If you think humans communicate primarily in words, well, you’re mistaken. For most of the 200,000 years we’ve been around, we’ve communicated with things. In a way, words are one of the things we’ve devised to speed up communication. Enduring words are found on “things.”

Long ago (1959) my mom tried to communicate with me with this thing. This thing is an old trunk (duh). When I first met it, it was in my grandmother’s cellar and it was filled with books. Cool books, too. My mom’s books from an earlier, more dreamy, period of her life. One of those books had a huge impact on my life, and I wrote about it here. As time passed, the trunk came to our house and my mom started trying to figure out what to “do” with it. She thought of using it as a planter and had a custom metal box made to sit in the top instead of the old and broken wooden one (I don’t even know where that metal box went — but here’s the wooden one, where it’s been for well over 100 years). She got some Formby’s (the furniture refinisher of the day) and cleaned all the paper covering off the outside. She tried to repair the hinges in the back (they are still broken — unscrewed from the old wood, permanently, I’m afraid).

This thing. “You’ll inherit your grandmother’s sewing machine and the trunk.”

“What,” I thought, “will I do with that? I’m a world traveler, not an acquirer of stuff!!!”

Everyone acquires stuff, and this is my stuff now. I don’t know exactly what my mom was trying to say with the trunk. I know she felt it was important. I know she believed it belonged to my grandmother’s grandmother, one Phoebe Copenbarger. It could have come with my grandmother’s father’s mother, a Stober. My grandmother had HER Stober grandmother’s first name (Harriet).

All this leads to the question — who WERE these people and why should they matter to me? They didn’t matter to me much. All of that was so long ago, a dim past and memories that even my mother didn’t have…

My mom was convinced, however, and often said, “It came with Phoebe Copenbarger from the old country.” She didn’t even know what “old country.”

But I do…

Now that I’m writing a novel that is a VERY fictionalized account of the actual people in the actual old country I look at this trunk and wonder what influence it’s had on my life. My mom was interested in her “roots.” We went chasing after them when I was a kid. It was a lot more difficult back in the 60s to find out anything (and, in a way more interesting since it could involve travel and going to newspaper offices and libraries, not just sitting in front of a lap top and typing something in a search bar). Her work actually added something to the known facts of these obscure people. On a distant second cousin with whom I used to work has posted photos of our family that she got from my mom. Phoebe is the VERY old lady in the lower right corner…


So, the trunk. It could have come from the “old country” but Phoebe didn’t. She came from Virginia. The “old country” was four or five generations away from Phoebe. She is the daughter of the last person in my ancestry to have the name “Snavely” or “Schneebeli” — the name of a family from Affoltern am Albis, many of whom emigrated in the mid-18th century from Switzerland and the Alsace. I don’t think it’s very likely that the trunk came with the Schneebelis.


The hand-painted lithograph in the lid doesn’t say much — but my experience studying and writing about Godey’s Lady’s Book, and looking at thousands of images throughout the 19th century, puts it in the early-mid 1800s. Phoebe Copenbarger could have used it — but where. Maybe just to come west. I will never really know. I am sure, however, that when my grandmother, grandfather and their little family came west from Iowa to Montana in the early 1900s, grandma used the trunk.

I wish I knew the true story of this trunk. In any case (ha ha) it’s gone from being an annoying burden to tote around for the sake of “family” to an interesting relic that has been, maybe this whole time, trying to tell me something.

8 thoughts on “Trunk…

  1. I am sure that trunk could tell a lot of stories. We had a similar trunk that my mother-in-law bought for Mr. Swiss when he went to England for a year to learn english. Yes, travelling was different in those days. We kept it, and moved with it, but we decided we did no longer needed such a large trunk and it was thrown out. Yes, we are practical people today and travel light, but people like Phoebe Copenberger were necessary to tell us what it was really all about, not just a trunk, but a family history.

  2. Old things always have stories to tell. I’ve always been sorry I inherited nothing old, no old family treasures from my mother. They were all left behind in the Old Country. But I love your trunk!

      • I think trunks are the stuff of imagination. Especially for little girls. In the books I read, other little girls always had trunks full of fascinating old stuff, tucked into attics full of even MORE fascinating old stuff. We didn’t have an attic. We had a damp yucky basement, mostly full of stored canned goods and old washing machines. Not the stuff that dreams are made of.

        • This trunk was in my grandmother’s cellar. The cellar was cool and smelled of soil and my grandma kept all the vegetables and fruits she’d “put up” in there. My grandfather kept his tools and farming tack in there, too, out of the weather and changing humidity of the surface world. The trunk contained my mom’s books and some old clothes (hers, so not that old) from the 30s/40s. Most important it contained three great books. I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence, and Seven League Boots by Richard Haliburton. My mom loved adventure stories and, you know, in her later years, before she surrendered completely to booze, she fulfilled some of her dreams — she went to Israel and Egypt. She went to Greece and (on my suggestion!) went to Delphi (I haven’t been there) and it was the high point of her experience. She went to Rome and she went on a Rhine cruise. Those are some of the dreams from that trunk.

          What I have put in it is family photos and stories I’ve written based on things they told me over the years. It’s going to go to whomever with a context inside.

  3. Several years ago we closed up our old summer place that we could no longer afford or upkeep being spread all over the country. We went through drawers and boxes, and added the things from the camp to the box of things we had left there after my mother died. That box is in the possession of one of the siblings who no longer acknowledge me as one of theirs. That’s okay, since I don’t acknowledge them either, but it would be nice to see some of the old pictures of my Canadian grandparents again. They had both died by the time my father was 15, so the news clippings and photos were all we ever had of them.

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