Tag Archives: Lucy Hughes Jones

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thoughts on “Thank You” and Related Natterings

I have a friend named Grace. We have been friends for years, and I always liked her ever since meeting her in, I think, perhaps the 4th or 5th grade. Though her own travels took her as far as Australia—long story—for the past several years Grace has had the rare privilege of living in the town in which we both grew up, New Hope, Pennsylvania. I, meanwhile, have lived in a variety of places, from Burlington, Vermont to Pennsylvania, to Rome, to New Jersey, and finally now Texas.texasflagstate

In Texas, oddly enough, I made another friend named Grazia, which is, of course, merely Italian for Grace. I always liked my Italian friend Grazia and her husband, Max, though I’ve not seen them for several years now since they moved to Houston. Both of their names sound like the Italian for thank you, grazie. Indeed, the Italian word for thank you is simply the plural of Grazia’s name, and therefore means “graces.”

“How funny,” I thought to myself the other day when I was out jogging. When you thank someone in Italian you’re sending them graces. And then I thought of Latin, of course, and it is the same. Welsh, gras, is an obvious cognate, though bendith conveys the idea, too, with an element of blessing. And what about Greek? Eucharisto. “Blessing be to you!” Well, it is the same. In fact, right in the middle of the word is a variation on that same idea again—charis—a blessing that is a gift given freely. And then, as if a Lutheran with his catechism in front of him, I thought, “What does this mean?” It means, of course, you want to bless the person who did you a good turn. You want to bless them freely.

But it means much more than that, much, much more, just as “good-bye” means more. The latter expression means, you may know, “God be with ye.” The PC crowd, who are now seeking to expunge any reference to “Woodrow Wilson” from Princeton, will no doubt go after “good-bye” next; surely good-bye is at least a micro-aggression against proper atheists and possibly even agnostics. Likewise, the word “grace” means much more than merely “grace.” It means blessing in the highest; it means a blessing with no strings attached.

Someone very dear to me this week said, “Words are just words.” Could he really know what he was saying? Does he not realize that words are more often than not much more beautiful, much more powerful than actions. It would be like saying, “art is just art,” or “the sculpture is just stone.” Think about the idea that the David of Michelangelo should be described as “just stone.” No, my friend, never tell a philologist that words are just words, for he will tell you that they actually always mean something. They mean a great deal. Wrought well, they can be the equivalent of Michelangelo’s David. They can bring healing; they can render peace; undergirt by proper actions, they can change the world.

Thank-You-word-cloud-1024x7911But back to “thank you.” In Welsh, it is less comely (Diolch) pronounced with more phlegm than the Flemish Dank or the Dutch dankjuwel or the more widely known German Danke. Eucharisto. Grazie. Gratias ago. I render you graces, a blessing with no strings attached. I give you a free gift, a bunch of them. That is how thankful I am: there are no strings attached to my sentiment toward you. I recognize that your gift came to me with a similar spirit of free gift-giving. Thank you for that. That’s what “thank you” really means. And at the center of it is grace.

Then, as I was jogging, I thought about forgiveness, which is an exercise of that grace, certainly the most difficult exercise of it. Is that something like the “amazing grace” about which one might sing on any given Sunday? It is, rather, a response to it. I thought about it in part because I have a dear friend—actually a couple of friends—who need very much to exercise that grace now toward one another and toward others as well. Sadly, they don’t realize that the rendering of forgiveness would free themselves much more than the person whom they might forgive. No, they seem to think of the exercise of grace as some kind of transaction. At least one of them—perhaps both—feels that someone “owes them” something and he is demanding his due recompense; that he is a fool not to claim that recompense. That his whole life has been one of being taken advantage of, and he’s had enough. What he can’t see, of course, is that the forgiveness he needs to render will actually liberate himself more than the person whom he needs to forgive. (“Forgive us our sins as we …” What does this mean? I leave that aside.)

