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.

Kate Gallison


  1. When will we read the novel... THE LOCKED CLOSET ???
    tjs in manhattan

  2. Kate,now I miss the table, too. What a sad thing that it is not with you. By the way, there is a room in the New York Public Library dedicated to genealogical research. People come from all over the world to research there. You should come. The librarians are excellent. We can interrupt our work to have lunch together.

  3. Annamaria, you wouldn't feel sorry about the table if you knew the enormity (and I use the word advisedly) of the lumber that I did get saddled with: the Governor General's Chair (embellished with carvings of plums, maple leaves and a beaver), the Monstrosity (a huge silver-plated epergne in the form of a Grecian maiden with a big fruit bowl on her head, said to be a gift from President Grover Cleveland, complete with nut-cups), the Empire chest of drawers with the mahogany veneer slowly popping off, and the bed with the nine-foot Honduran mahogany posts carved in the rope and acanthus pattern, all of which meant something to the Hills, the Moores, the Drennans and the Bordens, all of which must be enshrined, none of which can be given away or sold. One of these days I'll write a piece exploring whether it's better to go through life in the company of a huge crowd of needy ancestors or to travel alone.

  4. Hello, Kate, do you know what happened to the diamonds you mentioned in your first paragraph? Thelma Straw in Manhattan

    1. We're not talking about the Crown Jewels here, just a few rings and tchotchkes, so they've all been duly distributed among the descendants. I have one of the rings. Most of Granny's jewels were things like her badge from when she was a nurse in Brooklyn and the gold watch with the second hand she used to use when she took pulses, now, alas, no longer functional. I have these items in a little box and it's my intention to catalog them all one day.