Friday, September 13, 2013
Recovering a Family Treasure
In her old house on St. Croix Street in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, my beloved grandmother Hill had a locked closet. Inside were her treasures, things that she knew other people would steal the minute they had a chance; her diamonds; her gold beads; her copy of THE ANNALS.
When Granny became too old to live by herself my mother, her only child, helped her pack up and deal with her possessions and move to Mrs. Lister's boarding house, sometime in the nineteen-fifties. I was too young to be involved in this, but as it turned out I was the only one who knew the true value of a lot of the stuff in that house, or at least its value to my grandmother and the family generally. The kitchen table, for example, was made from a solid piece of golden oak pulled out of an old French well at a military camp in Canada where Grandaddy was stationed. To my mother it was just a table. Granny had never told her the story. So it's gone.
(Don't even get me started on the collection of comic books I had carefully amassed over many summers. That was in my closet in Granny's house, along with the red silk kimono with the gold dragon embroidered on the back and Aunt Ethel's lavender chiffon tea gown.)
I suppose the jewelry was duly gathered up, but the closet of sacred things was left open long enough for whoever was creeping around in search of it to snag THE ANNALS. (It strikes me that this was possibly my great-aunt Mary.) In any case Granny's copy of THE ANNALS was gone for good, never to be seen again.
The annals of what, you ask? Why, The Annals of Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, by the Reverend Isaac Case Knowlton, Calais, Maine, 1875.
This book was a trove of genealogical information as well as a—what can I call it?—a sort of class totem, whose mere physical possession admitted one into the upper echelons of St. Stephen society. Without THE ANNALS the young people might forget how the Hills, along with the Markses, the McAllisters, and the others, had settled St. Stephen and turned the wild forest into a place of grace and beauty. The print run was limited, and only the best families had a copy. Not that it was read every night at the dinner table, like the family Bible, but that it was written out in official print for everyone to see. We were the superior people. All the rest of you were ordinary. Knowing this fostered good table manners and gracious behavior.
Now all the Hills have died or left St. Stephen. The young people have forgotten them, even the descendants of the founders themselves. No one has good table manners anymore. No one behaves graciously, least of all me. But people on both sides of the border are interested in genealogy again, as am I. As a result, I was able yesterday to find two digital copies of THE ANNALS online, one put up by Google Books and the other on a Canadian genealogical site.
Paradise. Even better, the University of Toronto is offering a paperback copy at a reasonable price. I'm going to buy it and put it in the plastic tub where I keep the family tree material for future generations. Perhaps it will induce them to get their elbows off the table and stop eating with their fingers. But first I'm going to read it. What style. Here's Knowlton's description of how the dread Passamaquoddy winter came down on the unsuspecting heads of the French settlers on Dochet's Island:
"Fierce winds arose and wrenched the faded leaves from the frightened trees. The air grew sharp and cutting. The birds vanished, fled to their southern homes. The snow sifted down from its exhaustless storehouse, and wrapped the dead and frozen earth in its white shroud. Great blocks of ice were piled on the shore, or hurried by in the black angry water."
Ah. Fine writing.