Cute Story, Cute Story…

By Cornelia Read

Mom and I

I have long been fond of and amused by George Burns’ very wise observation that, “The secret to a happy life is to have a large, loving family in a distant city.”

And that’s pretty much why, I think, having cousins is so awesome–and aunts and uncles and all that goes with them. You get to hang out with people who totally get your jokes about family stuff, because you’ve all spent time keeping an eye on the big pot containing the soup of communal backstory. Taking turns stirring, keeping the fire going, occasionally adding a bay leaf, asking if everyone’s okay with a little onion or garlic, and will the little kids want a small bowl of the stuff.

My second-cousins-once-removed by marriage

And a really fine and profound Thanksgiving is one at which everyone has taken their turn stewarding that rich potage, and you all get to sit down together around a long table and take communal strength from the finished product, breaking bread and pouring each other wine and sharing stories about the soups of years past and the soups yet to come. Gorgeous stuff, what the best parts of life proceed from, how we survive the kinds of fear JT was writing about yesterday.

This is the second year in a row that my kid Grace and I have been lucky enough to share in the Thanksgiving celebration of my Aunt Julie’s extended family. Julie’s my mom’s sister–my aunt AND my godmother–and her husband, Uncle Bill, has long been one of the greatest mensches in my life, through thick and thin. Well, both of them have, since I am going to extend mensch-dom to chicks, because it’s eminently true in the case of these two.

Uncle Bill and Grace

I was the flower girl at Bill and Julie’s wedding, on September 14th, 1968.

I wore a little ankle-length organdy dress–through which you had a hint of of the ice-blue silk petticoat beneath–and a tiny pair of ballet slippers that had been dyed to match the rich, clear emerald green velvet sash tied around me at a sort of Jane-Austen altitude above my waist.

I remember tons of details about that day, although I was only five. Aunt Julie’s bridesmaids, including my mom, getting dressed in a birdlike flurry upstairs in my grandparents’ house. The little bouquet I carried, walking up the aisle of Christ Church in Oyster Bay…

My Grandfather Thurston gives away the bride

…standing in the receiving line with the large buoyant wedding party on my grandparents’ verdant lawn, overlooking all the sleek boats that bobbed at their moorings on the sparkly cut-glass surface of the wonderfully protected little harbor below us… how young everyone was, in retrospect, though they were literally giants to me and so immensely sophisticated at the time, inhabiting the grownup world that seemed to shimmer at such an impossible distance I couldn’t fathom ever assuming a place in it….

And I remember everyone gathered at the bluff-edge of that lawn, every last guest coming forth from the stripe-tented dance floor, laughing and egging on Uncle Bill and his brothers Charlie and Tony and all the ushers as they clambered and jostled and tumbled over one another for the traditional Hoyt Family wedding-day pyramid.

This effort was captured for posterity by the wedding photographer right exactly at the Hoyt-boys-et-al’s final, brief, teetering moment of communal geometric triumph over the entropy of physics and gravity, high spirits and camaraderie and champagne–back when the latter was still served not in flutes but in those wide, shallow stemmed glasses which could themselves be stacked into a pyramid of celebratory translucence, allowing one of the white-jacketed bartenders to show off his professional chops by pouring from a magnum into the upper-most glass, the straw-gold liquid cascading downward from rim to rim until each vessel below veritably brimmed with its own portion of the bubbly.

Thurston and Julie

And both sets of parents were so happy, that day, because the moms had been friends since childhood themselves, and couldn’t have been more pleased that Bill and Julie had chosen one another as companions for the bright road ahead.

Betty Hoyt and my Grandmother Ruth

So–here and now–my daughter Grace and I have been staying at Bill and Julie’s house in Vermont these last couple of days. Cousin Allison is here, and yesterday we all drove half an hour over to Uncle Tony’s house–the place that was built by Great-Uncle Win and Aunt Lynn, no longer with us–for the day’s official culinary event. 

