Obsessed with her family's history, Liz discovers a book that tells an amazing story.
|Liz rummaged through the attic at her family's estate, hoping to discover something memorable to give Uncle Rob for his eightieth birthday. Although she purchased an antique pocket watch for him, it didn't seem a befitting gift for a man who held such titles as Master Mason, State Senator, and Medal of Honor Recipient. He was also her favorite relative, and with good reason. They both shared a love of their family's history, often spending hours discussing it whenever they were together. The Coit family had roots as far back as the 1600s. She wanted to present something special to him during her Fourth of July Celebration speech, but time was running out.
Despite being large, the attic was difficult to maneuver through. Liz slapped the cobwebs out of her face as she shuffled through the narrow space. She wiped the sweat off her forehead and nudged her way past dusty furniture from the colonial era, sneezing several times. Having explored the attic before, she knew decades of memorabilia sat in every corner.
There has to be an item that fits the bill somewhere in all of this!
Antique trunks filled with sketches, documents, and paintings lined the walls, along with boxes that held personal items belonging to generations of Coits. As she lifted the lid of the first trunk, dust spewed out of it and entered her lungs, causing her to cough violently.
"This is going to be fun."
If anyone told her she would be on her hands and knees foraging through a musty storage area on the weekend of the country's most important holiday, she would have laughed at them. As a volunteer on the Celebration Committee, she had important tasks that needed tending to rather than hunting through the attic of a three hundred-year-old mansion. This was the country's bicentennial year, so most towns, including their own, planned spectacular festivities. But there was still time to get those done. Liz yearned to contribute something to the celebration with a personal connection. It consumed every spare minute of her time. Besides looking for a gift for Uncle Rob, it was an opportunity to do more research on the family tree. Over the years, it turned into an obsession rather than a hobby. And whether the task was a matter of pride or patriotism, for her, it was a priority.
One by one, she combed through the trunks with no luck. Hunched over them for hours made her back feel like a twisted pretzel. Perhaps a good stretch was just what she needed.
Now is as good a time as any to take a break.
It was fun to sift through the documents, but no matter how interesting or mundane the information was, so far there was nothing here she didn't already know about. Uncle Rob told so many stories about the family over the years, she wondered if there was anything left to learn.
Liz stretched her body until she worked out the kinks. After a few minutes of pushing and pulling, she returned to her search, until a noise from outside pulled her attention away from her mission. The small window had an unobstructed view of the driveway. She watched as several companies began setting up food and lawn furniture for the party. While it was a welcomed distraction, there were still several pieces she wanted to inspect.
In the far corner of the room, a British Davenport chest stood towering above the rest. It was enormous, and one of several items she never examined before. But it wouldn't be easy getting to it. There were more pieces of furniture jammed up against it, as well as collectibles piled on top. One by one, she moved each item out of the way, being careful not to damage anything. Liz exhaled as though she were blowing out a flame. She needed a moment to catch her breath.
The chest was of fine craftsmanship. Ornate and engraved, there were several compartments and drawers, even one that locked. A door on the front pulled down, turning it into a writing desk with several wooden slots inside. All but one slot had parchments stuffed in them. Liz removed the documents, and reviewed each one. There were land deeds, livestock purchases, letters, and a variety of other papers, but only one stood out.
"St. James Episcopal Church. Record of Birth: Elspeth Coit, August 2, 1730."
She came across Elspeth's birth record in a database during one of her recent searches, but could find little else. Even Uncle Rob never mentioned her. It was almost as if she didn't exist. Yet, here in front of her were documents about her great grandmother, six generations back, and she wanted to know more.
Why were there no stories passed down about Elspeth?
With only one more drawer to go through, that thought gnawed at her. Still hoping to find something of interest, she crossed her fingers before pulling it open. To her surprise, a box with a large leather journal sat there waiting to be read. After brushing away years of dust, she read the cover. "A Woman of Honor, by Elspeth Coit." Liz flipped through a few of the pages.
Come on Elspeth, there has to be something about your life that can show me who you were besides a piece of fiction.
Liz placed the journal on a pile of items she planned to take downstairs, but it fell short of the top and hit the floor. As it landed, something slid out of a slit on the inside of the back cover.
"What's this?" She eased the delicate parchment from the journal, being careful not to damage it. Written in Elspeth's hand was one word. Grotto.
"Grotto? I need to look that up."
After locating a dictionary under the pile, she flipped through it until the word stared back at her on the page. Grotto. A small cave, or an artificial one in a park or garden, or an indoor structure, resembling a cave.
