The story goes that in 1774 my ancestors, Thomas and William Locke, left England and made their way to the Tennessee River. Once there they built a raft, added a jug of whiskey and floated down the river. When the whiskey ran out, they stopped and settled there.
Then there’s the story of Dan’s father’s dance step, fondly known in the family as the “Lady Astor Hop.” Supposedly, Mr. Arp danced with Lady Astor sometime during World War II. Another story concerns the Card boys, my great-grandfather and great uncle, who were Union spies during the Civil War. Captured, they narrowly escaped by jumping out of a window. The last brother to jump injured his ankle and the other one ran back and saved him. Asked about it later, my great-grandfather said he went back because he forgot his hat!
Growing up with family stories, I didn’t think about them much until Dan’s 97-year-old mother began to lose her memories.
As I attempted to keep Mrs. Arp grounded, I dug out one of our kids’ old classroom assignments. It was an interview with an older person and fortunately for us, Jesse chose his grandmother. Using the transcript, I shifted through family pictures, finding pictures to match the story. Other pictures with messages on them provided more pieces to the puzzle. When I came across a picture of someone unknown to me, I asked Mrs. Arp and she would fill me in. When she was no longer able to help, I asked family members and gradually was able to stitch together a pictorial and verbal history of an extraordinary family. It was quite the journey.
All families are extraordinary. Saving family stories is important. Through stories we have a peek into the past no recitation of facts can. These are the people from whom we come. These are the stories they told. The stories help answer those questions we all have – “Who am I?” “Who was that?” and, most important, “Why am I as I am?” There is comfort in that knowledge, a sense of strength, of belonging and of community.
Speaking of facts, the Locke brothers’ story, which was told every year by a much beloved elderly cousin at the annual family reunion, is only correct in the arrival date. Lady Astor dancing with Mr. Arp, dubious as it seems, is true. During World War II, in order to raise morale in the devastated city of Plymouth, Lady Astor held tea dances, dancing with many armed services personnel. The last story of the Card brother spies is true and was recorded in the Chattanooga Times newspaper many years ago.
Now, when I’m with family, I listen for information and am often rewarded with more stories – some old, but some new ones which I add to our litany. One of my new favorites is the surprise 80th birthday party my mother threw for my father. She hired a belly dancer who, while sexily draping one of the scarves from her costume around my father’s neck suddenly stopped mid-dance and in a horrified voice said, “Mr. Card? Is that you?” Daddy responded to his former student, “Hello Teresa!”
So next time you’re with your family, consider following the instructions I used as an elementary school librarian preparing the children for story time: “Put on your listening ears and hear something wonderful.”
Cindy Arp is nana to World’s Best Grandbaby.