My Dear Children
The handing down of a life
This story was published today on Medium in response to a prompt on “family” in the Genius in a Bottle publication. I had mentioned in a previous newsletter that I might want to write on this topic, and I still have so much more to say, but I was limited to 750 words (I hear that sigh of relief). Suffice it to say, this is the abbreviated version.
Francis Fontaine? Seriously? What kind of a name is that?
The suggestion always seemed slightly out of the blue, not to mention a little archaic and maybe just un peu French? Nothing against France or people named Francis, but we were in Mississippi, and I wasn’t feeling the connection. All I knew was that Francis was some distant ancestor who was referred to as the black sheep of the family. That last part seemed to be a source of family pride.
Whether I liked the name or not, it was destined to stick in my brain. My maternal grandfather, Papa T, had mentioned it to me on more than one occasion. “Vayal,” he would say (ya inserted for proper pronunciation), “when you have children, you need to name one of them Francis Fontaine.”
I had always been somewhat of a distant yet interested observer with a 10-minute attention span when it came to genealogy. I could never quite find the time to care too deeply. Among a myriad of other interests and pursuits, I was in the middle of growing up, getting married, and giving birth to five sons, none of whom were dubbed Francis or Fontaine. And besides, it took a lot of time to go to libraries and visit cemeteries and make cold-turkey calls for information.
Then came the internet.
One gray December day in 2001, I mysteriously got the urge to dabble. I sat down at my then-modern desktop computer and (I mean, why not?) typed that ancient alliterative name into the search bar. It wasn’t long before I was hooked, reeled in, succumbing, like so many before me, to that insatiable longing to know all there is to know about one’s roots.
Suddenly, with just a few taps on the keyboard, I transformed from fish to fisher(wo)man as I reeled in a big, fat, family history catch. To my great surprise, Francis Fontaine’s grandfather, the Reverend Jacques Fontaine, had left us his Memoirs of a Huguenot Family, and this thing called the internet had delivered it to me free of charge. Back to being the fish, I was pulled in hook, line, and sinker.
How could I feel so connected to someone born 300 years earlier than I, a relative so distant that I had 1,024 others of the same degree? Yet there I was, sitting in my living room with Jacques as my honored guest. He told me the story of his own great grandfather (my eleventh great), who was martyred for his Protestant faith in 1568 — the same faith for which he himself was imprisoned 116 years later. He recounted how, once released, he was forced to flee his beloved France, escaping under cover of darkness and settling in England and eventually Ireland, where he worked, ministered, and taught. There were adventurous (true) tales of battles with pirates and everyday accounts of battles with hemorrhoids and gout. Through it all was the story of God’s faithfulness to preserve and uphold.
As the times would have it, several of Jacques's eight children made their way to the American colonies. I discovered that the seventh, Francis (the father of Papa T’s Francis), and I had likely walked much of the same ground — he as a resident of Williamsburg, Virginia, and I as a vacationer. After his first wife's death, Francis married a woman from one of those touristy historic homes on the Governor’s Green that was on my map. It turns out that Papa T’s Francis was not a black sheep after all, but an industrious businessman who left Virginia for a new life in North Carolina after finding himself embroiled in an old-fashioned fairy-tale stepmother nightmare.
I wish I could tell Papa T how connected I am now to this history even if I never passed on the name of Francis Fontaine; and, as a member of a society dedicated to honoring Jacques’s words, that I have met and befriended ninth and tenth cousins.
Jacques finished his memoirs on June 21, 1722. His prayer was that they would be a source of encouragement in the faith and a constant reminder of the importance of family unity.
If the Lord, whose blessing I ask upon my work, grant that it produce this effect, I will think myself more than rewarded for all my troubles.
I am, my dear children,
Your tender father,
It has produced just that, Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great Grandpa. Thank you for writing.
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