DEER PARK – When 84-year-old Robert Forman spins a small, dented brass top on Christmas Eve, it will move for a matter of seconds.
But for Forman, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the spinning of the top has spanned decades.
In 1868, the top was 6-year-old David Linsley’s only Christmas gift. Every year since then – with the exception of two – a family member has spun the top on Christmas Eve, usually after a holiday dinner and the exchange of gifts. It’s a small, simple tradition, and that’s what makes it so powerful, family members say.
“If it were some kind of computer game, it wouldn’t have lasted 140 years,” said Lucy Jeanne, David Linsley’s great-granddaughter and Robert Forman’s daughter. “It’s the simplicity of it. It’s such a beautifully simple toy, and that’s why it’s lasted the way it has.”
This year is the 140th anniversary of the top’s first spin. Living in Red Wing, Minn., David Linsley spun the top every Christmas Eve throughout his life, and after he died in 1937 his son, James Linsley, carried on the tradition. James Linsley’s daughter, Ruth Linsley Forman, got the top in 1974, and she spun it for 30 years.
The Christmas Eve before her death in 2004, the family gathered around her hospital bed to carry on the tradition. It’s lasted through illnesses and divorce, through death and hardship, and it’s always brought the family together, Jeanne said.
“You always had the top to spin, every year,” she said. “Some years were joyful and happy, and some were not so happy. But we spun the top no matter what.”
Only twice did the top not spin on Christmas Eve: in 1904, when it was packed away inside a wagon as the family moved, and in 1959, when Jeanne’s grandfather, James Linsley, forgot it at home while the family was traveling.
“I can’t tell you what he went through,” she said. “He was beside himself.”
The commitment to the top – and its thread of family history – is part of the Formans’ dedication to their heritage. That emerges in a separate project that Jeanne, her brothers Mark and Dan Forman, their dad, and other family members have all been working on for a year – compiling, editing and scanning a two-year series of letters between their grandparents in the 1930s.
Their grandfather, James Linsley, was working in Minneapolis as a streetcar conductor and trying to save money, while their grandmother, Martha, and her two children toughed out life on a northern Minnesota farm. The letters, which they call the farm letters, went back and forth almost daily for two years.
The letters are a peek into a much different world. The Great Depression loomed over everything. Martha chopped wood to heat the house, and they stored meat in the Model T outside in the winter. James saved the silver wrapping from chocolate bars and sent them home to be made into Christmas ornaments.
As members of the Forman family – most of whom now live in Deer Park – told some of the stories recently, it was clear how much they enjoyed them. They’d interrupt each other to add details or finish a thought, laughing uproariously. A lot of the stories centered on their remarkable grandmother, Martha, a tiny woman who braved a harsh climate and brutal work required to keep a farm household going.
During that time, she insisted on doing her husband’s laundry. So he sent it home – about 175 miles – by train. She would split wood to heat rainwater she’d collected, wash the clothes, dry them on a line and iron them.
“Which means in the summer she had the stove going with the laundry on it,” said Robert Forman. “And she kept after him: Send me your laundry!”
Later, at age 80, she bought a typewriter, taught herself to type, and typed up all the letters.
All 750 of them.
“The letters are extremely touching,” said James Browning, Jeanne’s son. “It makes you really appreciate what you have.”
The family plans to post the letters, along with historic photos and a narrative family history, at the Web site DearDaddy.com.
They’ve placed the story of the top online as well, in a video story produced by Mark Forman, a media consultant and video producer. The video intersperses a tight shot of the spinning brass top with photos and a brief story of its history. People can view the video at youtube.com under the title “One Present – The Christmas Top.”
Jeanne said that since the video was posted, they’ve heard about it from people all over the world. Recently, a cousin who’d been estranged from the family contacted them after seeing it online.
“Now she’s back in the family,” Jeanne said.