"Great! Even if I find one, then what?"
Liz grabbed the books and papers she put aside and stacked them in her arms. Before heading outside to explore the grounds, she dropped them off on the bed in her room and grabbed a flashlight. As far as she knew, there were no grottoes inside the home or in the gardens. The house was in excellent shape and in its original condition. These days, it remained a showplace for parties and other functions, but none more special than this weekend. Today, the entire family would gather.
Liz was halfway out the door when her mother called out to her. "Are you ready for the party?"
"I think so."
"So where are you going with a flashlight?" her mother asked, as she cocked her head. "If I know you, you're up to something."
"I'm going to do a little research before the party starts. That's all."
"Well, be careful. You never know what can happen when you're all alone out there."
"Mother, I'm twenty-five years old. I think I can handle a little exploring in my backyard. Scout's honor," she said, using the Girl Scout salute.
"Very funny. Just don't explore the entire estate today."
Liz laughed. "Don't worry. I'll be back on time."
Perched at the tip of the peninsula at Bluff Point, in Groton, Connecticut, the Coit Estate had an excellent view of the sound. With eight hundred acres, it was a pristine area that sported wooded acreage and a rocky coastline with craggy outcroppings. Despite having little to no beachfront, it was her favorite place to spend time. As she walked along the footpath to the water, a thought struck her.
Could there be a grotto down here? In an instant, she picked up her gait. She could almost see the shore and hurried to see if the tide was out.
The salt air smelled refreshing as the wind whipped around her. Liz made her way down the sandy path to the water's edge. She glanced toward the west side of the shore and saw what she thought could be a grotto. There was no clear passage. It looked rocky and dangerous, but she tried it anyway. It took almost twenty minutes to climb her way over. The hike looked easier than it was. Once she arrived, she wasted no time going in, but the passage ended after only a few steps. With plenty of light inside, Liz turned off the flashlight. She searched in a circular pattern, finding nothing unusual, and there were no signs anyone had ever been in the cave before. Disappointed, she took one last look around before leaving. With nothing left to do, she started back to the house.
Liz struggled as she climbed back over the rocks. Her knees ached and almost buckled from exhaustion. She reached the sandy path, but was not ready to give up.
Maybe there's a grotto on the east side too.
She glanced toward the east, took a deep breath, and rolled up her pants. Climbing this side took longer than expected, since it was more treacherous. The rocks seemed stable enough, but without warning, one of the larger ones gave way, scraping her leg, landing her in the water. “Damn it!” She tried to climb back up, but found her foot wedged in between two rocks. The first two attempts to free herself failed, but on the third try, she yanked it out and steadied herself before continuing on.
At least it wasn't freezing.
Despite being a comfortable seventy-four degrees, it was an exhausting thirty minutes. After making it to the eastern side, she found nothing that resembled a grotto. Liz was about to give up when she rounded the point. Almost hidden from view, an odd-shaped rock jutted out of the landscape. A smile touched her lips and her eyes lit up.
"You've got to be kidding! Two more grottoes?"
For a moment, she thought the mystery might be more work than it was worth. The entrance to the next cave looked larger from a distance, but by the time she stood in front of it, she wondered if she would even fit through the opening. She hoped to slide through it by turning sideways and holding her breath. But after only two steps, the cuff of her pants caught on a jagged rock protruding out of the cave and sent her flying inward.
"Ow!" It took a few minutes to catch her breath and stand up. Blood oozed out of a tear in her pants. "Oh, perfect." She gasped as her frustration mounted. "What am I doing here!" Gathering her thoughts, she walked through the cavern, pointing the flashlight at the floor. Not wanting a repeat of her fall, she stood in place before shining it on the walls. Again, her disappointment overwhelmed her when she arrived at another dead end. For a moment, she considered the idea that the word Grotto might refer to something completely different.
After exiting the narrow entrance without another mishap, she peered over at the last grotto. It was only a short distance, but a much more difficult trek over slippery rocks to reach this one, and it would need to be done fast. The tide was rolling in. If she was going to do it, now was the time. She stood there for a moment, considering the danger, but her insatiable curiosity got the better of her.
"What the hell. I've come this far."
Liz checked her watch. By her estimate, she only had thirty minutes to look around. It would be too risky to take any longer. With the flashlight turned on, she darted into the cave. To her surprise, this one had two tunnels that continued deep inside. After five minutes of scouting around the main cavern, she started down the first one. Liz sighed. The adventure was more of an irritation now, especially since there was no sign of anything related to her family.
"Elspeth, if this is your idea of a joke, it isn't funny."