To find grace, I’ve tried to tell him, one must turn around. This is especially true when one is looking in a mirror and blaming every uncomely feature of oneself on someone else. “My nose—I hate it!—I got that from my mother’s side of the family. My ears—too small!—alas, alack, they’re from my father’s side!” Standing right in front of the mirror means quite often obscuring the other folks in the room, or if you do see them, they’re way behind you and in fact you’re viewing them in reverse. In truth, one rarely realizes that even when looking at oneself in a mirror one only sees oneself backwards. I simply mean this: a right- handed person in a mirror appears to be left-handed. Your hair will be parted quite on the opposite side than you really part it. The words on your t-shirt come out all backwards and funny looking. You can’t trust mirrors, and psychologists tell us that it is unhealthy, or at least a little strange, to spend too much time gazing in a mirror, where one can see oneself, certainly, but the vision that we see is skewed and inaccurate, blocking out those behind us or, even when not, seeing them in a skewed and inaccurate way, as well.

But it’s hard to turn away from the mirror and render grace to those behind you, especially when you can empathize better with the person in that mirror than you can with anyone else. Yes, that may be true, but the person you see in the mirror may not be who you think he is. First of all, as we already said, at the very least, he is backwards from the reality. And so is anyone else you see in the background. Your vision, which seems so accurate to you, is, necessarily, inaccurate, certainly when it comes to yourself. Secondly, the person you see in the looking glass may be not the real thing in a number of other ways. Folks with anorexia, for example, sadly do not see that they are morbidly underweight. Instead, they think they see, studies have shown, a person who is overweight; those who are morbidly obese quite often see something quite the opposite, or fail to recognize the danger that they behold.

But let me get back to grace. If you have a friend named Grace, as I do, be thankful. By virtue of her very name, she will, of course, remind you to be so. She will, too, remind you to be generous, as one needs to render grace freely. Her name will also—and this is most important—remind you to be more than giving; her name reminds you to be forgiving, not simply of those who have wronged you somehow—in ways that may appear in your mirror as MACRO-aggressions but in reality, when you turn away from the mirror, are, at the most, micro-aggressions—but also of yourself, and of everyone. What better time of year than the Christmas season to turn away from the mirror, which can so easily deceive, and to face reality, become thankful, giving, and most of all forgiving?

Well, I leave this all aside to allow this week’s blog to remain short and sweet, and to close with a tasty treat, the classic Welsh cookie—also known as Welsh cakes—that our family has eaten at Christmastime every year without interruption since Lucy Hughes Jones arrived from Wales in 1869. The recipe is that of Blanche Jakes, though she herself got from Elizabeth Ann Evans, her mother, who got it from her mother, Lucy Hughes Jones. Though Welsh cookies do not go so well with hot chocolate or coffee—I’ve tried them, and I don’t recommend—they are delightful with tea, truly amazing. You will give thanks for them if you try them with tea. So I recommend baking them, sharing them with friends. Even Elaine’s father, Harry Jakes, who hated raisins, loved them, though he dutifully removed the raisins, an act that always drove his wife Blanche to distraction.

Next week’s blog will be the first in a series of stories about Christmas. I hope you like them. Though they are technically fictional, like the Curious Autobiography, they are all essentially true; they hark back to a true time, one long past, when terrorism didn’t exist, or if it did, it was unknown to the community described in the stories. Then, even though grief and sorrow were all too familiar, thankfulness was simply an aspect of life, as was grace. And forgiveness was well known, as well. In that community, as you will see if you care to read these stories in their weekly installments—and here’s the spoiler alert—grace, in the end, would prevail. Please enjoy those tales, the Stories of a Christmas Yard, as you sit by your fireplace next to your Christmas tree, with your feet up on the divan,

divine divan
a divine divan

and a cup of good Paned Gymreig tea served with a Welsh cookie or two. In the meantime, I hope you have had a Happy Thanksgiving, which itself is a felicitous rendering of grace. Diolch i chi, darllenydd annwyl, grazie, eucharisto, gratias, Vielen Dank—simply put, thanks for reading and, for now, good-bye!

welsh cookies recipe

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman


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). LucyHJonesTrunkFortunately, 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 theAngleCheesePlaten 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 platLucyJonesTeapote (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[04] Gwilym the elf, 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.