T’was The Night Before Christmas… (and Other Bedtime Stories)
We all know these wonderful words: “ ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse…” They were read to us as children, re-read as young parents; and now, we recite them almost from memory to our grandchildren. But, do you know where your grandmother was born?
In my family, the stories told at dinner, in front of the fireplace, or perhaps on a summertime porch, were not always out of books. What I now know to have been the “oral history” of our family, was presented to me as absolute truth, and therefore worthy of remembering. As an adult, however, I began to question some of the fables told to me by dear old “Gar,” or my Daddy and Mum.
First, there was how one of our ancestors, a young and handsome adventurer, had been given the island where we lived by the King of England as a wedding present when he married a chancellor’s daughter. Well… yes, and no.
Young Sylvester (pronounced Sil-vister, not like the cartoon character) did marry a chancellors daughter, and they were given wonderful presents at their union, even some from the King. But, when his ship, the Golden Parrot, was wrecked off Jamestown Island in the Rhode Island Colony, they lost almost everything. In the end, he had to buy the island from an Englishman named Lord Sterling, a Montauk Indian tribe, the Dutch under their tenure and then again from the English crown. As it often turns out, the true story is even more interesting than the oral history so carefully told to a young and romantic girl.
I’m guilty myself. When my son tired of stories of piglets and poems of mice, I began telling my own oral history stories I started with the tale of another adventuring relative who came to the New World, held huge land grants, owned islands, fought Indians, and “yes my love that is his fork you are eating with.” Well… almost true.
Lionel Gardiner did come early to New England. He worked for what is now the state of Massachusetts, stole land from Indian tribes, bought and sold islands, and even had a run-in with the law for hiding some of Captain Kidd’s loot. He wasn’t particularly rich or scholarly, and, in fact, he was a bit of an unsavory character, but the diaries are wonderful, and the fork part is true.
Just recently I found myself alone with a small boy who has his mother’s eyes and the wiry build of his dad. It was bedtime at Grandmother’s new house, and not a story-book in sight: the perfect opportunity to relate a little family history. It only took me a minute to decide to tell the story of the ancestor from whom I get my middle name.
Louis de Tousard was a young French military engineer sent to the colony of Haiti as a Lieutenant to distance him from his promiscuous affairs and bad gambling debts (I omitted that part). He fought in the 1793 Haitian revolution, narrowly escaped the guillotine in Paris, lost his right arm fighting with Lafayette in the battle of Rhode Island, and, after learning to write and draw with his left hand, went on to design most of West Point. Wow, talk about a bedtime story!
Every family has its history, and real-life “Grandmother Stories” are my new forte — at least while I can still hold his attention. Next month, when he comes for Christmas, I’m going to tell him all about his great-grandfather who was a spy and traded jewels in India. And, I promise, I’ll only bend the facts a little-tiny bit.
What are you going to tell your kids about this holiday? I hope it includes_minified a little family history.