Tag Archives: Family Legend

The Legend of How a Family Came To America


“My great grandfather, or so the legend goes, was an apprentice in a barbershop in the Ottoman empire in this town of Gaziantep, and um one day um the chief barber was out um and so my great grandfather was just sweeping up, just engaging in sort of barberly, apprentice activities, and some official of the sultan came in for a shave, and my great grandfather really wasn’t prepared to engage in the art of shaving with a straight razor because it’s quite arduous, um, you need to be trained to do it or else it can be quite ugly, um but seeing it was an opportunity to win favor, you know, with the sultan, and it’s interesting to note that although Jews were not the majority religion they still favored the rule of the sultan, who had invited the Spanish-Jewish refugees to come live in the ottoman empire and treated them quite well, they favored him to the secular young Turks who for Jews to serve in the army, and the Jews who were an observant people and had their religious beliefs and observed dietary laws and what not didn’t want to eat food that wouldn’t have been kosher and to not observe their holidays and secularize, they wanted to have their own educational system and what not, so they were more on the side of the sultan than they were on the side of the secularizers. So as a result I think he saw this probably as a way to win some of the favor of the sultan, give him a good shave or whatever, so he, the apprentice goes and gives this guy a shave, um… you know what happens next (claps hands)…you know like blood dripping down from a terrible botched shave and this guy, this official in the ottoman government, like, like threatens to like kill him, like run him out of the country. So what the next thing that happens, according to family legend, is that he runs away…to America, and that’s how we got here.”


This is a story that the informant, a 19-year-old USC student born and raised in Los Angeles, has been told “many times over” by his family. He is not sure about the “actual, factual element of it,” though he claims it “has been passed off as something that actually happened.” He says that it “has been told so many times” that it has become a part of his family’s legacy. “It can’t be true,” he says, “or could it?”


That the informant says that the story “can’t be true” and then immediately returns with “or could it?” coupled with its real-life setting indicates that it is a legend. That said, that the story has been passed down and told so frequently points to its important position within the informant’s family history. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant; what matters is that a prominent event in a family’s history, its moving to America after being rooted in the same place for hundreds of years, is remembered as an extraordinary event.



Elsie the Cow


“During the Anglo Boer war my great grandmother (Dirkie Joubert) was a young married woman living on a typical farm of the time;  in the old Transvaal province of South Africa. It was the year 1900. The Anglo Boer war that started in 1899 had been continuing for a couple of years. This was the war between the British and the Afrikaners rebellion against British rule.

The men have all gone to fight on the battle field, leaving the woman and children behind, alone on the farms. As the woman continued with keeping the farms going they could supply the Afrikaner fighters with fresh supplies whenever they were in the area.

The British soon discovered this source of supply and started burning the farms, removing the supplies for self-use including the live stock.

My  great grandmother had a cow called Elsie. She was a very clever cow and very quickly caught on to what was happening. She became so smart that whenever she saw the dust from the approaching British troops she would run and hide and wait until they were gone to re-appear and help keep my family alive.”


The three items of folklore I collected from this informant were the only three out of all the items in my collection that were not a result of face to face interaction. The text above was sent to me, from the informant, via email. I also corresponded with the informant over the phone to receive the context behind her stories. That said, the informant’s  great grandmother lived until she was 94. The informant, who lived most of her life in South Africa (she moved to Dallas, Texas with her family in the 90’s), used to go her house after school. The informant had a very special bond with hear great great grandmother, and used to hear this story from her all of the time. Her  great grandmother had five children, and during the course of this war, she and four of her children were taken from their farm and put into a concentration camp. The oldest son went off to fight in the war. In the concentration camp, her four children died. It was not until she was older that the informant learned of this terrible reality; her great grandmother would never talk of the concentration camp.


That the informant’s  great grandmother would tell the story of Elsie the cow and not any of the darker stories of what happened during the war, show that it was a happy story for her. The story is a light anecdote that occurred during a very dark time, and whether or not it actually happened, it most likely helped her get through some very tough years after her traumatic experience in the concentration camp. The informant told the same story to her own kids when they were young, ensuring that this positive story from their family’s history would be passed down.

