Thursday, March 17, 2011

Family memories

A week ago I was pleased to receive some genealogical information of my mother's family and learned that my great-great-great-grandfather Vaclava was a blacksmith in a small Czech town south of Prague in the early 1800s. Nothing else is known about him. Time effaces all.

Even the 20th century is fast receding from memory. While I have many memories of my paternal grandfather, a Missouri farmer, only two remain persistently vivid in my mind. The first memory was the time we were walking in the pasture to check on the cows. I must have been about eight. As I recollect, he took his pocket knife and cut off a short piece of wood from a slender sapling. He notched it, pushed back the smooth bark, trimmed a thin slice up to the notch, and then slid the bark back into place. He handed me this handmade whistle and told me to give it a try. I blew on it and sounded a strong, clear note.

The second memory, from about the same era, was the time he read me the macabre poem The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. (My grandfather's farm was far beyond the reach of radio or television in those days, and fiction – especially Mark Twain's writings – and light poetry were his favorite leisure pastimes. Of course, leisure back then signified something quite different from what we consider leisure today. A Missouri farmer's weekly leisure was concentrated into about an hour on Sunday afternoon.)

Service's 1907 poem had an unusual internal rhyme scheme that still makes me smile fifty years later:

First stanza:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Check it out.

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