Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Red Letter Day

Thoughts go flying through our minds all day long. We hear bits of news; Facebook gives us information on friends far and wide. Yet, sometimes one will stick with us. It will circle back into our thoughts over and over until we are forced to stop and think. Why is this still with me? What am I supposed to learn from this?

This week my nephew in Toronto went on a journey, parting the mists of time. Reading a book about Toronto, he found a whole page devoted to the contribution made by my great grandfather, the poet and Theosophist, Albert Ernest Stafford Smythe. Described as a gentle man, the tale of his first marriage is characterized as mismatched. My great grand parents met on the ship coming over sometime in the 1890's. They had two children, but at the age of twelve, their little daughter died. He wrote a poem asking, “If I were to follow through the spheres, would I be worthy of thy love and tears?”

His wife is said to have died five years later at the age of thirty eight. We knew she died from drinking.

My nephew read that the two women were buried in a church yard not far from his house. He decided to see if he could find their graves, not expecting to have much in the way of results as it is now one of the larger cemeteries in the city. A new church and parking lot are what you see from the street, but after further examination, he saw an old, very simple church back from the road. Thinking his best bet would have been there, he set off. The first grave he found bore the name Smythe, with another beside it. He said it was as if he walked right to it. As my nephew works nights, the sun came up over the roof of the old church. A bright ray from a new dawn came right to him. Hard pressed to describe what he felt, he narrowed the powerful emotion down to one of gratitude.

Earlier in the week, a cousin had written to ask for insight regarding family history, troubles and pain. Her life is now on the cusp of great change and she is casting about for answers. How many immigrant tales from how many countries have those who sailed with high hopes, but failed to close the gap upon landing? From personal experience, I can say it takes great strength to be the one that sets out on adventures and blithely leave it all behind: friends, family, community and a base of support. What failed my great grandmother? Was it a sorrow she sought to escape when she left England, or was she undone by grief? My grandfather, the remaining child of their union, went on to fame and fortune. Last summer, when the Queen visited Canada, the Prime Minister presented her with a famous picture of a visit to Toronto in 1956 where she is the guest of my grandfather. He is pictured sitting beside her as her host. If only the two poor souls in that churchyard had lived to see a better day. Perhaps they were the guiding light behind the success of a man who always considered himself lucky.

Then the great wheel of history turned again. The newly married Prince William traveled to Canada with his bride on their first official tour. The fashion world waited with baited breath to see what H.R.H. the Duchess of Cambridge would wear. The first choice for the tour, dawned as they boarded the plane to Canada, a smart navy jacket bearing the label Smythe, put us all into a state of unbridled joy. My niece Christie Smythe by name, the great great granddaughter is now in the happy position of receiving the best of all possible endorsements.

Thinking of how many books I have read in my life that chronicle family sagas, it simply boggles my mind to try to come up with a number. Great change brings casualties, triumphs and tragedies. Sometimes our most cherished stories and inspirations come from an early morning walk behind a sweet old church. Or they come when we see decades of adversity wiped away in one shining moment of stellar success.

"We are herd animals," my teacher said. "We look for stories of that breakthrough, of that fleeting moment where one distinguishes themselves above all others. Those are the stories worth writing. "


Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Some of the best family sagas are our own, and the rich history they provide us generation to generation. The Christie Smythe jacket is lovely, and will surely set a new trend in fashion.

You story is one well told.

Jennifer Rova said...

Beautiful post. It was interesting how you wrapped up all the paragraphs with the perfect ending. You are a super writer and I enjoy reading your posts.

elizabethbrinton said...

Thank you so much Kathy and Jennifer. Your kind words mean the world to me.

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Elizabeth, I love this post. Wonderful, thought-provoking, evocative. Thank you for reminding us how much can come from so little.