I made the sweet potatoes, having been emailed the perfect James Beard recipe by Uncle Charlie’s most fabulous wife Deborah. Uncle Bill took on creamed onions and the turnips. Cousin Victoria (Charlie’s daughter) was there with her excellent husband John and their two little kids. John was perfecting the mashed potatoes as we all tumbled into the warmth of Tony’s chic but cozy kitchen. Tony had brined the turkey and ordered the pies, then made hard sauce.

Bloody Marys were consumed, iPads shared and discussed (I shilled for a couple of pal’s books, which Charlie downloaded from Amazon),


the little children were charmingly well-behaved, and various distant relations called up on various cellphones and landlines. We even Skyped with Cousin Winthrop and his sublime wife Barrie, who were in their new place in Brooklyn with their brand-new baby, young Master August Elias.

August Elias

The wine was superb, the white-linened table arrayed with candelabra and beautiful plates, the forks and knives old family stuff polished to glory, and the talk was familiar and lovely and effervescent, overflowing with shared old jokes and joint beloved reminiscence of the two generations who’d come before all of us, now absent in body but never in spirit.

Uncle Bill had brought a big manila envelope of old photos that were passed from hand to hand, eliciting more stories and laughter and “Whatever happened to….” And at various intervals throughout this jollity, someone would pipe up with Great-Uncle Win’s favorite way to introduce any anecdote, no matter how dire: “Cute story! Cute Story!”

But I think that my absolutely favorite part of this most excellent day was when Uncle Bill looked around us all at the table with a dry wicked grin and said two words: “Mr. Whitney…” then paused for a sip of wine.

Aunt Julie said, “Jesus, Bill…” from the table’s far end.

And then Uncle Charlie said, “How is Mr. Whitney?”

And Uncle Bill said, “Oh, he died. Terribly sad. Hit by a car, dontcha know.”

And Uncle Tony asked. “And what happened to Mrs. Whitney?”

Whereupon Uncle Charlie confided, “Oh, she married Mr. Knott.”

Uncle Bill asked, “And Mrs. Knott?”

“She married Mr. Moseley,” said Tony.

“What about Mrs. Moseley?” asked Charlie.

“Well, she married Mr. Shields,” offered Bill.

“Mrs. Shields?” pondered Charlie.

“Married Mr. Galston,” Tony replied.

“And Mrs. Galston?” asked Bill.

Tony lifted his wineglass, rolling the ruby liquid around in it. “She married Mr. Von Briesen.”

“Good God,” I said, unfamiliar with this cherished litany, “what became of Mrs. Van Briesen?”

“Oh,” said Uncle Bill, twinkly of eye, “Mrs. Van Briesen lives down the road.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Oh, yuh,” said Uncle Bill, pronouncing that second syllable sound with the dryness of Old Vermont. “All happened over the course of a single year, when we were kids on Long Island. Quite a ruckus. You’d go to a friend’s house and never know which other friend’s parent you’d find there.”

Jesus, Bill…” Aunt Julie said once again from the other end of the table, the other end of the forty-two-plus-a-little-bit years it had been since we’d all spent the afternoon of September 14th, 1968, together on my grandparents’ lawn on Centre Island in Oyster Bay. 

She was smiling, though.

Cute story… cute story…

I love these guys. They are awesome.

And of course, being me, I have to wonder whether Mrs. Van Briesen was driving the car that hit Mr. Whitney.

Tell me an old story you love, oh excellent ‘Ratis…


20 thoughts on “Cute Story, Cute Story…

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Every summer we'd visit my grandmother's farm in North Dakota. Sometimes my six cousins from Minnesota would also come. My brother Erik and my cousin Tim are two weeks apart in age and the youngest of clan (in grade school at this time). One summer (this was the late 70s), we tied them to chairs in the big upstairs bedroom and put a running tape recorder in a paper bag and told them it was a bomb and left them. You can hear on the tape Erik saying things like "We've gotta get out this, Tim" and discussing their situation. Ultimately, my brother frees himself and instead of saving his cousin, Erik goes for the "bomb." There's crackling of the paper bag being ripped open and Erik reading the words on the buttons "stooooooop…..stop" and the tape recorder is turned off.
    We would also make homemade ice cream, cranking the arm of the machine until your own arm wore out and someone else took over. We would also sneak into the basement/pantry thing off hte kitchen where my grandma stored her homemade wines (chokecherry and dandelion) and taste test them without her knowing. Warning — drinking wine before its time is really gross.

