Article - Autumn 2013

Lost and Found

An ancestral home holds the relics of a family’s past—and the promise of its future

By Edward McPherson | September 5, 2013
The McPherson house in Gettysburg (Edward McPherson)
The McPherson house in Gettysburg (Edward McPherson)


In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few blocks up from the town square, stands a three-story, red-brick house with green shutters and white trim. A porch wraps around the front. A small, white cupola perches on top like a dollop of icing, from which nervous members of my father’s family used to watch for German bombers during World
War II. Today, the house is owned by my father and his two brothers. One of my uncles still lives there, and my parents visit for three or four months out of the year.

My great-great-grandfather Edward McPherson built the house in 1870, seven years after the battle that made the small orchard town famous. I am named after him, as is my father. What do we call the house? An ancestral home sounds too grand. A homestead sounds like it’s out on the prairie. No, in our family, we refer to it as “Gettysburg,” somewhat presumptuously, as if a house can contain a whole town.

Thanks to a series of generations that believed in staying put, generations of dutiful men, men of obligations, who might briefly engage themselves in the business of larger towns, say Washington, D.C. (only an hour and a half away), before returning to occupy the house of their fathers—thanks to these men and their dutiful wives (who were expected to play their part and follow along), plus a lonesome collection of distant maiden aunts, the house is stuffed with artifacts, none of them organized, everything crammed together under its peaked gray roof.

Things I have found in the house:

Bullets picked up from fields and farms shortly after the battle.

Cannonballs and artillery shells, which, I trust, have been emptied of explosives.

A military sword of unknown origin that might or might not date to the Civil War.

Maps of the battle and the surrounding communities.

A layout of the family pews in the Upper Marsh Creek Presbyterian Church, dating from the late 1700s.

The framed commission papers of Colonel Robert McPherson, who served in George Washington’s Continental Army.

A young girl’s diary from 1864, offering candid views of Philadelphia and Chambersburg during the Civil War.

A copy of Don Quixote from 1865, with illustrations by Doré.

A history of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, from 1883.

A massive, leather-bound copy of the mystical devotional Vier Bücher vom wahren Christentum (Four Books on True Christianity), by Lutheran theologian Johann Arndt, printed in a heavy Gothic font and dated 1733 on the title page.

A chest containing some quilts that, according to an accompanying note, were singed when the Rebels burned Chambersburg.

Envelopes stuffed with green and red one- and two-cent stamps from the 1920s.

Reels of home movies, including footage of my great-grandfather watering the garden (wearing a suit) in 1935, of Ike’s inaugural parade in 1953, of the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

A collection of Agatha Christie paperbacks.

A copy of the self-help book I’m OK—You’re OK.

A shorter—and more fraught—list of things I have seen go missing over the years:

Early editions of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series, containing illustrations I used to stare at for hours. (Culprit: a generous and shortsighted grandmother, clearing out space. Recipient: the Salvation Army.)

A collection of P. G. Wodehouse hardcovers given to my grandfather as a boy and that, as an adult, I was working my way through. (Culprit: an uncle, also clearing out space. Recipient: the local library, from which the books promptly disappeared.)

And, perhaps the pièce de résistance, Edward McPherson’s Civil War sword. (Culprit: grandmother again, for reasons no one can fathom.)

It is selfish to hang on to what you cannot use. I still harbor a grudge.

Three things I have taken from the house without asking:

An article from a local paper announcing the graduation of my grandmother from Yale Law School in 1935. It reminds me of the panoramic photo I found in a closet on the third floor—now on display in the TV room—of my grandmother with her law school class. Rows and rows of sober men in dark suits stand with arms folded in front of an ivy-draped building. There, in the second row on the right, the only woman in the frame, wearing a brilliant white frock, is my grinning grandmother. (Despite her daring in that time and place, she didn’t practice law for long. Four years later, in a Yale University chapel, she married a lawyer and gave up bustling New Haven for Gettysburg.)

Two miniature books, bound and printed in London by Collins’ Clear Type Press (undated, but old and crumbling): Gems from Shakespeare (Comedy) and Gems from Shakespeare (Tragedy). Comedy is in good condition, but the binding is broken on Tragedy.

When he was in his 20s, my father met and married my mother, a good Texas girl. Together, they lived in Washington, D.C., for a brief stint and then, instead of returning to Gettysburg, dropped farther below the Mason-Dixon Line, citing expanding business opportunities and a far better climate in Dallas. My grandparents never really understood the decision. Pictures show them—the father and mother of the groom—looking happy but slightly dazed at the wedding. Perhaps they are surprised to be sitting outdoors by a pool in early May. They would visit us at Christmas, and we would return to Gettysburg for a few weeks every summer. I was seven the night my father was summoned to my grandfather’s deathbed. I remember the phone call—from my grandmother, telling him the time was near—and the light coming from under my dad’s closed office door, which I could see from my room, burning on through the night.

