My grandfather, mother and great grandmother Louise Stone Carswell holding me 1945.
I grew up hearing colorful family stories about our English, Irish and Scottish roots. My grandmother would skim down the list of names and dates in an old bible and tell me what she’d heard about our ancestors. My dad’s parents had similar lists of birth, marriage and death dates on yellowed sheets of paper. Those stories and the days spent with grandma stayed with me.
Majoring in history and marriage to a reporter fueled more curiosity about myself and where I came from. As my kids did family tree projects in school through the 70s and 80s, I took on genealogy. I sent away for all those certificates as proof of when these relatives were born, married and died. Cost a few dollars here and there but I’d checked the facts. Those old, neatly handwritten dates were correct. Feeling pleased with myself, I decided to write it all down in narrative form.
Lists are boring. I wanted to bring it alive with the tales I recalled. Off I went to hear them once again from mom and dad. I wrote long paragraphs about personalities, locations and occupations and pretty much got the same details from my aunts and cousins too. I shared copies with everyone at family gatherings and that was that.
Fast forward a few decades and my grandkids began tackling family tree projects, Names and dates were all they really needed for those branches, but oversharer that I am, I’m sure I made them listen to the interesting (boring 🙄s here) stories of their relatives. It wasn’t until my reminiscence writing class assignment that they all ended up in a fun story. Grandma would be proud of me preserving this story of our family history:
Captain Alfred Stone left his ship on a cold autumn afternoon and hurried to a nearby Inn. As he quenched his thirst, his eyes never left the attractive scullery maid who sat in the corner peeling potatoes. Deciding she was the one, he walked over, sat on a potato sack and declared that he wouldn’t move until Susannah Coppick agreed to marry him. It didn’t take her long according to her daughter; with his bright blue eyes and handsome beard, she immediately said yes! Living a mariner’s life back in mid-1800’s England, Alfred fathered ten children with his wife, Susannah Stone. The first six, seemingly just a year apart, were most likely a result of Alfred’s annual return home from the sea!
Thankfully, their oldest daughter Louise was inclined to write about their daily lives in her journals. She and her family moved to Sacketts Harbor, New York where her four youngest siblings were born.
As a young woman, it seemed Louise always needed new shoes. She flirted with the shoemaker’s son James, also a shoemaker, until he finally got the hint. Soon after, Louise and James Carswell married and eventually became my great-grandparents. My grandfather loved telling stories about his parents and I remember Louise from old photos. I was about 7 or 8 when she died, but I don’t recall if she always wore great shoes! They had two children: my Aunt Gladys and my grandfather James, the 8th James in successive generations of the Carswell family, who originally came from Scotland.
My grandma and grandpa met on a blind date at a masquerade party in 1918. Florence Radcliff and her girlfriend dressed as traditional Irish lasses. James played it safe, dressing in a tuxedo. Grandma was born in Ontario and had two older sisters, Marion and Dallas. Six weeks before she was born, her father Thomas was killed in a farm accident. Her uncle, a horse trainer and farmer who worked on the farm was like a father to Grandma and her sisters. Eventually the family moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan to find jobs and schooling, leaving the farm to Uncle Jack.
Florence and James Carswell were married in 1921. My mom, Donalda Louise, was the first born, followed a year later by a brother, the 9th James. Her second brother came along ten years later.
Mom and Betty Bickley were friends all through school. During their junior year, Betty dared Donna to ask her brother Billy to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. He said yes, and that night changed her life, mom would tell me, my sister and two brothers. The guy who’d been pretty much in the background was now her boyfriend.
After graduation, she worked in sales at Mrs. Brown’s Dress Shop in downtown Detroit and my dad joined the Army Air Force to become a pilot. Gordon (nicknamed Billy) and Donna (shortened from Donalda) Bickley married in June, 1943. Stationed in San Antonio, Texas, my dad wrote letters to Mom every day. He proposed in one of these letters, which I now have framed. Written on United States Army Air Force stationary, he tells how much he loved her and wanted to share his life with her. He then signed ‘Love Bill’ and added a PS…’This is a proposal’….just in case she didn’t get it!
When he learned he’d be shipped out soon, he wired Mom via Western Union and said “Let’s get married now!” She took the train to Texas with her friend Jean, bought a flirty little dress and got married in the local church. After six weeks together, he was sent overseas and Mom took the train home, went back to work and soon realized she’d be waiting for both Billy and me!
Naming me must have been family fun night! My paternal grandmother’s name was Fanny. She and Florence, my Mom’s mom, suggested combining their names into Fanny Flo! Luckily, Mom loved the name Joan Louise; keeping her middle name and her grandmother’s name going. Louise became my daughter and granddaughter’s middle names as well.
During my sophomore year of college, my dad lost his job and I had to stay out a semester. My grandfather paid the tuition for me to return in the spring but with the stipulation that I join campus activities and not be “tied to homework and boys.” I began working on the school newspaper. I covered both school and community events, but the editor, Jim Stommen, changed everything I wrote. He edited my colorful way with words and told me my feelings and opinions didn’t count and I didn’t like him one bit! “Facts, just the facts,” he’d say and correct my punctuation.
A year later I gathered a group of friends to celebrate my 21st birthday and he declined, saying he’d take a raincheck. Sure enough he called me a week later and asked me out on a date. I knew that night, as we talked over gin and tonics, that I’d marry him someday….Scrooge had become my Prince Charming.
We were married in August, 1966. Our two kids found great life partners as well. Our son ended up marrying his girlfriend’s best friend and our daughter met her guy through an online dating site. Somehow their stories handed down in the future won’t have the same ring as the tales that started in merry ol’ England!