves of the house when the channels were clogged with fall's leaves, or when
they were bent by some tree limb which had been propelled through the air by the
rambunctious Kansas "breezes." Each night the water would freeze, and, as the gray of
mid-day would give a little relief from the frigid temperatures, at first little nubs, then
fingers, then long, transparent icicles would extend down from the lowest bends of the
troughs. Each day we would go out to see how long they had gotten, and, with
excitement, would view each fantastic tentacle of ice.

Finally, after attaining impossible lengths, the icicles would drop. These would be
picked up eagerly and wielded as mystical swords. The snow-covered little warriors
would move and thrust about, jousting, or just banging at the other "swords" until all of
them were shattered and lay in pieces in the yard. After these exertions the troops would
withdraw into the house and retire to the warmth of the kitchen.

Snow angels were all right. They were fun because one could make them in the
snow with one's own body, with wings the span of the swing of the arms. But, they were
just snow. The other angels depicted on church bulletin covers and ceramic plaques were
not all that interesting to children. They were always white-robed, with long, curly hair,
and wore feathered wings impossibly attached somewhere between the shoulder blades.
These cotton-ball beings were just too static, too soft, too "mushy," too much like the
bland oatmeal eaten at grandmother's breakfasts.

We knew of another angel, however. This one wielded a flashing sword just as
energetically as the little warriors. He was the mighty archangel, Michael. A great
champion, Michael fought evil, stomped on the Devil, and threatened with his sparkling
blade as he pursued malfeasance. You could have those puffball angels dangling as
Christmas tree ornaments, or those little, brass, angel whirligigs twisting in the heat of
lighted candles. We fought alongside our winter's hero, wielding those icy swords
conquering evil.

Today, more than a half-century away from those cold, Kansas' winters, a slight
chill in the air, the mention of a weather pattern moving across the mid-west, and images
of the long fingers of ice grow in the imagination, and, once again, St. Michael arises to
take up the eternal battle of good over bad, and right over wrong. Evil now confronts us
much more personally and much more globally, and justice seems much more
unattainable in a world bent upon discrimination and war.
Our training grounds, however, were those dazzling days of icicle swords. And,
so, even now, as tested and tried "snow warriors," never will we hesitate to sally forth to
battle for the good, and, once more, raise the cry, "St. Michael, be with us!"


I know how God writes. I don't believe that it is in English, or in elastic Hebrew
with its evocative sibilants. It's not in sonorous Latin, nor is it even in Greek, whose
polysyllabic precision chisels words like a sharp scalpel. And it doesn't look like the
rounded, rhythmic script of the old letters in my desk, nor the Gothic calligraphy on my
school diploma. No, it's none of these. I know, because I once saw God write.

It was freezing outside, and the coals in the stove in grandmother's house in
Atchison barely kept the chill out of the dining room with its twelve-foot ceilings.
However, for a little boy, cold never hinders curiosity. My bedroom was the former
parlor next to this room, but the wood shutters of its windows were closed, and I sought
the first rays of sunlight by climbing up onto the great, Empire period couch and leaning
over its back to peer through the window.

The Kansas winter had transformed everything into a white, crystal world. Ice
had coated every branch of the trees, every twig of the plants, and every blade of the
grass with transparent jackets. The eighty-year old wavy glass added enchantment to the
magical scene. Beyond the intricate maze of tree limbs over the Missouri River, charcoal
clouds barely permitted faint patches of yellow-orange light to pass through. It was yet
too early for the sun's rays to fall upon the ice and transform it into its more usual liquid,
so the glassy tubes reflected only small, opalescent veins of these warmer colors. The
gray of early dawn still prevailed.

Suddenly, this view was interrupted by a new wonder. As I redirected my

attention to the window itself, tiny white lines began to move over the surface, unfolding
geometric forms that merged, and then sent new shoots out once more. Transfixed, I do
not know how long I looked at this maze of patterns gradually extending over the pane. I
wasn't even aware that grandmother had entered the room and was now alongside me.
She, too, gazed with wonder. After a long while I asked, "What is this?" Grandmother
said, "Frost. It's God's way of writing "

No, I don't know what God wrote that day, but, based upon grandmother's gentle
words, God must have said something nice.

At every gathering of friends or family when grandmother was present, there

would come that moment when she would go over to her bag and withdraw a black,
rectangular box with a small strap-handle and little, square, glass windows on the sides of
one corner. That was the time for all to gather outside in front of the house, line up in a
row, and smile—even though we weren't told to do so—one just knew one had to do it—
and wait. After some holding the box to the eye and moving back a bit, the sound of "ka-
thunk" would tell us that the shutter had opened and closed, that the rays of light had
exposed the emulsion, and we were free to resume our activities, the adults more talking,
the children more play.

