How We Met; the Importance of Family History

Captain Alfred Stone left his ship on a cold autumn afternoon and hurried to a nearby Inn. As he quenched his thirst, his eyes never left the attractive scullery maid who sat in the corner peeling potatoes. Deciding she was the one, he walked over, sat on a potato sack and declared that he wouldn’t move until Susannah Coppick agreed to marry him.  It didn’t take her long according to her daughter; with his bright blue eyes and handsome beard, she immediately said yes! Living a mariner’s life back in mid 1800’s England, Alfred fathered ten children with his wife, Susannah Stone. The first six, seemingly just a year apart, were most likely a result of Alfred’s annual return home from the sea!

I’ve heard this tale of my great-great-grandparents since I was a child; gleaned from journal-like notes written by their oldest daughter, Louise. She and her family eventually moved to Sacketts Harbor, New York where her four youngest siblings were born. As a young woman, it seemed Louise always needed new shoes. She flirted with the shoemaker’s son James, also a shoemaker, until he finally got the hint. Soon after, Louise and James Carswell married and eventually became my great-grandparents. My grandfather loved telling stories about his parents and I remember Louise from old photos. I was about 7 or 8 when she died, but I don’t recall if she always wore great shoes! They had two children: my Aunt Gladys and my grandfather James…the 8th James in successive generations of the Carswell family, who originally came from Scotland.

James and Florence on the right, 1918
My grandma and grandpa met on a blind date at a masquerade party in 1918. Florence Radcliff and her girlfriend dressed as traditional Irish lasses. James played it safe, dressing in a tuxedo. Grandma was born in Ontario and had two older sisters, Marion and Dallas. Six weeks before she was born, her father Thomas was killed in a farm accident. Her uncle, a horse trainer and farmer who worked on the farm was like a father to Grandma and her sisters.  Eventually the family moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan to find jobs and schooling, leaving the farm to Uncle Jack. 

Florence and James Carswell were married in 1921.  My mom, Donalda Louise, was the first born, followed a year later by a brother, the 9th James. Her secbrother came along ten years later. I have my grandmother to thank for teaching me to sew, hang clothes, play piano and write in my journal using proper cursive.  My mom and Betty Bickley were friends all through school. During their junior year, Betty dared Donna to ask her brother Billy to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. He said yes, and that night changed her life, mom would tell me, my sister and two brothers.  The guy who’d been pretty much in the background was now her boyfriend. After graduation, she worked in sales at Mrs. Brown’s Dress Shop in downtown Detroit and my dad joined the Army Air Force to become a pilot.

June, 1943 Wedding picture
Gordon (nicknamed Billy) and Donna (shortened from Donalda) Bickley married in June, 1943. Stationed in San Antonio, Texas, my dad wrote letters to Mom every day. He proposed in one of these letters, which I now have framed. Written on United States Army Air Force stationary, he tells how much he loved her and wanted to share his life with her. He then signed ‘Love Bill’ and added a PS…’This is a proposal’….just in case she didn’t get it! 

When he learned he'd be shipped out soon, he wired Mom via Western Union and said “Let’s get married now!”  She took the train to Texas with her friend Jean, bought a flirty little dress and got married in the local Presbyterian church. After six weeks together, he was sent overseas and Mom took the train home, went back to work and soon realized she’d be waiting for both Billy and me!

My grandfather, mother and great-grandmother
 Louise Stone Carswell holding me.

Naming me must have been a family fun night! My paternal grandmother’s name was Fanny. She and Florence, my Mom’s mom, suggested combining their names into Fanny Flo! Luckily, Mom loved the name Joan Louise; keeping her middle name and her grandmother’s name going. Louise became my daughter and granddaughter's middle names as well. 

During my sophomore year of college, my dad lost his job and I had to stay out a semester. My grandfather paid the tuition for me to return in the spring but with the stipulation that I join campus activities and not be “tied to homework and boys.” I began working on the school newspaper. I did interviews and covered both school and community events.  But the editor, Jim Stommen, changed everything I wrote. No one had ever edited my colorful way with words nor told me my feelings and opinions didn’t count and I didn’t like him one bit! "Facts, just the facts," he’d say and correct my punctuation. A year later I gathered a group of friends to celebrate my 21st birthday and he declined, saying he’d take a raincheck. Sure enough he called me a week later and asked me out on a date. I knew that night, as we talked over gin and tonics, that I’d marry him someday….Scrooge had become my Prince Charming.

Jim and Joan met working on
our college newspaper.
James and Joan Stommen married in August, 1966. We continued to work on newspapers together the rest of our lives, me finally showing respect for his expertise and he finally accepting my mushy, gushy style. My degree in education coupled with his lifelong mentoring led me to become a writing coach. Our two kids were treated to constant cross-country moves and Dad’s desk-pounding ways, whether in a newsroom or at the dining room table. Both eventually decided to attend college back home in Michigan.
 Our son met his future wife while dating one of her girlfriends. Our daughter found her guy online fifteen years ago. Although online dating is no big deal today, her story being passed down in the years to come just won’t have the same ring to it as my great-great-grandparents’ did on the shores of merry old England.