… should you care to accept it…

Nov 24, 2018 | 3 comments

I am so enjoying the interviewing and researching process involved in my current Observer series, “Our Grands and Greats.”  I am blown away by how much (but sometimes how little) those I interview know about their forebears.  I’ve just completed the eleventh article in the series and I have a formed a tentative rule of thumb about our knowledge of our ancestors:  the closer the family has stayed to their ‘roots,’ the more they know.  In general, those who are fourth or fifth or sixth generation here on the Peninsula know far more about their forefathers than their recently arrived neighbors.

It stands to reason, of course.  If people didn’t move on to start a new life, they obviously remained better acquainted with and connected to the place of their origins.  And, probably, their ‘things’ did too – the photographs, perhaps some treasured letters, their “good” furniture or Sunday dishes were less likely to become disbursed.  And with the things, there are often stories.  If we’re lucky those don’t get lost either.

For me, it’s the stories that really connect us to our forebears.  With all the possibilities these days on ancestor.com and similar sites, we may have the illusion that we are learning about great-grandpa or great-great grandma.  But are we?  What lies beyond the dates and place names and copies of marriage licenses?  What sort of person was he or she?  Who were their neighbors and how did they get along? What of their character traits?  Did they have a good sense of humor?  Were they outgoing?  And what would they have considered their crowning achievement?

I loved listening to my grandmother when I was a child.  One story she told me was about her love of swimming in the “tank” (as they called the indoor swimming pool) when she was a girl.  “As soon as I dove in, I’d kick off my swimming togs,” she told me.  “I loved the freedom of being unclothed in the water.”  I remember only that I wondered why she felt that way, little realizing what the swimming ‘togs’ of the 1880s looked like and must have felt like weighted down with water.  Nor did I wonder about who else might be with her or any other privacy ramifications.  I wish I’d asked, but I’m ever grateful that I had that even that little peek.

And my mom’s story about being the only girl of the 14 kids about her age in Oysterville.  “I was always a tag-along,” she told me.  And when I asked, she said, “Yes, I was definitely a tomboy.  I was the youngest of seven and I think my mother just let Willard and Edwin look after me.  She let me wear coveralls at home, but I had to put on a dress when I went up to Grandpa’s house.”  My totally feminine mom — with her hats and her jewelry and her love of clothes shopping!  A tomboy!  Putting that together with her first-ever purchase of blue jeans at 86 years old – she was going out with Les Wilson on his boat – gives a totally different look at who she was.

That R.H. Espy had a “tot” of whiskey every day before breakfast makes him a little more human.  That my great aunt Dora – so stern and formidable seeming as an old woman – begged and begged her mother for hair ribbons when she was a girl or that my garrulous Aunt Mona confused “no” and “yes” when she was very young — until the day someone offered her a piece of candy and, at her response, didn’t give it to her.

The stories don’t have to long.  They just have to go a bit farther than a name and a date.  Write them down!  One here; one there.  They’ll add up to more than you can imagine.  And while you’re at it – write down your own stories – What was your most embarrassing moment as a teen?   Who was your best friend before you started school and what kinds of things did you do?  What was your biggest adventure as a young adult?  Write it down!  For posterity!  So your descendants will know more than a name and date.


  1. Glenn Briscoe

    You’re so right! My older brother still lives in the house we grew up in. I was on the phone with him the other day and he mentioned that he found a letter written to my father from Billie Roberts (nee Briscoe). She was Burr’s granddaughter through his son Joe. She mentions how they were in Oysterville and spoke to Willard Espy; your uncle, if I’m correct. He told them a few stories about John Briscoe, one of which involved him finding bodies from shipwrecks on his beach property and fining them for loitering. I’m not sure how you would go about collecting a fine from a dead man, but I’ve learned from my trip to the peninsula that he was pretty resourceful. When I get my hands on the letter, I’ll scan and email a copy to you if you would find it interesting.

    • sydney

      Wow, Glenn! That SO fits in with Michael Lemeshko’s ‘take’ on Briscoe! I would LOVE to have a copy of the letter! (I assume you’ve also told Michael about it. I know he’s deep into a book about another Pioneer character — B.A. Seaborg — but I’m thinking the Briscoe book needs as sequel! Or maybe you should do a book from the family perspective…)
      On the other hand… Willard (yes, my uncle) was fond of spinning yarns and, although there was always a vestige of fact or truth in them, I was not always sure that his stories weren’t more fanciful than not. (Case in point… the story about Ned Osborne in my Ghost Stories) book.) This one about fining the shipwrecked sailors is really choice!
      I look forward to seeing the letter! And thanks for the affirmation of my theory about those who stick close to their roots being able to be better (or at least more easily) in touch with the past!

  2. Glenn Briscoe

    I expect I’ll see my brother sometime over the holidays. I should have a copy of the letter to you in a few weeks. I haven’t yet told Michael about it. I thought I should see the whole letter first to ensure that it might be worth something to him. We picked up a copy of your Ghost Stories book while in the museum in Ilwaco so I’ll be sure to look up the Ned Osborne story later today.


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