When I was in college, my family began spending Thanksgivings in Gettysburg—it was an easier trip for my sister and me, now both on the East Coast, and we continued the tradition even after my grandmother died. She’d been gone for two years when I first brought my future wife to Gettysburg. Five years after that, we were married in a church half a block from the old house.

I try to get back at least once a year but return even more in my writing. I shoehorned a chapter about Gettysburg into a nonfiction book I wrote about bridge, the tenuous link being my grandmother’s love for the game. I wrote a short story about a man who paints cycloramas—giant, 360-degree canvases designed to literally envelop a viewer within a historical scene. They were wildly popular at the end of the 19th century. The virtual reality of their time, cycloramas represented the pinnacle of science, entertainment, and art. Everyone knows the one in Gettysburg depicting Pickett’s Charge. I have walked behind the heavy linen canvas and marveled at the hyperbolic curve that gives the painting its curious perspective.

Recently, I wrote a short story about a reunion of Civil War veterans. For research, I read a New York Times article from 1891 regarding a kerfuffle over the placement of a battlefield monument. The men of one regiment wanted their memorial placed at the front line of Pickett’s Charge, where they said they had fought. However, veterans of other units said the regiment had been slow to take its position—that the soldiers had, in fact, hesitated when given the order to engage. Two sides emerged, telling different stories of where, exactly, the men had stood 28 years earlier. According to the article, a resulting legal battle over the monument made it all the way to the state supreme court. I experienced a strange jolt when I came upon this sentence: “Mr. Edward McPherson of Gettysburg, Clerk of the Fifty-first Congress, in accepting the monument for the Battlefield Association, said … he hoped the time would come when historic truth would triumph.” It was like suddenly catching a moving reflection in a mirror. I didn’t know my great-great-grandfather had been involved in policing historical markers. He was a confident fellow, and I am jealous of his optimism, however guarded.

Edward, who built the house in Gettysburg, was a newspaperman, attorney, and political junkie. An acolyte of Thaddeus Stevens, best remembered as the architect of Reconstruction, Edward was himself elected to the House in the 36th and 37th Congresses (1859–1863). After losing a bid for reelection, he occupied other government posts, edited several newspapers and journals, and wrote thick books with long titles like The Political History of the United States of America During the Great Rebellion.

He liked to write speeches, copies of which abound in the house. Some of these he delivered to the men of the local YMCA; others he presented in Washington. He was a good Lincoln Republican and on February 14, 1862, delivered an address to Congress called “The Rebellion: Our Relations and Duties.” The next year, he spoke to a local college on the topic “Know Thyself.” He had just lost an election by 92 votes. Perhaps it was a time of soul searching.

When I go to Gettysburg, I am torn between visiting with my family and digging through the house for old, forgotten things. A few years ago, I found a framed ink drawing of a geometrical starburst pattern that surrounded a string of curious characters made up of right angles and dots. A website hosted by the CIA helped me crack the code, an old Masonic cipher. According to the text, the drawing was made in memory of a man named Godfrey Lenhart (1754–1819). He was Edward’s grandfather, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, and a clockmaker, silversmith, and, apparently, a Mason.

One summer, I found a small wooden box stashed away in an overlooked drawer. The box contained a thin piece of thread. A handwritten note explained that it had been clipped from Lincoln’s funeral catafalque, the cloth-covered bier on which his coffin had rested. The thread was short, a black little worm, something you might brush off your sleeve. A few minutes on the Internet revealed that they were given as mementos to members of Congress. At the time of the assassination, Edward was the clerk of the House of Representatives. The thread no longer lives in the house but in a safe deposit box at the bank.

A shoebox on the third floor holds a packet of papers tied together with string: letters my grandfather’s brother sent home during the summer of 1917, shortly before he died in a waterfront accident at camp. My grandfather, who was 10, was at camp with him when it happened. His letters are there, too, and stop—like his brother’s—the day before the accident. My grandfather never said much about it. I had always heard that his brother drowned while swimming in a quarry, but a yellowed clipping from the local newspaper says the boy died when a riverbank cave he was exploring suddenly collapsed.

At the age of six, my father was sent to camp for a startling eight weeks. His father would send him letters typed by his secretary. My father says he loved every minute, and returns periodically for reunions of campers and counselors. I went to camp, too, but for only four weeks and at a much later age. The letters I received were handwritten. I also loved camp. From no letters to typed letters to handwritten notes—perhaps that is progress. My father’s family is not known for open communication. Between generations, things don’t get passed down; they accumulate.

I don’t like to throw anything away. My parents are unhappy about this. From Texas, they threatened to ship me boxes of small rocks, broken karate boards, and rusty machine parts. One fall, they put the boxes in the back of their car and drove 600 miles to deliver them to me. I have almost every personal letter I’ve ever received. For years, what used to be my closet in Dallas held old T-shirts and a dinky Irish tin whistle I can still sort of play. Now that stuff sits in a box, too.