The air was stagnant, and there was little of it. Almost out of breath, and with almost no enthusiasm, she had to talk herself into exploring the second tunnel.
"All right, one more to go."
But after another five minutes, there was nothing to indicate anything was down there except a watery grave if she stayed much longer. Fed up, she ended her search. "That's it. I'm done!"
It was so dark she almost walked past it as the flashlight caught a glimpse of a small opening in the wall. Liz shined the light into the hole and brightened it to the second setting, but the darkness seemed to swallow it until she clicked on the third setting and spotted a small metal box wedged deep inside. While she held the light with one hand and tugged at the object with the other, her excitement grew. After a few minutes of pulling and wiggling, it released from its clutches, and popped out of the wall into her hands. The hole made a suitable place to set the flashlight while she opened the box. Inside, she found a journal wrapped in several long pieces of tattered oilcloth. On the cover, written in a lovely script, were the words The Personal Journal of Elspeth Coit, November 1776.
"This is incredible!" Her eyes widened as she gazed at it. The book was fragile, and several pages had minor water damage, but considering how long it sat in its hiding place, it was in fair to good condition. Sealed with a heavy wax, the box provided additional protection for the journal to hold up to moisture in the cave and the passage of time. Liz knew it was important to get it out of the elements now that she opened it. She re-wrapped the journal in the oilcloth and placed it back inside the metal box before leaving the cave.
With a renewed vigor, getting over the rocks and back to the sandy path didn't take as long. Eager to read the journal right where she stood, she knew the elements would damage it beyond repair. It would have to wait until she reached the house and the safety of her room. Once her feet were on sandy ground, she hightailed it home.
Liz turned off the light in her bedroom and flipped on the desk lamp that was equipped with an ultra-violet filter. In order to protect the journal, she needed to implement as many measures as possible to keep it safe from any more damage. After pulling the curtains closed, and turning on the dehumidifier, she set the room temperature to sixty-eight degrees, and put on a pair of thin latex gloves. Handling historical documents was a skill she learned from her uncle, including the use of an acid-free archival board. She unlatched the metal box and removed the journal. Cradling it in her hands, she set it on the board, then placed a small transparent tent over the top of it to protect it even further. Now it was ready to read.
To her surprise, the first page revealed more about Elspeth than she could have ever imagined. Liz gasped as her mind tried to process the information. "Oh my God!" She could hardly believe what she was reading.
It's no wonder no one in the family knew anything about Elspeth. If I hadn't found the journal, we never would have.
Mesmerized, she turned the page with anticipation, until her mother knocked on the door, interrupting her thoughts.
"Sweetheart, it's time. Uncle Rob's getting ready to open his gifts."
"The party!" She closed the journal and covered the tent with a dark blue polyester cloth. "I'll be there in a few minutes." She put on her favorite black and silver cocktail dress and pulled her hair up in a knot. After one quick look in the mirror, she grabbed her gift and headed downstairs.
Boy, do I have a surprise for Uncle Rob!
Liz stepped outside to see family and friends gathered under a huge white tent, perched in the middle of the front lawn. It was big enough to hold a circus, but then it had to be, since there were almost seventy-five people in attendance to celebrate Uncle Rob's birthday. There were tables of food and gifts set up around the tent, and an orchestra provided chamber music in the background. People ate, talked and danced everywhere in between. While informal, it looked like a wonderful party, and one of the social events of the weekend.
"Ah, there you are! Grab something to eat. Your uncle is going to open his gifts," her mother said, as she ushered Liz toward one of the buffet tables. "Now I've got to get back."
Still holding the gift in her hand, Liz took her plate and sat down near her uncle. "Sorry I'm late."
"I wondered where you were hiding out," he said, winking at her.
"I got caught up with a little project," she said, smiling back at him.
"Could be. I'll tell you about it another time."
One by one, her mother handed Uncle Rob a gift off of the many tables. He opened each one with the anticipation of a child, receiving many personal gifts for a man of his age and accomplishments. After two hours, he finished opening them all. All except for one.
"Thank you everyone. Words can't express how grateful I am to all of you for coming. This is a marvelous party. I also want to thank all of you for showering me with so many exceptional gifts. A person can gain a lot of friends after eighty years! I can't thank you enough."
When he finished speaking, the tent echoed from the applause, until Liz stood up and handed him her gift. "Uncle Rob, you've got one last present to open. It's from me," she said, as she stood in front of him, biting her lip. She hoped he would like the antique. It took over a year to find one in working condition, and almost the same time to pay for it, but somehow standing here, she wondered if the watch would truly show him how much she honored him.
