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Writing Desk
I have my great-great grandmother's "melodion desk."

It was originally my great-great-great grandmother's melodion, and not a desk -- sort of an accordion-piano hybrid, I think?) -- brought over from Carluck, Scottland in 1840-something. The legs collapse, so it was (and is) exceptionally portable, three and a half feet wide, very light, and made from cherry wood. Mary Ellen and her husband brought it with them in a decade-long, meandering trek by covered wagon from New York to the Iowa prairie. My great-great grandmother, Mate Nichol, was born in Michigan along the way, and the family, with other settlers, eventually started a little township called Excelsior (named after the Nichol's covered wagon), forming it near Spirit Lake, just after the Spirit Lake Massacre in the late 1850's.

The township had a parsonage, and the melodion acted as their makeshift church organ. Mary Ellen carted it in on Sundays for the congregation and played it for them. When Mate Nichol grew up, she became the Woman of Letters in Excelsior, reporting for (perhaps starting?) the newspaper called The Advocate in the 1870's and '80's.  At some point, the melodion must have stopped playing, because Mate had the keyboard and other musical innards removed and the whole piece retooled as a writing desk. Obviously, it was too old and precious for her to throw away -- the melodion had come so far, on such a long journey, and was old, even then.

The melodion desk's top still rolls back, much the way a piano cover does, but the keyboard was replaced with a slide-out desktop. I'm a little unclear what the melodion was, how it worked, but where I guess the melodion's strings or bag-pump might have been are little drawers and cubby holes for pens, stamps, and envelops. The slide-out desktop offers just enough space to write on a page of paper or in a journal, and it's the perfect fit for a laptop.

Despite Mate's legendary status in our family, my grandmother, Beulah, had nothing good to say about her grandmother, Mate Nichol. She said Mate didn't keep house well, always had ancient issues of The Advocate stacked everywhere, and pieces of the old press lying about as if she meant to put it back together some day. My mother, Bonnie, adores the melodion-desk because I think she identified with Mate Nichol a lot, appreciated the role model of a woman who prized letters over housekeeping.

And now I have the melodion desk; my mom's in a nursing home as of this month so she finally decided she was ready to part company with it. I'm writing on the melodion desk right now, and I like it that I have no idea how old it really is. It might have been old in 1840-whatever, an heirloom passed on from Scottish relatives to Mary Ellen before her trek across the Atlantic. I like that it used to be a musical instrument, and I wonder if Mate was comforted, imagining her mother playing it on Sundays, when she sat here and composed her news articles.

I think I'm comforted by it, somehow, even though I'm not sure what a melodion ever sounded like.