He said. She said

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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.”[1] 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”[2] 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!


[1] Stella Benson, Pipers and a Dancer (London: Macmillan, 1924), Chapter 9.

[2] Stella Benson, This Is the End (London: Macmillan, 1917).

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

9 thoughts on “He said. She said

  1. Your attorney husband can attest, I’m sure, that even first-person stories are to be taken with a grain of salt. My husband’s father and uncle separately told us about a family event they had witnessed years before. Their stories were so different we were left wondering what really had happened. And if you think your own family stories will be passed down correctly, ask your children to tell what they know about how you and your spouse met, or what they’ve heard about how you came to your career, some question like that. It’s eye-opening!

  2. Yay for newspapers…. thanks to Australia’s Trove collection I now know WHY my Great great grandfather LEFT Australia with all of his family and changed their names when they got to San Francisco. Hint: It had nothing to do with being accused of cheating the Prince of Wales at cards.

  3. My family accepts the romantic story more readily than the one suggested by the documents. For example, my great grandfather was a Yankee who fought for the South. The family myth was that he returned to St. Joseph, Louisiana in 1865 (instead of going home to Maine) in order to marry my great grandmother whom he supposedly had fallen in love with before the War. When I point out that she was only 15 in 1861 when he was 24, that doesn’t change anyone’s mind. I then add that before the war, he was a relatively poor engineer working on the levees, whereas his future bride could count wealthy plantation owners among her prospects. Besides, he was only a private when he left and didn’t even know how to dance. When he returned from Virginia as a war hero in his captain’s uniform, he appeared a much better prospect than the local plantation owners who had all gone broke. Finally, I produce his letter stating that he had been heading to Texas where Confederates were still holding out, and that he stopped in St. Joseph only because he had fallen seriously ill. Even after all that evidence, the romantic argument always wins, especially since they married and lived happily—not ever after—but until death did they part.

  4. I have always enjoyed your writing, and having been born and raised in Maine, I have enjoyed it even more so. I too have been dealing with old stories about the family, which I have proven is mostly myth. Ours are stories passed down by other than family members, so I suspect this has much to do with them being just “stories” and not based on fact.

  5. I was gratified when I confirmed through vital records that my great-grandmother was accurate in saying she was “part Connecticut-Yankee,” although she didn’t name the ancestors who’d lived in that state. Still to come in my research is the verification (or not) of a statement she made in a letter, that “great-grandmother once owned a half-acre of land where the shores of NY harbor are now near the atlantic.” Family tales can be both blessing and curse; solving puzzles keeps it all interesting.

  6. Jan, My mother was a member-at-large of the “Lee” family, which came with a whole host of forgotten relationships and allegiance “to the General” – for no reason at all. ~ Additionally, this allegiance was entirely misplaced, as mom’s Lee family never went further south than New York, and I have never seen even the slightest hint of a genealogical connection to that more storied branch . Poor mom – her dreams of ties to some sort of “Scarlet O’Hara heritage” sold out to her all too Yankee roots!

    Thanks Jan for reminding us of all these “true” stories and anecdotal tales!

  7. Unravelling family legends can be fun. My grandfather told the story of his parents’ immigration as this: Dad, Mom and another man came over to work on the St Louis World’s Fair. The other man was killed in an accident, and Dad and Mom married. I knew fairly early on that this was not quite right, because grandfather was born in New Hampshire at the time of the World Fair. The real story: great-grandmother, her sister Lizzie, and the “other man”, Clifford, immigrated in 1902, the sister and the man travelling as husband and wife, even though his legal wife and infant son were left behind on a farm near Neath, Glamorganshire. Although on the passenger list they stated they were headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan, they ended up in Windsor, Vermont. In 1903 great-grandfather followed — he somehow knew Clifford from England. My great-grandparents were married in Windsor in October 1903, wife Clifford and Lizzie as the witnesses, and my grandfather was born in May 1904. Clifford did then go to St Louis and died there (according to Lizzie’s obituary 50 years later), and his wife in Wales filed for administration of his estate in the UK in 1905. And no, neither of my great-grandparents had anything to do with the World’s Fair.

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