Among families there are often a few favored tales that transcend the ephemeral lives from which they originate. Over miles and years and through repetitive telling, the tales become family-lore (a word that I just now invented). These stories, whether oral or written, serve as a conduit between the past and present.
If we choose to listen to the stories, we have the good fortune of gaining valuable insights about who we are (and why) and what we have the capability to become. I truly believe that the DNA imprint passed along to offspring is not only made-up of physical characteristics but also a conglomeration of experiences, which exert a biological influence.
There exist in my family several examples of family-lore. Some are sad. Some are inspiring. Some are funny. They all illustrate the character of individuals and circumstances that contributed to my genes.
Here is one such beloved story.
Alice Merrill Stephenson, my great grandmother
Photo courtesy of Allen Hackworth
On a beautiful summer day many, many years ago, Alice, my maternal great grandmother, and her husband decided to take a ride in their spiffy automobile. My grandmother was a tiny babe at the time, contentedly cooing in her mother’s arms (no such thing as car seats yet…).
The traveler’s anticipation of a freshly packed picnic encouraged an expeditious arrival to their destination. As the rudimentary vehicle chugged and bounced noisily along the narrow dirt road, it eventually approached the crest of a large hill. Just as WE do each time we get in a vehicle, my great grandfather continued to drive with faith in his automobile and thought nothing of the inherent risks involved in a steep descent.
Ok. Now after that foreshadowing, I must interject and set the scene. I have this picture very clearly in my mind. And I hope never to have a movie made of it, for it will surely be incorrect and unequal to my imagination. Picture a one-lane country road, with tall green grasses on either side forming a flimsy photosynthetic guardrail. Weeds are sprouting up in the middle of the road unfettered by the wear of tires and the constant plague of exhaust. At the bottom of the steep hill, the road sharply curves just before running into a large canal filled with the liquid sustenance of summer’s bounty. To non-swimmers, a canal such as this is seen not as a giver of life, but rather as a possible taker of it.
Now back to the story:
The jovial travelers began their uneventful descent when SUDDENLY the brakes of the automobile malfunctioned. I use the word malfunctioned here to gently mean “went completely and irrevocably kaput.” The increasing drop in altitude increased the speed of travel, increasing the approach to the big canal, and thereby increasing the anxiety of the passengers. Especially Alice. She was sure that a refreshing (or NOT) plunge into the canal was in their immediate future. And Alice conveniently remembered the inconvenient fact that she couldn’t swim, especially with a babe in her arms. She also realized that because she gave birth to a non-amphibious child, the baby couldn’t swim either. And so, Alice thought, “How can I best protect my daughter?” Quickly, a debate raged in her head weighing the options and subsequent consequences.
What would you do?
With no hint of returning brake power, a sharp corner rapidly approaching, a deep and swift canal waiting for the curve to be missed, and an unselfish survival instinct for her child, Alice made her decision. With resoluteness, she quickly tossed the baby out of the car window choosing for her child- LIFE, over the possible loss of her own.
My grandmother landed safely in the bulrushes and was left to fend for herself. She became the female equivalent of Mowgli, being raised for several years by wild goats.
So there you have it…a plausible explanation for why I am so unrefined.
Well…that is sort of what happened. Everything except for the “fend for herself…raised by wild goats” part. I got a little Hollywoodish. Forgive me.
Actually, the story has a happy ending. Everyone survived. And Alice was able to retrieve her daughter, Dorothy, who grew up to be one of my favorite people! (And, incidentally is about as gracious and refined as anyone you will meet.) My dear, dear grandmother….how I miss her so!
Over the years of hearing this story, here are some of the lessons I take from it:
1. One needs to develop the ability to be decisive and think quickly.
2. Impressions are gifts and should be heeded.
3. Mothers have an amazing power to provide for the welfare of their children.
4. I am blessed with the blood of those who have great compassion, unselfishness and concern for others.
5. It is possible to forgive your mother if she throws you from a moving vehicle.
6. Without wild goats, I cannot use this story as the excuse for why I am unrefined.
What did YOU learn from this story?
I am thankful for my hard working, noble relatives whose lives taught me valuable lessons, and whose characters shaped who I am today and provide me with a vision of who I can aspire to be. Today I pay honor and tribute to my ancestors and others who paved the way for my privileged and abundant life on blessed American soil.