He unwrapped the present and opened the small box. His eyes, fixed on the watch, grew in amazement, and his mouth gaped open when he put the watch to his ear and heard it ticking away. "Oh, my!"
Liz held her breath as she watched him examine the old piece until she could no longer stay quiet. "It's an original 1750―"
"Isaac Soret!" he said, cutting off her words. "It's exquisite, and it's working!" He turned the watch over several times, inspecting it with admiration. "Liz, this is an extremely fine piece, not to mention rare and expensive. You shouldn't have, but I love it!" He stood up to hug her, as tears streamed down her face.
"I was hoping you'd like it."
"Like it? You know I've never been able to find a working Soret, and here you present one to me! You couldn't have given me a better gift."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that!" Liz grinned, wondering if she should mention the journal, but decided against telling him until she finished reading it, just in case something in it proved to be embarrassing.
"What do you mean?" Uncle Rob looked at her with a raised eyebrow. He could always tell when she kept something secret.
"Come on," Rob said, throwing his arm around her. "You owe me a dance."
Between reading the journal and taking part in family activities, the weekend flew by. It left little time for writing her speech. Liz worried she wouldn't have it done for the Fourth of July celebration and to get over to the fairgrounds on time. With only an hour left, she pulled it out of the typewriter to give it one last look.
It's going to be so cool to see Uncle Rob's face when I reveal what I've learned about our little known ancestor.
It was difficult, but she ignored his questions about her "project" for the last two days. She was glad she wouldn't have to keep the secret much longer. Liz grabbed her speech and got ready to leave as her mother called out to her.
"Do you want to ride with me? Everyone's already over there."
Knowing her mother, she would talk the entire way. Liz wanted a few minutes of quiet time to get her thoughts together before giving her speech. "No, thanks. I'll drive myself. I'll see you there in a few minutes."
While driving to the fairgrounds, thoughts about Elspeth and her amazing life made Liz feel even prouder to be a member of the Coit family. She pulled into the parking lot, then made her way to the grandstand. It was time.
Liz stepped up to the podium and saw her family front row and center. Hundreds of people were in attendance. A good crowd. The night was crystal clear, perfect for the fireworks display that would proceed after her speech.
"Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Elizabeth Coit. As many of you know, my family has been here for several generations, and have made their home in Groton, on Bluff Point. On this very special bicentennial Fourth of July, we remember, with pride, our Founding Fathers, and all those who came before us who gave their lives for freedom and liberty. Freedom and liberty—two words we often take for granted today. Yet, for the men and women who fought for those principles in those early days before we became a nation and after, those two words dictated the course of their entire lives. And today, while we look back with reverence at them, we should also pay homage to those unsung heroes, whose names are unfamiliar to us, but have also played their part, often a pivotal role, to secure our nation's freedom. On a personal note, I would like to tell you about one of those heroes.
Her name was Elspeth Coit. She was my great grandmother, six generations back, born in 1730, right here at Bluff Point. And as I have learned, she too played a role during the American Revolution. A very important one. Recently, I came across a personal journal written by Elspeth. I would like to read the first paragraph of that journal for you now."
Liz glanced at her uncle before pulling out her hand-written copy of the journal entry and started to read.
"November 1, 1776
As a member of the Culper Ring, I am honored to be one of General George Washington's trusted patriots. I write this journal to preserve a record of my service and my thoughts. Spoils of war go always to the victors. Since I know not which side that shall be, I can only hope independence will prevail, and the colonies be forever. I pray to God that he gives me the strength to do the things I know I must. I am Agent 355, Culper code for the word lady. Another loyal patriot and a good friend of mine, Anna Strong, agreed to be my courier, so the British will not learn my identity. If discovered, I will surely hang. But I care not. It is a small price to pay for freedom. I do this for my country, my family, and for my honor.
Thank you everyone, and happy Fourth of July."
The applause was deafening. Liz looked at her family. Despite being shocked by the information, they stood up proudly as neighbors, friends, and strangers shook their hands and cheered on their revolutionary sister. As Liz stepped down from the podium and returned to grounds, Uncle Rob waited for her by the stairs. This time, tears ran down both of their faces.
Liz beamed with joy. "I wanted to give you a gift that you'd be proud of and always remember."
He wiped a tear from his eye and smiled back. "You did, sweetheart. And I'll never forget it or Elspeth," he said, as fireworks crackled over their heads. "Just one more thing..."
"Are there any more surprises in that journal?" he asked with a grin.
Liz nodded as they laughed in unison.
Word Count: 4,068