Nearly every room in Acorn Hill has one or two items of furniture that look a lot like chairs, but actually aren’t. Many is the time we’ve thrown out a hand and stopped someone with “Oh, sorry! That chair’s not for sitting in.” The unfortunate someone will quickly straighten and look behind himself in bewilderment at the not-chair, and then back at us with a hairy eyeball, as if to say, “Well, that’s fine, although where I come from, a chair is a chair, and not an upholstered riddle.”
For what is the meaning of a chair that no one sits in?
Well, we have a chair that belonged to George Washington, and you may stand quietly in front of it with your hands clasped if you don’t breathe too hard. Some senior Acorn Hill chairs are extremely delicate, and will collapse into matchsticks if anyone so much as waves her rear toward one. My father’s shop is filled with these elders, tipped upside down, the room a forest of their spindly legs as they submit to restoration with glue and twine and nails.
Still rarer than these antiquities would be the fine-looking, but exquisitely-uncomfortable-chair. These are for use only by unwanted guests—insurance adjusters, unsuitable girlfriends, particular close-eyed Stewart relatives. So chairs that have gotten too good to be chairs, “chairs with airs,” are placed invitingly in any patch of sunshine or cool breezeway, looking for all the world like chairs, but really just waiting to trick someone into a breech of etiquette, much like salad forks, or married men.
Yet out of this remarkably useless collection it’s Gideon Walter’s chair that holds pride of place here in East Parlor. Gideon Walter was a Colonel in the Confederate Army, and he was also the master of Acorn Hill for eighteen years, from 1852 to 1870. So we keep his seat here for him, and reserve it with a Bible. This is no common kitchen stool, either: it’s the Colonel’s campaign chair, an elegant folding seat of carved mahogany, bound in leather straps. It has an unmistakable angle of repose, and is plainly meant to be deployed après-battle. Or perhaps before, if you’d like to make it clear to the enemy that the conclusion of the upcoming skirmish is foregone, and you would much rather be smoking a fine cigar than instructing them in the art of warfare. (I tried to sit in the Colonel’s chair to study for my SATs, to channel his courage while he looked over the life-or-death precipice of battle, but all that did was put standardized testing in rather unhelpful perspective.) Colonel Walter was famous as a gallant with a contempt for fear. He never left for battle without his three B’s: his Bible, his bourbon and his bathtub. Everything he needed to scrub away the stains of his profession.
The Colonel and his chair survived the war intact, as did Acorn Hill. Of course, many plantation homes, those very pyramids of the South, were burned down by Union soldiers. I find this tactic of cultural obliteration especially despicable, but I can understand the point of exposing the beautiful and abominable Southern myth. A smoldering heap of ashes next to a rickety row of slave cabins fairly effectively distinguishes calamity from tragedy. So Acorn Hill was spared along with the far more modest homes of the people whose backs it was built on. But Grandmother Eugenia didn’t care to be reminded of the ugliness of our past: she had the slave cabins destroyed in the 1950s. Reprehensible, I know. She died before I was old enough to ask her why. Maybe she thought the shadow cast by those squat buildings diminished the enduring accomplishments of Acorn Hill and its Great Man. Maybe she thought it time for Virginia to move on.
So the Civil War left Acorn Hill unscathed. In fact, the only damage sustained in the entire disaster was to this room: a Union soldier chipped several marble baubles off of the mantelpiece with the butt of his gun, as souvenirs of the finest home he’d ever been in. There are still uneven gaps in the white marble mantle, like broken teeth around the black maw of the fireplace. They’re one of the highlights of our tours now, and I still run my thumb over the rough stone and marvel at the near miss. Like anyone, we point to where we have been damaged to tell our story. That’s how history is marked: the long days on the battlefields weather us from immaculate newborns to scarred and toothless elders, held together with glue and twine and sharp memories.
Overlooking the Colonel’s chair from her place above the corner cabinet is a marble bust of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, from whom we get the word for “mnemonic device.” Mnemosyne would have us remember Gideon Walter and his life here, and so we keep his chair and tell our visitors about him. The Union private would have us remember that we were let off easy, and so he took his mementos from the hearth he didn’t burn. My grandmother preferred to forget beautiful Acorn Hill’s complicity in that Southern shame, so she took down the cabins that housed its most unlucky residents. My cousin Penelope would have us remember that my father and mother were married in the front hall, and my mother was wearing a red dress, which is utter balderdash, according to photo evidence of my shining mother saying her vows in a white puff-sleeved atrocity in the west parlor.
Remember that: the eyewitness account is the least trustworthy of them all. That’s why we have things to point to when we tell our histories. Empty chairs. Bits of marble. Touchstones. Monuments. They’re mnemonic devices made manifest; they’re proof.
Let’s move into that mausoleum of memories—the library.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.