Charles Foster my great, great, great grandfather (yes, he was that great) suffered a childhood of chilling abuse. And here stands his house. What a foundation for a family of storytellers.
This is our family home. The family that runs in my blood through my mother’s side of the tree. Curses and gifts intermingle, don’t they? When I looked upon this house I knew I was home. I could have stayed for hours listening to the spirits moving the tall grass. I could have stayed for days seeing out of the corner of my eye a young, strong Charles Foster building this house for his mother.
If I’m remembering right, the curse was liquor. Daniel Foster was a cooper (barrel- maker) who couldn’t support his family. By the time Charles was six (in 1815) he was sent off to live and work for others, first a Mr. Clemens–the idea was that he’d be gone for good. Think of a six-year-old for a moment. Think of a six-year-old crying for his mother. At the time he had three older siblings and a little sister, Savannah.
Charles worked for a Mr. Clemens for just one summer. One frosty morning he was sent to a neighbor’s to borrow a flail (an instrument used for threshing grain by hand). The neighbor, seeing the barefoot little boy, told Charles to go inside the house by the fire while the neighbor put a new leather string on the flail before sending the boy back to Clemens:
“When he got back to Clemens he accused him of stopping to play but Charles said he didn’t.
“Clemens tied him to an apple tree by his thumbs, so he could just touch his toes to the ground and then cut whips from the tree and whipped him. Clemens went to digging potatoes nearby and each time he came by the tree, whipped him again. At last Charles, aged 6, told him ‘If you leave a breath of life in me and I live to grow up, you’ll pay for this. The flail string shows itself that it was newly cut.”
“Clemens let Charles down and that very night his parents sent for him to come home–for his little sister’s funeral. Once home Charles got sick and was sent to bed. When Clemens came to take him Charles told his mother, ‘If you love me you won’t let me go back.'”* (Sketch of the Life of Charles Foster, Ruth Kibbe)
Is there a gift here? Yes. One day you’ll meet Charles, because he’s mine. He’s me. He’s in my blood and he built my family. He was thrown off again and again, but he kept coming back. He made silly mistakes and enormous blunders, but despite the forlorn look of his once sturdy homestead on the hill, his blood courses the veins of the generations that have followed.
Every generation since then feels the pull of the orphaned and abused. He could have kept his story a shameful secret (and there’s lots more to tell), but he told it. He spoke of his love and shame and sadness, but also of the time he met with Clemens again in adulthood. God stepped in, he said, because if Clemens had not hidden away in a friend’s wagon, Charles may have killed him.