Stories from Grampa’s Rolltop

Here at my grandfather’s beautiful antique double rolltop desk, I journey through time – catching brief glimpses into the 60s, 70s, 80s, up to the present. Oozing – no, gently seeping – through the waves and lines of the wood’s character, are traces of stress, and some grief, along with bits of hope and humor.

Grampa Vanskike was the first in the family to use this work of art. A farmer by trade, the purpose of a desk was solely utilitarian. Both of the rolltops, one large, curved rolltop and one small straight one, contain pockets and slats to organize a variety of documents. Like a little mailroom, there are slots to file letters and bills and miscellaneous paperwork. My aunt recalls Grampa sitting there pouring over materials for tax preparation – likely a stressful task for a man who never finished high school, as was the familiar case with farming families in the early 1900s.

We owe the desk’s many layers of paint to Gramma, who loved fresh coats of color so much that some family members speculate the hobby (using lead paint of the day) ultimately led to her demise. After her death, Mom had the desk stripped of its white and green (and maybe red?) lead-laden hues and restored to its original oak beauty.

A pastor with a home office, Dad then used the desk to work on sermons and other church business: meeting notes, weekly bulletins, funerals and wedding scripts, and more. At some point, the rolltop went to live with my brother Andy, and from it, he would craft hilariously entertaining reports for the family about adventures with his wife and kids, and occasionally harrowing tales of Coast Guard life.

Though the rolltop wasn’t crafted for modern computing, it nonetheless became home to an early Mac and then a PC. Andy and his growing family didn’t have space for a desk that couldn’t be fully functional, so he operated, creating a hole in the back for power cords. I was appalled; what if the desk felt that?

Following my divorce in 2005, Andy gifted me furniture (including Grampa’s desk) to fill my new home. He probably believes he’s loaning it to me, but he is also the one who taught me that “possession is 9/10ths of the law.”  

So … after many miles and multiple homes in Missouri, California, Alaska and Washington, Grampa’s desk, I feel, is now right where it belongs.

All three men – Grampa, Dad and Andy – valued its utilitarian role. But I sit here sensing a connection to something more. Being here arouses existential ponderings: I feel much more than wood and grain and varnish. I feel home.

I have filled the little mail slots with cards and stationery – a hundred blank opportunities to craft messages to dozens of people craving, perhaps unknowingly, an old-fashioned greeting in the mail. Mom spent countless hours at this desk for similar purposes. Always the collector and communicator of prayer needs for her church family, Mom rested her laptop on the desk’s side return, keeping friends connected through intercession. A holy use of this space for sure.

I’m writing this in late fall, just after the milestones of many family events have passed: Gramma and Grampa’s birthdays, Gramma’s death, Mom and Dad’s anniversary, and the discovery of the farmhouse burned to the ground.

Thank goodness this old desk was not there to be a victim of flames. Instead, it has moved as we moved, aged as we aged, adapted as we have adapted.

Together, this old desk and I will journey on.

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