Over one hundred years ago, the great British writer G.K. Chesterton suggested that the human experience is, like that of Robinson Crusoe, one of collecting soggy broken pieces of life, and trying to survive on a deserted island after a shipwreck; as he puts it, “all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck” (Orthodoxy [New York, 1908] p. 64). Fortunately, my family made it to America in 1869, and with them they brought, miraculously “a teapot, tea leaves … and a cheese plate, … a frightful one at that, … transported from Wales to Pennsylvania … in a trunk that served as the family’s covenantal ark … the objects of this story, but not the object of this story” (Curious Autobiography, p. 9f.). We were the family of “Great Might-Not-Have-Beens,” to use another expression from the same page of Chesterton’s enlightening book. We might not have been if the boat did not make it; we might not have been if Lucy Hughes Jones had died when delivering her child, Elizabeth Ann (for both of them nearly died at the moment of Lizzie’s birth in 1871). And we might not have been who we became without the journey itself, which, as Elaine notes in her autobiography, is the object of the story.
And who are we to say that we, this small band of Welsh men and women, mostly the latter and yes–we were primarily a matriarchy—became anything at all? This question is ultimately the central focus of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes and will be the central focus of this blog. Put another way, does an ordinary life, the lives of Welsh immigrants, have any meaning? Is there such a thing as destiny or fate? Put perhaps a bit more positively, is there a purpose for our lives? For life?
Good heavens, we’re waxing philosophical and lest we get bogged down in a blog that is meant to be fun to read, let’s tell a story, as story that may or may not illustrate what we mean. (Before I go further, I should say that I will shift back and forth from the first person singular to the first person plural, as Elaine’s voice still echoes in my head, and she now writes, in a sense, through me—nothing too mystical, just a fact.)
That story is an aspect of one that we tell in the Curious Autobiography, but there remains an important part of that story that we did not include in the book. It has to do with the packing of Lucy Hughes Jones’ trunk for the voyage to America, for which trip she was, for the first and only time, leaving Llanelli (not at all pronounced like it is spelled). Now I should add that, though the Welsh take packing very seriously, in my experience, they mostly hate to travel. That is possibly because the Welsh are said to be descended from hobs, or elfin hobs, to be precise about it. Now we might call these elfin hobs merely elves, but we would be mistaken.
The facts are these. Hobs are quite close cousins of elves, closer even than elves are to leprechauns, to whom they are related on their father’s side—never through the maternal line. A not very precise analogy might be the way the Welsh are related to the Scots, and the Scots to the Irish. Yet, while leprechauns are strictly Irish, hobs are not exclusively (though they are mostly) Welsh, and elves, of course, are not exclusive to Scotland, though everyone knows that they are found there quite often. Of the three, leprachauns, elves and hobs, the last group most dislikes travel.
But let us return to the admittedly ironic idea that even hobian descendants hate to travel, albeit the Welsh are good packers. It is no small piece of information for our family’s history that into that trunk, that ugly black trunk with the name Lucy Jones clearly painted in what was then much more distinctly visible paint, went the things that would serve to remind our family in America of our Welsh heritage and, more than that, of our significance. Among these objects were the family cheese plate (whose face always frightened the small children), several Welsh warming sweaters, two quilts, a Welsh serving platter, a Welsh flag, and a tea service, if a quite limited one, the centerpiece of which was Lucy Hughes Jones’ favorite teapot that features brown undulating swirls not so much like the tide of Mumbles by the Sea as that of the inlet that touches upon Llanelli itself.
Those fragile objects might well have tumbled one on the other in the trunk and broken had not an especially curious hob (and thus less afraid of travel than most) named Gwilym, at the last moment, just before the trunk was closed, jumped inside. It is said that he used the teapot for his pillow, the platter for his bed, and the cheese plate for his footrest during the journey, thus keeping the most important objects from breaking. Gwilym, by the way, would eventually come to live in the family’s piano, where he stored nuts stolen from dishes put out when company came. He seems to have enjoyed gathering and hiding his nuts as much as eating them. These objects, not icons or totems or idols, but mere objects, would prove to be symbols that we were not “Might-Not-Have-Beens” but demonstrably “Have-Beens,” which if it has a less than glorious ring to it, nevertheless begs the question of significance, even if, perhaps especially if, you happen to be descended from an elfin hob.
What is the significance, then, of these objects and the lives that they represented, or any family’s significance, any human being’s significance? The answer to that question is one that, even if it is intended for all, seems to present itself only to some, and it does so in most cases only over a good deal of time, often a lifetime. And so it is our belief that it is tightly bound to the journey, not simply a journey, such as ours was, from Wales to America but bound to the journey that is each person’s life.