The Gap Between Family Legend and Fact

Rene Dinsmore, Rep State Chairwoman, 1954
With respect to family history, legends are those stories that survive through generations, like Grandfather Flynn was a Methodist circuit rider, or Uncle Roger fought with Pancho Villa, or Grandma Flowers single-handedly fought off Indians with an empty gun while her husband was out plowing.

The legends tend to be headline length and seldom have much substance. They contain the hook of a good story, but more often than not, the story has come off the hook. If you like the legend, you may prefer to keep the hook and forget the story, and that’s okay. Just know it’s a choice. If you’re a stickler for facts, you’ll check things out, and that’s getting easier to do.

The clipping above is related to a  legend about my maternal grandmother. I’ve known most of my life that she (not my grandfather, but she) was a delegate from New Mexico to the Republican National Convention in both 1952 and 1956. I was proud of her for that. Somewhere along the line I heard that she started the New Mexico Republican Women’s organization.

Last summer while visiting a cousin, I copied the clipping above. A couple of days ago I found the copy and took the time to read it. That clipping seemed to validate the fact that she really was head of Republican Women. Turning to Google, I discovered that Stockton ran for Governor in 1954, and the Republican State Convention took place the end of February that year. So the picture was surely from that Convention.

I flashed back to a memory of a thumbnail story my grandmother told me in 1987, 33 years after that picture was taken. We were talking about her involvement with the Republican Women and she said, “Ed Mechem (a long-time family friend who began his first term as governor in 1951) asked me to help him get them started and I said yes.” That’s not much of a story now that I think of it, and it has a lot of holes, but I didn’t notice that at the time and didn’t think to ask questions.

So I clicked over to Google and discovered that a huge movement was begun in 1952 to get women to vote for Ike. That muddied the water floating my legend. I felt stymied. After finding her contact info online, I shot off an email to Jo Mitchell, current president of the New Mexico Republican Women. I included the clipping and what I thought I knew about my grandmother, including that “fact” that she worked with Ed Mechem to found the NMRW.

Jo promptly sent a long and thoughtful reply explaining that the organization actually bean in 1939 and that Rene Dinsmore’s name was not on the complete list of presidents. Furthermore, Jo pointed out, the article does not say what she was elected chairwoman of. Most likely she was the state chairwoman for the party. If she’d been in charge of Republican Women, she would have been elected president, and not by the State Committee. As state chairwoman, she would have gone to the convention. That makes sense.

I’m grateful to Jo for the time and effort she put into her reply. I love the helpful spirit I generally find when I ask for this sort of help. Her explanation makes total sense. Discovering the communication disconnect doesn’t damage the story. On the contrary, the revised version is more consistent with my perception of my grandmother, so I’m pleased she set things straight.

This small disconnect is a perfect example of how we hear through the filters of what we already know – or think we know. I thought Grandmother was involved with Republican Women, so I heard her explanation that way and read the news item from that perspective. We hear a tidbit and our imagination goes to work, embellishing or coloring in details. Over generations, these legends may shape shift like messages in the game of Telephone.

In the end, what does any of this matter? Not much. I enjoy untangling stories, and I enjoy writing and telling them. I like to tell my grandchildren about my grandparents and older ancestors to connect them with history and help them feel rooted in a sturdy tree. I want them to know that our family has survived, one way or another through thick (many ancestors were wealthy a few generations ago) and thin (the Civil War and the Great Depression depleted those fortunes). I want them to know that many of their ancestors started with nothing or less and went on to thrive and enjoy success. I want them to know that many of us, perhaps most, have dared to be different and march to our own drummers.

I like to stick as close to the facts as I can, but I do admit that I will let at least one family legend stand unchallenged. I love the legend too much to risk deflating it. So I explain that it may be fiction when I tell it, and include the evidence of why I think it could be true.

What about you? What family legends do you cherish? What about those you don’t? Have you hit the web to look for facts? Do tell! Jot a comment now and stories for your family.

1 comment :

Amy said...

I have been able to prove some family legends were quite true---that my great-great-uncle was the governor of New Mexico, that his father was a pioneer on the Sante Fe trail, that my grandfather came alone to the US as a teenager, and that my grandmother moved out of her mother's home when her mother remarried. Others remain unproven and subject to inferences based on history and facts. I don't know exactly how my grandfather got to the US, for example.

But as you know, I believe in finding the truth. Legends are still valuable for what they tell us about how the family shaped its history and what it valued about its stories. But the truth is the truth.

And isn't it interesting how many ties we have to New Mexico and Arizona?