  2. Debbie

    Cornelia, love the story and the way you painted it. Thanks.

    My grandmother died right before Thanksgiving (CDN) two years ago, so I'll retell this story as it is on my mind this time of year.

    My mother-in-laws parents, Lenard and Edna were happily married and Lenard worked for the hydro company as did George. George too was happily married to Edi. Eventually both marriages began to encounter difficulties. The two couples divorced and Edna met George, eventually marrying. Lenard mentioned to Edna that he was lonely and George suggested that Edi was as well.
    Yes, the couples married each other's spouses. One day at work in 1952, poor George was electricuted. Within a couple of years, poor Lenard too met the same demise.

    Forward to two years ago. My Grandmother at the age of 90, as she said, told the Lord she was ready. He apparently wasn't but several months later brought her home

    . So here I am, pall bearer (coffins are DAMN heavy, I don't care who's inside(, and after lowering the casket at the grave, and saying goodbye, my mother-in-law mentions that her parents are nearby…she's just going to take a look. We search, and (to me anyway) search. Finally, back towards my grandmother, two rows over and three sites down, yes that close, there is her father. Not even six gravesites away she finds her mother, . So my grandparents on my mothers side, neighbours with my husbands grandparents on his mother's side. Hmm.

    Maybe not 'cute story, cute story', but a small weird world that, as my husband always says, 'I wouldn't want to paint!'

  3. Rae

    Excellent post, Miss C….

    So, this isn't a 'happy family' story, but it's certainly always intrigued me:

    My father grew up in a small North Dakota town, where his father ran a grocery store and had quite a bit of money. Unusual amounts of money, for a grocer. My granddad had shady dealings with shady characters, it seems. One day, when my dad was about 19, he accompanied Granddad to the bank, and into the safe deposit vault, where a box was produced and when unlocked, was chock full of cash in nice, neat bundles. Granddad added some to the box, and away they went.

    A few days later, my dad and Granddad were fishing, when Granddad had a heart attack and died instantly. A few days after that, my dad went to the bank to retrieve the money that would take care of him, his mother and his sister while they figured out what to do next. The safe deposit box was empty.

    To my dad's knowledge, he was the only person with a key, and the only person who accessed the box after Granddad died.

    With no money, my dad's mom had to sell up and leave North Dakota for a small town in northern Idaho., where my dad met my mom when they were both students at the University. And here I am.

    I have no idea whether this story is true, but my dad certainly told it as if he believed it.

  4. KDJames

    Cornelia, I love your family stories. And the pics, marvelous as always.

    I've got my head down in my own book this weekend, so no story-telling from me. But I am reminded I should make more of an effort to tell a few old family tales to my own kids.

    PK and Rae — most of my family came from little farming communities up near the ND/MN border. Many of them still live there. Wonder whether my people knew your people… I swear though, none of them have ever had access to unusual sums of money, however procured. 😉

  5. Yvette

    Loved your story, Cornelia. I wish I had some spiffy tale to recount as well. I don't come from a big family at all. But back when my mom and pop were alive mostly what I remember about Thanksgiving was the fact that my mom cooked enough food to feed an army even though there were usually just 7 or 8 of us. My mom was of the 'old school' of cooking where great quantities of side dishes were served up with the turkey and by the time we finished eating, some of us bordered on insentiate.

    Good times.

  6. Mit

    I think one of the most memorable was one where it was just the four of us. Usually we went 'south' (lol) to Fresno. (which would never be considered "Southern California" by any stretch of the imagination … unless you moved from the SJV).

