At our dinner table recently, talk turned to a discussion of family stories, specifically the story that our great great-great-great-grandfather, George Read, refused to paint his chimneys white in the English style because he was so opposed to British oppression. Son, He of the Flypaper Mind (everything sticks to it!), challenged the origin of the tale, asking “How do you know that? Do we have any documents he wrote about it, or his diary, for instance?” At something of a loss given his significant lack of respect for The Family Story, I turned to Husband, a retired attorney, for his input and support, but got the legal definition of “hearsay” instead.
Son had a point. So many times we take stories and other family information at face value because that’s what they said, “that’s what Grandpa/Grandma/Uncle/Aunt/Whoever always told us.” I had to ask myself if I was truly satisfied with “hearsay.” So many of our traditional family stories are unsubstantiated, untraceable, and inconsistent, if not just “over the garden fence” gossip or eternal “the joke is on him” humor. “He said that … but then she said that…” are so ingrained that it’s hard to know where the facts are.
I believe most such stories have a basis in fact, real events, and real people. As Stella Benson said, “Family jokes, though rightly cursed by strangers, are the bond that keeps most families alive.” I would add “family stories” to that statement.
“Family jokes, though rightly cursed by strangers, are the bond that keeps most families alive.”
The chimneys on George Read’s house are a nice, old red brick without signs of white paint or whitewash. But did he really refuse to paint them? They say that his great-granddaughter, Lora Packard Saunders, related that story in a newspaper interview noting her ninetieth birthday. The article itself (shown above) doesn’t mention the chimneys.
However, there are some clues to the man’s political views. His Revolutionary War pension declaration, dated 27 March 1833, states that he “enlisted into the service[,] was not drafted or received as a substitute.” Earlier, in 1828 for a “Spirit of ‘76/July 4th” celebration, George gave this toast: “Let Amalgamation cease and none be admitted into the Republican ranks, but the true sons of Liberty.” He doesn’t sound like a chimney painter to me!
Some stories are easier to document. One of my family’s stories is that a hired man knocked over a lantern in the old barn, causing a catastrophic fire. Son found the newspaper accounts of that fire, which state that it had actually been started by my grandfather! Documentation! But the family story remains that the hired man was at fault. I have to keep in mind that newspaper accounts might not always be “accurate.” (Did I say that out loud??)
Family stories sometimes take the form of myth and ritual, a strong family narrative to provide a sense of belonging, a solid foundation for a sense of identity. Knowing where we came from, what our parents, grandparents, and older ancestors suffered, achieved, and withstood helps to keep us rooted. Documenting those “myths,” “rituals,” or stories to prove them true or false – or even to just “fill in the blanks” – might not result in the expected answers. “All my dead secrets arise, all my dead stories come true” can be a double-edged sword, opening the closet door to let the dancing skeletons out.
And now you know what I said about that!
 Stella Benson, Pipers and a Dancer (London: Macmillan, 1924), Chapter 9.
 Stella Benson, This Is the End (London: Macmillan, 1917).