I worry that I’m indulging myself in that cliché about undemonstrative men, those bankers of the heart. My father was a three-sport athlete at boarding school and led the basketball and baseball teams in college. He told me that his father made it to only a handful of his games—certainly none of the big ones in college.

My father works in finance; he collects books on business and often overdresses for the occasion. (His father appeared at the dinner table every night in a suit.) But he saw most of my high school games and even kept track of my collegiate soccer career, which took place on the other side of the country. When I was growing up, he didn’t coach me from afar or yell at the ref. I had plenty of space. Sometimes he would sit alone, high in the stands, away from the other parents—a solitary figure in a long, black dress coat. I wouldn’t always know he was there. I remember warming up for an away game during my freshman year of college and having a teammate from Greece point to the top of a hill and say, “Hey, isn’t that your dad up there?” I told Angelo to get his geography straight—Texas was 1,700 miles away from where we were in western Massachusetts. But he was right. After the game, my father approached me in the parking lot and explained, “I was in Boston for business.” A few minutes of small talk, and he left. Boston was more than two hours away.

In Gettysburg, the past is both intimate and distant. The house is so full—and so fragile. Things keep getting lost. How to unpack it in a lifetime? Who can or even wants to sort everything out?

In a drawer of a file cabinet, I find a number of land patents written in cursive on some sort of heavy cured parchment. They have wax seals attached by faded blue ribbons. I open a deed announcing that the proprietors and governors of the province of Pennsylvania allot 500 acres in Lancaster County to one of my distant ancestors, “as recorded on the 19th day of March 1743 and witnessed by the hand of …” The name has faded out.

Three brothers now split the cost of keeping up the house. Recently, in one year alone, it needed a boiler, some plumbing, and a new roof. Among the brothers, there are four children—not one of us has the flexibility or the financial means to take over. We are scattered across the country. There could come a day when no one in my family lives in Gettysburg.

The house, with its almost unbearable, unknowable inventory, has suffered some sizable amputations over the years. A good chunk of Edward McPherson’s
papers—some 18,000 items, filling 100 containers and one oversized bin—was donated by my grandfather and great-grandfather to the Library of Congress and now occupies 40.4 linear feet of shelving in Washington. Edward was a genealogist, historian, archivist, and packrat, who collected material from his ancestors at least four generations back: ledgers and ciphering books, powers of attorney, estate accounts, a “Horse stud fee book” from 1771 and 1772, a list of dogs taxed in Gettysburg from 1806 to 1816. And then there’s the accumulation of Edward’s own life: maps, calling cards, notes for speeches and books, obituaries, invitations, correspondence (from James A. Garfield, from Thaddeus Stevens, from Lincoln), his college report cards, the minutes book of the Shakespeare Club in 1847, and his two-volume scrapbook on the Battle of Gettysburg. On cold, damp days, when the bookshelves creak, I imagine the house is registering their absence like a phantom limb.

In his essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams writes, “The monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.” The past is both relentless and inarticulate. How can you argue with a monosyllabic opponent? I am starting to sound maudlin, so it is important to remember that Williams also saw the lighter side of things. He struggled as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and when MGM asked him to rewrite a B-movie script into a vehicle for Lana Turner, he quipped to a friend: “I feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver.” Some tasks are simply beyond us.

In the downstairs parlor, the one with the portrait of the Scottish ancestor on the wall (my father once shot the canvas with a bow and arrow—if you look you can see the slight pucker where it was repaired), there is a low side table with a number of drawers. Open the one on the right—not the one with bridge decks and score pads, and not the one with the old stereoscopic viewer with slides of the battlefield, but the one that contains 28 daguerreotypes in their tooled leather cases.

Open them, one by one, taking care not to mix up the handwritten slips identifying the sitter, which someone at some point realized had become necessary to include. Captain Edward McPherson in his Civil War uniform (his right hand a little blurry—perhaps he couldn’t bear to sit still). A dashing relation named Scott Fletcher with upswept hair and rakish sideburns. A brother (unnamed) of Scott Fletcher. A McClellan, a McClanahan, a mother and child, and a stern Presbyterian pastor and his tall wife. A pretty, young girl named Rebekah in a plaid dress. And then there she is again: a severe, skeletal widow wearing a black dress and gloves, her hair drawn tight beneath a white bonnet—a life reduced to the opening and closing of a clasp. One case has a lock of auburn hair pinned to its red velvet lining. The hair is the same color as my dad’s—and my own—when we were young boys. No one knows the name of the man in the picture. A friend? A lover? A relative? He has a tidy moustache like a saloonkeeper in an old Western. I joke about sending a strand of the hair for DNA testing.