    My brother was working down in Fremont at the time. And we were anxiously awaiting his arrival. He came home and said he was "homesick" for the country – so after asking mom (who hated to cook) how long before dinner, he took off for a drive around the Buttes. Mom put the turkey roll (gag) into the oven, opened the box of Stove Top stuffing – and complained about "how hard it was to cook for Thanksgiving" … only to have my brother call – and tell us he had a flat. Of course, at that point, it was 30 minutes before we were to sit down and eat.

    My dad said, "I'll be right out." Except you see, my brother didn't have a spare. So we had to call around and find someone home who had a spare that would fit. And after my dad rounded that up – and headed out – and arrived – it suddenly came to light that not only did my brother not have a spare – he also didn't have a jack. And why in an ag community – in the middle of nowhere – surrounded only by farms, they couldn't find a jack, is beyond me. But THREE HOURS later … they finally made it home. To the incinerated turkey roll and rock like stuffing. It was the worst meal (both family humor and food-wise) I can every remember. Although – we never stayed home for T-giving after that – so it has a happy ending!

  7. Reine

    Cornelia, I love your family story. I love family stories. I love all of them. I love the laughter, and I love the intrigue. I love the photos. I was just going through a set of old family photos. My great-grandmother – beautiful photo of her in her Easter hat… those days of hats and dresses.

    My son P-Wog has been scanning every family photo that he can find and putting them on external hard drives, an early Christmas present. Looking at these has brought to mind so many family stories, but the problem is that most of them have to do with how horrible my mother was (tales from my father's Irish side) and how horrible my father was (tales from my mother's French Canadian/Aboriginal side… and no wonder I turned out the way I did (tales from his and her sides).

    I spent the morning today emailing a ton of these photos to my Cousin Carole who, because she looks just like my mother and has similar personality traits, bears a major burden of the family history horrorology. Her defense has always been to love my mother more than anyone, and when her mother spits, "Oh, you're just like my sister," Carole smiles and says, "Thank you!" I love Carole for that.

    Unfortunately her mother is right about my mother, just not about Carole. She and my uncle tried to adopt me, but really I could not tolerate her carrying on about my parents. After years of back and forth stuff and general craziness I became attached to one aunt, one of my father's sisters, who was only 10 when the mess started. She became my Auntie Mom, a great neutralizer of family poison.

    Auntie Mom encouraged me to study family history and to visit places where my genealogy led me. It turned out to be hugely healing, because it gave me more than my parents could. I heard my favorite family story in France.

    I'd been emailing an exceedingly distant relation in the village of Bresolettes (population about 20) who invited me and my husband to come visit. He took us to several places in the area where our French ancestors had lived, worked, and frequented in the 16th-17th centuries. One of these was a small church where they were baptised and buried.

    He introduced us to his family who spent the day sharing family stories with us, some of them very old. His brother and sister-in-law told us about a small house for sale down the road. They asked us to look at it – maybe we would like it and would stay. They would love to have more family nearby. He stared at us. They all stared at us, and he said (speaking of our ancestors who had gone to New France), "After all, you were supposed to go and be successful, then you were supposed to come home. So now, maybe you are ready?"

    Most stories had centered on our 8th great-grandfather, Guillaume Pelletier, who joined the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, founded by Cardinal Richelieu to help colonize New France. He left with his family a few years behind his brothers, because his in-laws were not well. Guillaume died in Québec City 353 YEARS AGO TODAY, on Tuesday, NOVEMBER 27, 1657!

  8. JT Ellison

    Cornelia, I want to come to one of your family dinners. Such an amazingly cool group of people. We were so far away from family that it was always just my patents, my brothers and me. The only stories are ones in which I am called silly names and they wipe boogers on me. Fondly remembered, of course ; )

  9. Fran

    I love your family stories, Cornelia, especially since I don't have family history or connectedness like that. It's a foreign world to me, and I find it fascinating. Thanks for sharing?

    And DID Mrs. Van Briesen hit Mr. Whitney? I choose to believe she might have. . .

  10. Catherine

    Yes Cornelia your tales of the family amuse and intrigue. The thing with big families is at least there are better odds of finding someone you can enjoy and agree with, if only in the moment.

