I had a great aunt whose idea of entertainment was to bring out the family photographs and carefully repeat the names, “This is cousin So-and-So.” A man’s wife was always “Mrs. So-and-So,” never a first name, who was called something else before she was married and something else after she re-married. Of course, Mrs. So-and-So was related to someone else I was supposed to know . . .. I was worse than bored. I grumped and slumped until my great aunt finally excused my bad behavior saying “very likely I was just too young to remember.”
I also had an uncle who twisted nursery rhymes into ribald limericks. Since no one would explain why they were funny, I had to remember them until I was old enough to figure it out on my own.
Mary had a little lamb
She tied him to a heater
Every time he turned around
He burned his little peter
will run through my head the rest of my life.
Names and dates don’t stick: never have, never will; but, once in awhile, my great aunt got distracted and told me something interesting, like the fact that one of my ancestors was a Viking pirate. Of course, when I asked to see a picture of him, she didn’t have one, which meant she was forced to fill-in. “Our family came from Denmark, not the regular part of Denmark, but a little island off the coast with a hidden cove—a favorite Viking hideout. There were pirates plundering nearby ports from that little island far longer than from the Barbary Coast,” she claimed.
Turns out that’s mostly true, but, even if she was still alive, I doubt she’d be impressed by the fact that I’ve been to that little island, checking out her pirate story, among other things. She was less about truth and more about application. When she told a story, she made sure it made a point.
“We are luckier than pirates,” she told me. “We have so many new things, such wonderful inventions, these days a pirate wouldn’t know what to steal.”
Turns out my great aunt also kept a journal. She names her first boyfriend, Alonzo Eckersley, and tells how they spent one summer together:
Every night we would take a ride on my horse and then dream dreams of what we were going to do in the future. One night his dog was poisoned. Both of us surely did cry.
She doesn’t say what happened to Alonzo. Instead, she shifts to how she went away to board for high school. She lived with a family named Stewart and took piano lessons but didn’t like making music. She names her best girlfriends: Mildred Rhule, Grace Ritchie, and Ruby Ward.
They had a car and so did I. We had a good time that summer with all the boyfriends! I guess there were too many boyfriends because I got so I hated them all. They were all alike, how disgusting, and they all acted and talked alike.
The year happens to be 1922, but the tale is timeless.
We take photographs, sometimes feverishly, trying to hold the moments that matter, but, nearly always, when I tell someone that I’m gathering the family stories, I get a puzzled response, as if that is not a task for the serious. Names and dates on genealogical charts, fine. Copying the family photographs, encouraged. Stories? Why stories?
Because two pages of her journal were enough to change my impression of a stodgy old aunt.