German Pickle Tradition

Every Christmas, my informant’s family will hide a pickle ornament in the tree and whoever can find it first gets a jar of pickles as a prize.  She said that this is how they also initiate people into the family.  She remembered when her brother-in-law first came to the house for Christmas and he was very confused and thought that it was weird.  She says people always get this look on their face when they walk in the door and are told “Ok, now find the Pickle!”

While typically this tradition is for children on Christmas morning, my informant’s family has changed this to a family tradition that helps the test people who are new to the family such as a potential spouse.  The emphasis for this traction is on family ties and having a game that includes everyone, even the new comers.  It’s an initiation ceremony.

A Slice of Pie from John Dillinger

“My grandmother, when she was a little girl living in, uh, this really small town Geneva, Indiana. Her parents were farmers. Um, her and her brother were in the soda shop there, the town soda shop, and uh, John Dillinger and a couple of his, uh, running mates, as you can probably see in, the, you know, Public Enemy movie, uh. And they walked in and, and, uh, they. I don’t know if they robbed the place, but they certainly bought her and her brother a slice of pie and a milkshake. To share. And, um. Also-alls that she could say about him was that he was a very nice gentleman, that carried himself, very nicely. And, um, yes.”

Audio Clip

I asked him who normally tells the story.

“My Grandmother”

When does she tell it? In front of the whole family?

“OH, no it’s more of the, thing that- she’ll- you know, it’s- when- (sigh). When she’ll take like a grandchild aside, or like a great-grandchild aside, just to seem, like, and now I bestow upon you this, bit of my life, that you might not know. We- we don’t tell a lot of stories at like, big family dinners, and stuff like that”

Does it come with a moral?

“Oh God no. No no no. No not at all. Uh i-i-it mainly started coming about when John Dillinger became a hot topic again because of the movie. Primarily”


There’s no real way to find out if this family legend is true or not, but it’s extremely plausible. For one, the source’s grandmother is giving a first hand account, not relating a story told by someone else. Also, this story reflects much folklore about John Dillinger, who is generally painted as a gentleman, and sort of Robin Hood figure in Indianapolis.

For more info on the American Bank Robber John Dillinger, click here.


The Piano Box Burial: Family Legend

Family legend of the piano box burial as told verbatim by informant (C. stands for a name to be kept confidential):

“My Great Grandpa C., who before people were really morbidly obese, Grandpa C. was morbidly obese. It’s like nowadays you see people that are three and four-hundred pounds all the time. But supposedly Grandpa C. was about 300 pounds, 350 pounds. (wife interjects and he answers) Yeah he was only about 5 foot tall. And uh he also, I’m pretty sure, also had congestive heart failure which means his body retained water. So not only was he obese but he retained a lot of water and you know at the end of his life he really could only sit in a chair and he could hardly walk and his legs would get massively swollen because of his bad heart. And uh the legend is that you know when he finally died, of course, he died sitting in a chair cause he couldn’t walk and he couldn’t lie down because he would get too short of breath when he would try to lie flat, um and so they had to lift him up, you know a bunch of guys lifted him up and he was way too big for any kind of casket so they had to bury him in a piano box.

My father told me that story. Usually when he took us out to dinner, to an Italian Restaurant of course. (chuckles) It’s it’s a family legend, you know. ‘We’re gonna eat a lot of food tonight but you know don’t make it a habit to eat or you’re gonna end up like Grandpa C.’ (laughs)”

Despite the fact that this family legend has an element of humor, the warning is very real. Since the informant’s family is Italian, a culture known for its obsession with food, by telling the story of the family member so sick and so fat that he had to be buried in a box meant for a piano, the pleasure of eating becomes an affliction—something to be wary of. Of course, that the informants father told this to his 8 children before dinner-out is a clever way of controlling their intake, and thus the bill. However, coming from the informant, who is a surgeon, the story took on a slow, somber note as his understanding of the poor health his great grandfather was in likely made it much more vivid. So, his telling had a naturally health-conscious air to it.