It’s an old ugly rocker sitting low to the ground for people with short legs. The head board sports some fancy filigree reminding me of old cowboy movies. It’s brown and easily shrugged off as useless. Most people would think of it as storage room material or perhaps kindling for a summer bonfire.
We think the thing came from the John Ohman farm in Compton Township of Otter Tail County, Minnesota. John Ohman, formally known in Sweden as Johan Johannson, emigrated in 1882 to Carver County, Minnesota and moved to the farm by 1883. My guess (and this is just a guess) is that the rocker was acquired up there in Compton to rock my grandfather, Carl Johan, when he was a baby. Grandpa Carl was the last child of nine to be born to Johan and Johanna Johannson and the only child to be born in Amerika. Carl was born August 10, 1883.
On this 1912 plat map of the area (courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society) the farm of eighty acres is in the Southeast corner of section 20.
Grandma Emma Johnson’s family farmed just south of the Ohman farm. The story goes Emma came home from teaching in the Iron Range to nurse her dying mother. Carl was now farming the land and Emma ended up marrying him and moving across the road to the Ohman farm in March of 1920.
According to my Dad, Grandma liked to repaint the Ohman kitchen now and again. I guess after a cold Minnesota winter cooped up in about 600 square feet with little children, in-laws, and farm hands about, everything got painted as a form of emotional survival.
Layer upon layer of paint came off other items from the farm. The rocker had just as many layers. Except for some reason, the paint just didn’t want to let loose. Dad tried to strip it like he had the old kitchen table. But he gave up, overwhelmed by its stubbornness. Instead he painted the rocker a glossy and ugly brown.
I discovered the rocker when I was a teenager. Finding the thing “retro” and cooler than my parents, I moved it to my bedroom. It’s been with me on and off ever since.
Grandma Emma’s DNA must have been coursing through my veins this past winter. One day I looked at that rocker and the next day I was painting it with some sort of post-Christmas, January, winter fervor, writer’s agony.
Worn paint on the underside showed the rocker to be made of cheap pine. Cheap or not, my brush dripping in linen white chalk paint, unmasked curves and crevices and curly-cues previously hidden under the ugly brown paint. Waxes and sand paper scrapes added highlights and even more interest.
Images of the rocker’s life up north in that old cabin flashed in my mind’s eye. I saw women running their fingers across the carved wood and young children learning to rock themselves in it before their feet could touch the floor. I imagined Johanna darning socks and mending trousers as the kerosene lamp burned its wick down or nursing a fussy baby Carl at midnight. And I imagined Grandma Emma as a new bride possibly thinking the rocker as old and ugly even then.
I don’t know if I will ever view the old ugly rocker as beautiful. But it is wearing its new coat of paint well. And I, its keeper, am tossing possible repainting plans about for the next time I am struck with a DNA fit. I’m thinking this time of a Swedish peasant green in honor of all the peasants who came before me with furniture left about to be discovered.