The most time consuming New Year’s resolution is the one I’ve made this year. I’m finally going through the pyramid of boxes that have been entombed in my carriage house since I moved in ten years ago. The move from Austin was more like the flight of an exiled government, there wasn’t time to burn all the documents so I dragged them all with me, unsorted, unread, and largely unknown. I had to start my new job here on very little notice and was lucky to find a house that could shelter generations of family accumulations.
Last weekend I opened a box that I thought contained drawings from my graduate school days. It did, but there was a foreign object wrapped in layers of paper. I took it out in the sunshine and slowly began to unwind its shroud.
It was my maternal grandfather’s dress sword. I thought it had been lost or stolen but here it was, it’s always been with me here after all, and I hope it always will be.
I don’t think even my siblings know it exists. It was in a trunk in my parent’s garage, I discovered it after heavy rains had backed up into the space and caused the bottom of the trunk to corrode and ultimately disintegrate.
The sight of it made my mother cry. She had a deeply conflicted relationship with her father, a charming playboy and apparently undependable parent.
He had the sword because he was an officer in a National Guard regiment in Chicago. In his time, National Guard units in big cities were more like exclusive clubs, the men kitted themselves out with tailored uniforms and fancy gear like the sword. There is only a vestige of its leather strap left but the rest is very much intact, including its gleaming elaborately engraved blade with the mark of a Philadelphia maker, something for future research on my part.
The only thing my mother told me about it was that she knew her father had been called up during the infamous Chicago race riots of 1919. He was a horseman and member of a cavalry unit. The sword was more than an ornament during that tragic episode.
In an echo of our own times, the riots began when a napping African American teenager on a raft drifted over to a segregated beach on Lake Michigan. He was savagely beaten, igniting days of rage among Chicago’s burgeoning African American community. Police reaction was swift and brutal until they realized they were overwhelmed and called for the Guard.
The sword is all I have of my grandfather who departed my mother’s life forever after my grandparents’ acrimonious divorce. I hope there’s no blood on it.
- Michael Guarino