I was fascinated by the recent articles about researchers who studied oft-told stories and determined we've been telling some of them for thousands of years.
A good story has universal elements – something about human nature that’s recognizable to the reader. It’s a kernel of truth that might not be quantifiable yet examines an aspect of what it means to be human; it might say something about our relationships to each other or to the world around us.
And a good story has a kernel of truth in it – something about which the reader can say ‘that makes sense,’ or ‘I’d do that,’ or ‘what a great character arc!’ (Well, probably no one but a writer would use that last phrase.)
I am amazed at the kernels of truth that come down to us in ancient stories. Just as interesting to me are kernels of truth that come through family stories told across generations.
I remember being a child and walking along the dirt paths of historic Jamestown with my family. I remember it was a sunny day but not too hot. I remember the remains of what I now know were the 17th-century church tower, and seeing the foundations of the earlier churches (the 1900s Memorial Church is the sixth on the same spot) through clear panels inserted along the edges of the current floor and not understanding what I was looking at (and becoming slightly woozy looking at a floor further down than the one I was standing on).
What I remember most clearly, though, were words my mother spoke, “My mother told me we’re related to Pocahontas.”
Even in those pre-Disney days, my tiny psyche understood those words were important. I knew she, Pocahontas, was important.
I’d learned of her in elementary school. I would learn more as later historians explored her story and anglo-centric narratives gave way to native peoples’ narratives, as well.
Fast forward a few decades and my fascination with Jamestown stuck. As I pursued my mother’s side of the family, I remembered her story. I wondered how a family that supposedly started in Jamestown ended up in the mountains of western Montana.
I began with birth and marriage records and some family history done by one of my mother’s cousins in the 1970s. I spent a lot of time in LDS Family History Centers doing research in genealogy books and on microfiche!
Months later, I had the pleasure of reporting to my mother that the family legend is true.
Through a line that did, indeed, extend through her mother and her mother before her, through the Gills and the Tanfields and the Bollings, there was a connection with an ancestor who was a Poythress, who was a child of a Rolfe -- a Rolfe who was sibling to John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas on April 5, 1614.
I am amazed that this story reached me at all, let alone that it contained a goodly sized kernel of truth.
I wonder how a family story -- only important to the descendants who told and retold it -- survived 400 years without being lost. I wonder why generation after generation after generation considered it important enough to pass on.
And I wonder if there will be anyone to remember and retell the story 400 years from now.
I must make a note to tell my nephew about it. Someday soon.