Most of us gave no more thought to this ritual. Not so grandmother! She would
wait eagerly for the film to be developed and the prints returned. Then she would take
out the black album with its heavy pages and carefully spread white glue across the back
of each photo with the little, flat brush attached to the lid of the jar, and then press the
picture into its place on a page (this was acceptable archival procedures sixty years ago).
Grandmother would then type the date, place and the names of the people on a piece of
paper, trim it closely with her scissors, and glue this label below the picture.

Album after album she filled, marking year after year of the family's life.
Through twelve or thirteen of these books, she recorded the happy times—births,
confirmations, graduations, marriages, birthdays—but also the sad times—departures to
distant cities or wars, illnesses, and deaths. These "memory books," as she called them,
were augmented with clippingsfromnewspapers in which relatives were mentioned.

The albums are now scattered in homes across the nation. Some, I fear, are lost,
either cut apart and the contents distributed to various parts of the family, or discarded
when no one stepped forward to claim them upon the death of a distant relative. But, I
have one. I was looking through it the other day, idly turning the pages and surveying
their contents. This time it wasn't the images that attracted my attention, but that the
pictures had been so carefully arranged and identified on page after page.

It struck me as extraordinary that one would expend so great an effort to produce

these albums, even of loved ones. What is it that emerges out of the subconscious that
leads to making scrapbooks and photograph albums? Is it some trace of almost dormant
creative urges, like that expressed in the Paleolithic paintings in caves in France and
Spain, the scattered petroglyphs on the Island of Hawaii, or the rows of ancestral figures
on the anus of Easter Island? Is it some other impulse? Huge paintings of the lineage of
Queen Elizabeth decorate the apartments at Windsor, and, in broad, British accents, the
minister of the First Methodist Church in Oxford will point to portraits which line the
walls of his office and introduce, one by one, the images of his "illustrious predecessors,"
beginning with John Wesley himself.

Perhaps these collections represent a primeval human need to be rooted in the

stream of life itself. Maybe we need to reassure ourselves, by assembling and reviewing
these images, that we have a place, a role, a purpose here. By these albums we confirm
our humanness, that we are connected with other lives, and, somehow, are fixed within
the human story.

A picture in the album caught my eyes. It was my oldest uncle. I looked at the
posture, the square face, the tip of the head, the stiff, high-collar, the firm mouth, and,
especially the deeply recessed eyes. The eyes told everything. Here was a man who now
managed the family printing business after the early death of his father, and upon whom
responsibilities weighed heavily. Not yet apparent were the ravages of the cancer that
was to take his life. Here, he is happy, but the sadness of the eyes foretells the end.

Other pictures attracted me. One is of a stern, Victorian woman whose husband
was a pioneer editor and Kansas governor, who now lived in mourning after his death in
the influenza epidemic of 1889. Another is of a daughter who turns her head to her new
husband, both of whom were about to journey to distant Panama to live. Another is of a
cousin visiting from Berkeley, dressed in black, with a hat and feather, whose sad face
echo the tragedy of a daughter lost in the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island when she
attempted to fly around the world. Another is of a son, an army chaplain, who was to
leave for Normandy shortly, whose jeep and jacket were to be riddled with bullets,
earning him the "Purple Heart," but who returned home safely.

Marshal McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher, was right. Technology, rather than
increasing our ability to observe, actually reduces it. Videotapes of family gatherings are
likefreewaysushering us along too quickly, limiting the amount of attention we can pay
to each image. Such technology furnishes an overabundance of information, but forces
us to see less and less. Our attention is decreased, and we are attracted merely to
movement and fleeting impressions.

But, as in driving a car when one gets off of thefreeway,parks and then walks, so
it is with photograph albums. We can take our time, and can move our gaze around at
will, to look at pictures in any order. We can ponder one face, turning the pages to see
that face grow, mature, and take on character. We can examine groups, and pick out
individuals. We can look at their costumes, and coiffeurs, and also houses, and cars, and
rooms, and chairs, and even pictures on the walls. We can study these, concentrating on
the smallest details. A video shoves one along: an album lets you move at your own
tempo, engaging you, drawing you into the pictures, creating and reaffirming again that
human bond with relatives and friends now distant in space and time.

Oh, there is another page in the album that caught my eyes. On it, grandmother
herself is pictured with her little black box—the photographer photographed! In one
more, grandmother still smiles at her grandchildren. I smile back!

