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The Rocking Chair

A writer's attachment to an heirloom in his family's Narragansett Beach Cottage stirs up fond memories and a connection to Civil War history.





(Note: This essay was published in the November, 2023 issue of Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.)


I am sitting in a rocking chair that I’ve sat in every summer of my life, starting in August of 1962. (That was a few weeks after I was born, so I was sitting on someone’s lap.) The chair is in the living room of the small Rhode Island cottage that was built in 1939 by my great-grandparents, John and Harriet Carpenter.


They put it on high ground overlooking Point Judith Pond in Narragansett, after their previous summer “camp,” which sat closer to the ocean near what is now Roger Wheeler State Beach, was swept away in the Great Hurricane of 1938.


I am now one-sixth owner of both this cottage and, I suppose, this rocking chair, an inheritance that is bittersweet coming after the deaths of my mother last year and father the year before. My sister and I are part of the fourth generation to own it, sharing the title with two of our cousins and our Aunt Anne.


Owning a family cottage with an expanding group of people can be tricky, and we’ve had challenges. But it remains a happy place, and there is something very comforting about sitting here. It is one part vacation home and one part family museum. Like so many multigenerational cottages in Rhode Island and elsewhere, it is a living time capsule. I take my new role as part owner seriously and find myself more worried about things like fire hazards and winterizing plumbing.


A beautiful but modest structure, it has three bedrooms downstairs — two of them in a converted garage — and two upstairs. There is one bathroom, with a tub inside that’s mostly used for washing small children and dogs. The only shower is outside, off the back of the house, where we wash off the sand and salt from the beach.


The chair I’m in is a simple wooden rocker with a caned seat and back. A blue cushion offers extra padding. The armrests are flat wood, but one is marked with hundreds of small, deeply worn notches. The chair belonged to James Carpenter, John’s father and my great-great-grandfather, who was a luthier by trade. He used to sit in the chair to cut his violin strings — hence the notches. I know thisbecause I was told so as a child by my father, who was told so as a child by his father. I, of course, have told it to my own children.


James Carpenter was a Civil War veteran who tried to enlist in the Union army at seventeen. His parents withheld their permission, and he contented himself with marching around the county with a small musical band, drumming up recruits until he turned eighteen. Then it was off to war with the 7th Rhode Island Infantry Regiment.


He started out as a fifer, but eventually became principal musician. We have a fife that was presented to him at the Battle of Fredricksburg. Musicians were an important part of military life in the Civil War, both for keeping up morale and communicating crucial orders in the thundering mayhem of battle.


James Carpenter and his fellow Rhode Islanders were present at some of the biggest battles of the Civil War, suffering an 80 percent casualty rate. About 1,000 left in 1862. A few hundred came back unhurt, at least physically.


Earlier this year I stood on the ground at Marye’s Heights, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A few feet from me was the stone wall that protected thousands of Confederate soldiers as they raked the Union troops for hours in one of the bloodiest massacres in U.S. military history. James Carpenter was among those troops.


According to an excellent history of the regiment I found among my father’s books, the men of the 7th Rhode Island fired until they ran out of ammunition, then collected cartridges from the dead and wounded around them and fired some more. When the ammunition was gone, they “deliberately and with rousing cheers fixed bayonets,” preparing to charge the wall and fight hand to hand. Instead, they were ordered off the field as darkness fell, “being the first brigade to reach it and the last to leave it.”


After visiting the battlefield, I walked quietly among the sprawling federal cemetery nearby.


After the war, young James settled back into his hometown of Peace Dale, in the far southern tip of Rhode Island. He married Mary Hill and they had two children, adapting to a long, quiet life. He directed a popular community band. He played music at the Peace Dale Congregational Church. And he made violins until he died in 1918.


I love this rocking chair because it reminds me of movie nights and sing-alongs and lively political debates among my, ahem, enthusiastically bipartisan extended family.


I remember my grandmother in this chair, here, sitting quietly while the family buzzed around her, or singing softly in her beautiful soprano if someone was playing the piano. I remember my father in this chair, smoking a pipe and reading the paper, or perhaps leading us all in the singing of random college fight songs and Irish ballads. I remember my mother in this chair,asking her grandchildren if they wanted any more to eat, or reminding us all — with pride and not for the first time — that great-grandmother Harriett was “an honest-to-goodness socialist.” I remember my wife in this chair, reading a book or rocking one of our children to sleep.


A few years ago, I wandered out to the lawn for happy hour, another camp tradition — never a drop before 5 p.m., full steam ahead after that. As I sat down in the late afternoon sun, I looked up at the small patch of roof that extends over our kitchen. You can climb onto it from a wooden fire-escape ladder, which my daughter had just done.

 

“Sally,” I said to her, “I’d tell you to get down, but I used to love to climb up there as a kid.”

Almost on cue, my eighty-six-year-old father emerged from the house and joined me. He handed me his gin and tonic while he carefully lowered his frame into the Adirondack chair, then he settled back and looked up.


“Sally,” he said, “I’d tell you to get down, but I used to love to climb up there as a kid.”

That is this cottage in a nutshell — simultaneously frozen in time and lumbering forward, summer by summer, accumulating both new and repeated memories.


Now I sit in this rocking chair and remember the Fredericksburg cemetery. I remember thinking then that I wouldn’t exist if James Carpenter was buried there. None of us would, from my great-grandfather down through my cousins and our children. None of this would.

No bocce games on the lawn. No cocktails in the setting sun or friendly stop-and-chats from dog-walking neighbors. No games with cousins, or jokes from uncles. No solemn assurances to Grandma that wiffle balls can’t possibly break windows. No toddlers splashing in wading pools. No lobster dinners in the too-small kitchen or morning coffee on the breezy porch. Time for our family could have stopped on that battlefield.


It’s easy to buy “souvenirs” near Civil War battlefields, among them actual bullets and musket balls that were left behind. Millions of them were fired in the war, so they were everywhere when it ended.


“This was a rebel bullet?” I asked the old man at the shop in Fredericksburg.


“Yes,” he said. “That’s from a British-made Enfield rifle.”


“Why is it white?”


“That’s what lead does when it sits in the ground. That’s how we know it’s authentic.”


I bought it for three bucks and carry it in my pocket, amusing myself with the notion that it was one of the many that whizzed by the head of a young man from RhodeIsland that day.


James Carpenter was lucky. So am I.


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