intermittent memoirs: the myths, the legends

Every family has legends, every family has legend-keepers.

Personae dramatis of family legends: the Great Beauty. the Genius. the Hero. the Fabulous Cook. the Athlete. the Woman Who Could Cure Anything. the Voice. the Spy. the Talent. the Texas Ranger. and of course, the ever-popular the Drunk, the Lunatic, the Poet, the Artist. Our Dog. Our Other Dog.

Sample plots of family legends:  how gramma met your grandfather. how uncle Mike and aunt Bertha almost didn't get married. the Lost Fortune. the Encounter with the King/Queen/Duchess (noble title of your choice). the Missed Opportunity (real estate, minerals). Let us not forget the time FBI agents showed up at the same time the ineluctably handsome Casey Burke [not his real name] was being grilled by my  parents, this being Pop's idea of appropriate parental behavior on meeting a boy-person for the first time. The Most Amazing Wedding Ever, with two live bands and souvenir gold coins. The department store where everybody knew your name.

Examples of legend-keepers: my sister. me, if the then-older generation got sentimental and didn't notice that I wasn't really concentrating on that book on my lap. And of course, the cryptic short diary or autograph book entries that start a chain of madeleine-dipping flashbacks - example: The enthusiastic tribute to my growing beauties penned in a high-school yearbook by an exchange student who went on to become a Very Prominent Person in his country's legal system and is always the first one called to sit on a commission when there is a human rights problem to be looked into. So far I haven't felt the need to travel with Ye Olde Yearbooke, but one never knows.

Until recently, it never occurred to me that some of the older generation's family legends could be true. At least, more than a little. I can subtract the exaggeration from the legends in which I figure. First I should get that FBI matter out of the way. Simple, really, one of the neighbors was an engineer and was in line for a promotion. The FBI interviewed all of the "nearby neighbors" to see if this perfectly respectable man had expressed opinions unfavorable to our country while pulling the crabgrass out of his lawn. We were last, so they came to us about 4 or 5 minutes after my not-then, not-ever-to-be boyfriend arrived. This was a lot of company for Our Dog to deal with, plus there was some confusion about just who was the subject of the visit. It didn't help that Our Dog sensed hostility, and as trained by a previous owner, staked out the door, growling, to keep the Hostile Strangers inside while Pop cheerfully called the police and tried to explain that Our Dog was holding some guys claiming to be federal agents at bay... This is a true story.

On to other legends. Themes and plots repeat. The film that was never produced, the discovery that was patented under the wrong name...

In many families, there's a legend of Great Prosperity and Dignity in the Old Country. The Country Place, the Town House,  the Servants, the Ballgowns, the Jewels. The Gypsies who showed up every year to trade horses. Typically the legend is dismissed as a form of compensation for what life was really like: unpaved roads, ill health, lack of opportunity, oppression, hunger, danger. No heating, no plumbing. Or, as one of Himself's elderly relatives put it, "He was from Minsk, then, this Hobbes?" (it was the philosopher Hobbes who described the life in times of chivalry as not romantic, but "nasty, brutish, and short.")

One of these legends will be the subject of a post yet to come.
What are your favorite family legends? Are there any which, when recounted to you, make you just want to run away screaming?

To be continued, if not right away....


  1. I wait with baited breath..

  2. I have a fifth great grandfather who served at Valley Forge. Family legend had him marrying one of General Lafayette's daughters. A little Wiki digging proved that to be incorrect.

  3. hehe don't forget the Queen, the Queen Mother and the Queen's Assistant....every family (or batch of in-laws) has them!!

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  5. Hi Fred, how are things with you today? Family legends, such a delightful subject. I love to tell tall tales. My dad's family can trace its origin in the US to a Catholic priest that came over with a ship full of Irish indentured servants. DH's paternal grandma was a Howard of the White-Howard feud in KY. Historians say those folks made the Hatfields and McCoys look like they were playing tiddly winks. Now Fred, with your gilded pen(er, laptop), if you don't tell me that you're either descended from Chaucer or Scheherazade, I will be truly disconsolate. I anticipate the next installment.

    1. Hi, David, thanks, situation calm, follow-ups progressing as they should. Wow, my heart reaches out to those who suffered involuntary servitude, I can barely begin to imagine the desperate courage of those who entered that condition of their own doing. And I'd love to learn more about the W-H feud. Dopey question from effete Easterner: did it make it's way into a ballad?

  6. Swedish peasants in my past. My grandfather was the King's preferred horse handler, legend has it. My contribution to the family legends: maybe the day I spent with Julia Child at her home.

    Didn't Hobbes live at Chatsworth for a long time? Not too brutish, that.

      Julia's tv series saved me from ppd, and I love that she proved there is life after an early adventurous career.

    2. Lane please tell! Please do tell!

  7. I can't wait to read all about it Fred!

    My mother's lineage is traced back to the 1700's and there are plenty of good story lines and characters. My grandfather wrote a book on it and my cousin recently added to it.

    My father on the other hand, well he had some notorious stories and was quite the rascal but I'm keeping mum on it all. Never speak ill of the dead.

  8. We've got legends. Rum-runner Great-Grandfather for starters, I think that's probably true, there was his mysterious early death which adds to the legend.
    I am very much looking forward to your Legend Post.

    1. Dad's family had some complicated stories which on,y made sense if you figured out they took place during Prohibition....

  9. Just finished the revenue enhancing portion of the day here.

    So , the real actual Julia. It was the day Jerry Garcia died ( which no one knew ,as there were no smart phones back in the 90's, until NPR came on). I was there with a chef from Providence where I lived then who worked for JC. It was the last day of filming for "Baking with Julia", a story unto itself. She filmed all day, came and sat with me several times and we had some conversations I can still quote verbatim including one about eating disorders and , yes , as she knew my profession, one about butter. Mr Lane thinks my imitation of her voice is better than M Streep's; it is just burned into my memory. She wore Khaki pants and high top red sneakers and was just as she seems, totally lovely. We all had lunch in her backyard, after which I wanted a nap and she kept on filming! In her 80's after wine. I have a photo of her in her kitchen, the one now at the Smithsonian, me smiling away and she with her eyes closed! We look to be the same height but she was quite stooped over then and much taller. We all need a bottle of wine for the whole story here!


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