When the John A. Martin mansion in Atchison, Kansas, was to be sold, my father
and I took one last walk through the rooms now stripped of their furnishings. Each room
had had its own appropriate function—the library, the parlor, the dining room, the master
bedroom and separate dressing room, and so on. The kitchen, especially, seemed stark,
having lost its dishes, pans, stove, tables, chairs and even the iron, Civil War vintage cot
that had been Grandmother Ruth Tonsing's bed the last years she had lived in the house.
Just one item had been left behind, a coal oil lamp. This light and its tall chimney had
been a modern innovation when the house was built in 1869. Now, of many lamps once
found in the house, only one was left.

Dad picked up the lamp and carried it out to the car, saying that it would be handy
to keep. Of thick, pressed glass, its chimney was heavier than ones made at the turn of
the century, and the base was unadorned except for the curves which gave it a graceful
profile. Back home in Topeka, it was not lighted often, but I can remember taking a
wooden spoon and an old dish towel to wipe up and down the inside of the chimney to
remove the film of carbon after its use.

The lamp provided illumination during the violent weather that swept across the
state. When the storm's fury would increase and the electricity would go out, the family
would grab blankets and food and go down to the southwest area of the basement. In that
corner, thought to be the safest, we would talk and read, waiting for the wind to abate.
The lamp certainly gave enough light, but I could only pretend to read, since mere words
cannot compete with sounds of tree limbs crashing against the house and ferocious
shrieks of the wind. The house would creak and groan, and windows would rattle. But,
through it all, the old lamp burned steadily, reassuring by its brightflamethat, eventually,
the winds would die down, the home would remain safe, and fear would be banished to
the damp comers of the cellar, not daring to approach as long as the enchanted circle of
light continued to bless by its glow.

Once I asked father why grandmother had kept the lamp. This was the age of
electricity, and, surely, she did not need to keep this remnant from the earliest years of
her home. This was long after gas lighting, and even long after Edison's wonderful
invention. And, after all, there were battery-powered flashlights. To my question he
responded that grandmother used the lamp "to save electricity."

I remember being amused by that answer. After all, electricity is cheap. It's
convenient. Electricity is easy to light—no matches, no pesky wick, no careful
adjustments to make every few minutes to keep the light even. To get it, one had only to
turn a switch (yes, in the old houses one "turned" rather than "flipped" switches).
Besides, there were no irritating black streaks of carbon to wipe out of the chimney and
kerosene to pour into the base the next morning.

Years later the import of my father's answer brought me a feeling of sadness. It

was not to save electricity that grandmother used this lamp nightly, but to save. The long
widowed wife of a poor, country-town parson, the mother of eight children, and thirty
years living on a meager pension after the early death of her husband had taught her thrift
and self-reliance. When, in the last years she had rented out the other rooms of the big
house and had been content to live in the large kitchen, as each evening approached, to
"save electricity," she would enact the same ritual: the lamp's chimney would be lifted
off, the wick turned up, the match struck and touched to the wick, and, as the fire would
spread across the plaited threads, the chimney would be replaced. At this, the flame
would suddenly rise to brilliance, and a warm light would chase the shadows of table and
chairs to the walls. Then, pulling up her chair, in that gentle radiance grandmother would
read her Bible, type closely-spaced notes to her family, or think back to her childhood
spent in that house.

Strange, isn't it, what light can do? It takes the violence of a Kansas "electrical
storm," when the power fails, to know real darkness—a darkness in which lightning
thunders, trees thrash about, wood houses shake, and fear drives one either deeper into
one's bed covers or the basement. In such a dark, light is cherished above all else. And
where sophisticated human inventions of wires, sockets and globes break down, light
from the simple technology of a wick rising from coal oil in a glass reservoir, a chimney
and flame, is not only reliable, but calming and comfortable.

Light has more than physical properties, for memory, too, is light. Each one of
our recollections is an image that emerges as light, and plays in the mind like shadows of
light. I can see this same lamp standing in the middle of the oilcloth, covered table, amid
books, papers and letters. Grandmother is sitting there, adjusting her hearing aid and
chatting on about the day's news, the weather, or the activities of her beloved children
and grandchildren. Again, I can see her that evening in the late 1950's when we paid a
visit. As we entered the kitchen, she looked up from her reading. Just the table, her
Bible, and, especially, her face, was illuminated. Yes, grandmother "saved electricity"
with the lamp, but by its light grandmother saved something else more precious: she
preserved her gentle, beatific face in my memory. Counters, sink, icebox, dishes, chairs
and table have receded into permanent darkness in my mind. Only grandmother's sweet
face, encompassed by the soft light of her coal oil lamp, endures. Angels in heaven—be

Ernst F. Tonsing, Ph.D.

Thousand Oaks, California
July 20, 1999

© Ernst F. Tonsing, July 20,1999

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