Some of the images are so pristine you can still see the tinting that was painstakingly applied by hand. So lifelike: apples of rouge on the cheeks and even a little pink on the lips. Other images are degraded, their seals broken, the glass hazy with mold spiders and a sickly green patina that invades the edge of the frame. There are black dots (“measles”) and a delicate white frosting; sinister condensation bubbles under the glass. The figures are painted in a thin film of mercury on a silver plate as polished as a mirror, which, thanks to a trick of the light, provides a picture of unusual depth. You shouldn’t try to clean a daguerreotype, because the image, thin as dust, brushes easily away.

Oliver Wendell Holmes called the daguerreotype “the mirror with a memory.” He knew each picture was a one-of-a-kind artifact—it could not be reproduced. Daguerreotypes offered a mirror image; that is, the left and right sides were flipped. The only way to get a true likeness was to make a daguerreotype of a daguerreotype—two wrongs making a right. This was a complex process, so most people settled for a backward portrait.

Edward McPherson took a daily tonic for his health. On December 13, 1895, he reached for the wrong bottle, and instead of downing his usual after-dinner drink, he ingested a tincture of nux vomica, an elixir containing a hearty dose of strychnine. The medicine had been prescribed—in minuscule amounts—for an ill member of the family. Edward immediately realized his mistake. A doctor was summoned, but it was too late. Edward died before dawn, leaving a widow and five grown children. McPherson men, it has been said, are nervous around doctors.

Someone once said to me, “There is a fine line between nostalgia and necrophilia.” Why this ghoulish obsession with history? Am I really writing about the past, or am I stealing it? And consider the flip side: now, as I type, am I recording the present, or letting it slip away?

Edward lived, wrote, and published before the day of book jacket blurbs, but I can imagine even he must have smiled in his old age, his bushy beard bristling, to receive a notice from The New York Times, which upon publication of his Political History of the United States of America During the Great Rebellion, declared it “the most complete and perfect record … [that] has ever yet been made.”

Naturally, my wife and I drove our first and only child, a daughter, to Gettysburg. And here is the moment when this essay, this life, takes a turn that you—though perhaps not I—fully saw coming. Our daughter would be baptized in the same church that I was, and my father was, and his father was, and so on. She’d wake in the same house, perform the same morning ritual (a bolted breakfast, some itchy clothes), and head up the same few blocks to the plain Presbyterian church that has a pew where Lincoln sat.

I used to think that having a child was one of the ways we enter into history. But, in the end, what is passed down? What if history weren’t a billowing, backward-looking angel but a dark, quiet smudge? Put another way: we stand before our fathers, and their fathers, holding our breath, shocked mute before a chain of funhouse mirrors vanishing in a point.

Our girl is fully comfortable playing in the house of her ancestors. It is late summer, hot. My father is goofy, proud, obsessed—your typical grandpa, maybe, but not my typical father. He wants her—who, at less than a year old, is not yet speaking—to call him “Teddy,” a name I never heard anyone call him other than his mother, who had died 12 years before. An improbable name, a boy’s name, as if time were slipping backward. He worries about this name from the moment we announce my wife is pregnant. He begins signing it in emails.

We invade the home with an aggressive clutter: large portable crib, diapers and wipes, brightly colored, ecofriendly toys strewn about the hardwood floors, blankets, snugglies, extension cords snaking toward various infant apparatus, including a sound machine-slash-nightlight sighing and swooshing beneath the crib. Hanging in an otherwise empty closet is a pristine white baptism dress. We feed the baby mushed bananas in the same cracked melamine bowls I used when I was her age. She sleeps soundly in her new room. For the first time, a baby monitor sends invisible frequencies skittering through the old house. The walls are so thick the signal quickly degrades; a few rooms away, the receiver is fitful, crackling with ghosts, a faint ticking, a clock: loss, loss, loss.

Late afternoon: in the middle of the lawn off the side porch, my father splashes with the baby in a blue plastic pool, which he purchased before our arrival and will happily fill up with the garden hose at the drop of a hat. They enjoy getting each other wet; she in a ladybug bathing suit, and he in khaki shorts and a leather belt. It is a silly scene, cheerfully indecorous, one no doubt mirrored across the country on this bright summer day, but here it still seems improbable, somehow, with those shades of dark-suited ancestors tending flowers and taking tea in the pergola, now fallen, whose footprint still haunts the upper yard.

In the house, the past lurks in numbers, accounts, deeds, portraits, and books—the piled-up dead. Inside, when I work at my desk, I feverishly hope two wrongs can make a right. But outside, this moment: this can never be recorded. This history is hers, not mine, and she is too young to remember. My wife snaps a picture, but it is too late. The hose is off. Already the water is drying on my daughter’s skin, which now has grown cold, and behind her my father is turning his back to disappear into the house.

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