    I think what music branches of my family were into, defined my childhood memories. Mum and Dad were into classical music and musical comedies. They were continually singing at the table. About the only time I wasn't fighting with my adopted sister was when we were singing. Except even the harmonies we would sing were a bit competitive. I'm sure I almost dry my mother nuts with David Bowie and Alice Cooper at one stage.

    My uncle Pat (a high school music teacher) my mum's brother loved anything with brass in it. He had five children, four of which were girls. His wife would often be grabbing a stray child and dancing them around the table. I was a shy kid and this seemed the height of madness to me.

    Yet I loved learning the Charleston from my Nan. Mum's parents had a dance band in the second world war. Nan was on piano, (she was still playing ragtime into her eighties), Pop was on drums and my uncle Pat was the brass section. (see above love of brass)…Mum was considered too young to play but not to dance and went on to be a ball room dancer instructor as an adult. My Aunt Kit played gave Nan a break on the piano. She went on to be a computer programmer in the 70's in London, and acquired a very plummy accent, and drank a lot of black coffee and dark chocolate brandy chocolates. She tends to say, 'fock' a lot.

    One of my Dad's brother's was heavily into Johnny Cash. i remember him being so excited at the album that was recorded at Folsom. He'd keep replaying bits and going to my Dad, 'Just listen to that.' Dad would then say in the direst of tones, 'He had a hard life….'. and then they'd listen to some track over again. I think when that album first come out coincides with me strolling through a bull paddock oblivious to the danger. Maybe they needed Johnny to calm down.

    Years later I found myself in a Jimmy Buffet bar in Key West trying to work out how I knew all the words to the songs….(the good margaritas were the original drawcard)…and then when I got home remembered how many times a tape of him would of been playing in an Aunt's car each time we went to the beach in her little grey mini.

    Each style of music to me seemed so exotic. Each encounter added to the soundtrack of my childhood. So that's not so much an old story, as old intertwined family stuff. Twisty musical threads.

  11. Catherine

    Bloody hell there are some typos in the above…hopefully the gist comes through. Apologies for grammar ( the lack there of) and spelling errors.

    Also Reine I especially loved your story of your long awaited return.

  12. kit

    I love your stories about family.As a kid, I loved the part after the meal where the grown-ups would get into storytelling mode…..
    I come from two very large extended families(this summer did a family team for Relay for Life of my cousins sent me a family history he had compiled…on the one side ..I have 460 members…cold winters in North Dakota and back before tv).
    On my dads side less people but alot more colorful.

    My favorite stories: Paternal family throwing the hooch in bed with grandma when the revenuers found the still..I get this mental picture of grandma Elizabeth in a flannel nightgown, surrounded by lil brown jugs and mason jars, under a feather tick.

    Another time: Grandma's brothers went on a road trip drinking and carousing around…somewhere in the middle great uncle Ed died and they missed they kept cruising around with a dead guy…they thought he was just sleeping.

    or the time my mom *blessed* Uncle Roy with boric acid….he had died while they were visiting…being of Catholic persuasion….Aunt Cottie said "fetch the holy water" mom grabbed the wrong stuff.

    there's way more…..happy holidays to everyone!

  13. pari noskin taichert

    One of my favorite images from my childhood . . .the first time my mother, a good Chicago-born girl, decided to cook pinto beans years after her move to NM. Mom was a total perfectionist, a control freak in many ways. She soaked those beans overnight, did everything right. My stepdad found her the next morning, hunching over the sink.
    "How do they do it?" Mom said.
    "Peel these things."

    That's what she was doing, taking the peel off of every single bean.

    She never lived that one down, especially among her New Mexican friends.

  14. MJ

    Cornelia – some time ago I bought Field of Darkness for my Kindle, and then got very busy at work. I started it this holiday weekend – cannot put the darn book down! I've been enjoying your posts and photos for some time so I suppose I was pre-hooked for the book (and its successors).

    Gorgeous photos as usual – what a lovely bride (and a lovely, truly joyful smile).

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