The red chair


Grandad is his red chair in his den. Early 1970’s.

When my grandmother, Buba, died just a few months before I was married in 1988, my mother let us know that my Aunt and cousins were working on getting her house on Lewis Road in Swampscott, Massachusetts ready to be sold and that if we wanted anything we could go up and take a look. Fred and I would be getting our own house after we got married and I thought there might be some furniture, especially, that we might want to consider.

Among other things we chose was my grandfather’s red leather chair from his den and a matching ottoman. It was a favorite of mine and one of the few things that reminded me of a man I really didn’t know very well.

I had just turned 8 years old the summer Grandad died. His was the first wake and funeral I ever attended. At the wake, my mother wanted nothing to do with being in the same room as the open casket that Buba had going on for him, so she stood with me outside in the hallway and greeted people as they came in. I was relieved to not have to see a dead person. Score one for being the baby. At his funeral, I remember being mesmerized with the American flag presentation to my grandmother for his World War I service. She looked sad. They had been married 53 years at that point.

Harold Potter Willett about 1896
at the age of 2. Look at that outfit.

The photo above of him sitting in that red chair in his den is how I remember him. What’s weird is that I also remember that glass he has next to him. My grandmother had a set of those and I remember drinking out of them.

I love looking at the photos of him growing up. My mother and aunt as well as Buba’s diary provide some great stories of him.

He and his brother, John Howard, and sister, Mildred Jeanette, were raised in a very unloving family. Their mother, Fannie, was by all accounts said to have been selfish and cold.  An older brother was still-born in 1888. Harold’s middle name was Potter which was his mother’s maiden name.

John Howard, Jr. and Harold Willett abt 1902

The Willett family was well off. John Howard, Sr. was in the shoe selling business in Boston which was a lucrative business in the late 1890’s. They had a servant. Her name was Carrie Steele, according to the 1910 census. Grandad told the story that she was a loving woman who taught him and John Howard to cook so that on her nights off they wouldn’t go to bed hungry. Fannie insisted on going out to dinner on the nights Carrie was off. She had no regard whether the children ate or not.

Harold Potter Willett abt 1912

My own memories of Harold Potter Willett are fleeting and few. He had a brown mole on his cheek and on his forehead. He worked in insurance. He had a soft voice. He was tall and skinny. He always insisted when we drove in the car with him that we had to wear a seat belt. This was in the early 1970’s when it wasn’t the law and no one did it. I remember what a pain it was to have to do it because I was little and couldn’t see out the car window as well. One time while in the car with him, a fire engine came up behind us and he pulled over to the side of the road to let them pass. I asked him why we had to do that and he told me so that the fireman could get to save the people faster. Another time, I remember walking into the kitchen and hearing him complaining about me to my grandmother that I didn’t eat all my dinner. He was really mad about it, I remember. He thought I was wasteful and fussy. It hurt my feelings to hear him say that and I snuck out and cried in the upstairs bedroom. I was probably about 5 or 6.

He was actually a very nice man. I just didn’t get a chance to get to know him We lived just far enough away in Connecticut that by the time I was born we only made trips up to Swampscott on special occassions. My mother adored him and was always closer to him than she was to her mother. My mother and Grandad were very similar. Neither were good students. Both liked to have fun (too much) growing up. Both were stoic and “suck it up and move forward” kind of people.

My grandfather’s red chair
in our living room 2014

I remember Grandad being sick. He had breathing problems due to mustard gas exposure in World War I and it caused issues later in his life.  He had to be on an oxygen tank. They cleared out the dining room of their home in Swampscott and set up a hospital bed in there so he didn’t have to go up and down the stairs. Buba took care of him. I recall a time I was sitting in the living room and she was helping him get dressed. He was very frail at that point and he was sitting on the edge of the bed in a hospital gown. She was putting socks on him.  Grandad insisted on getting dressed every day and sitting in a chair.

He died in July of 1973 at the age of 78 in his sleep. Buba was in the living room doing some needlepoint and when she went to check on him, he was gone.

She missed him for the rest of her life. She would mention him frequently and always note his passing by saying something like, “Harold’s been gone 20 years this month.”

The red chair sits in my living room. Well loved by our cat, Stuart, who likes to nibble on it, unfortunately. But plans are to repair it. In the mean time, it is lovingly watched over by a photo of his wife.


  1. SJH

    Hi, this is a touching post. I found your blog as I was researching the Willett family, as I believe your great-grandfather John built the house we recently bought on Hardy Rd in Swampscott in 1910. I'm trying to learn more about the origin of the house, (pictures, etc.), and if you have any information I'd love to learn more.

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