Shoe-down-the-river stories and other backwaters of family history

Bath-times with the boy-child in days gone by.

Bath-times with the boy-child in days gone by.

I saw this and it reminded me of a time in the boy-child’s life when bath-time was a supervised, highly social activity. These days, if I accidentally stray within twenty feet of his bathroom whilst he’s abluting, it’s a capital offence, so you’ll understand that the time I’m talking about is long, long, ago.

Anyway, back in the day, when bath-time involved me sitting on the floor, making sure the boy-child didn’t drown and did actually get washed, we developed a kind of tradition where I’d tell what I hoped were amusing anecdotes from my childhood. He called these the shoe-down-the-river stories, after an incident where my little brother “borrowed” my shoe to use as a boat and floated it off down a river. Retrieving the shoe involved several men – including my father – getting comprehensively soaked and not a little grumpy. And I so hated those shoes.

The boy-child had a fairly endless appetite for such stories, though to be fair, this was probably a stalling tactic to avoid things he wasn’t that keen on. He spent years engaging me in conversation in the hope that by the time I’d finished talking, I’d have forgotten what it was I wanted him to do.


I suppose I’m fortunate to come from a family in which everyday life was sufficiently challenging that even the simplest activities could find us in situations that were at best ridiculous, at worst, slightly tragic. My father’s attempts at household economy alone could probably support a career in stand-up, had they not been driven by the reality of my mother’s spendthrift habits. Instead, my brothers and I have a fund of childhood stories involving useless household gadgets, trailer-loads of sweetcorn and exploding spaghetti.

The actual story-telling tradition comes from my mother. I know very little about my dad’s childhood, except that it was much more impoverished than my mum’s and perhaps it’s never stopped being too raw to joke about. My dad is actually a very sociable person, and quite a good storyteller; it’s just that the stories never cast him or his life in an even slightly negative light.

My mum on the other hand, although always the quieter half of the couple, has a wealth of silly stories which she happily re-tells. When I spent a few days with her recently, I found myself doing a version of the boy-child’s thing. I wanted her shoe-down-the-river stories – and over three nights and a couple of bottles of wine, I got them.

And I am so glad. To me, this verbal ephemera is as valuable to family history as any serious account of people and events. Our funny stories – especially those we share within families – help define us and strengthen the ties to our familial world. And as a family historian, I think collecting and recording the silly and the apparently trivial is absolutely vital.

And if all of this sounds like I’m justifying spending all those bath-time hours telling the boy-child about the time Grandad had to redecorate the neighbour’s bedroom ‘cos Uncle Craig drew all over their wallpaper with Grandma’s lipstick , well hey.

Of course, I hope my son will remember the stories, but even more I hope he will feel them as a blanket, enveloping him in the warmth that is family – past and present. And most of all, I hope that one day he will want to share the little memories of his own childhood.

I also hope that families everywhere collect and preserve the stories of their small, silly moments; the things that connect us and make us human.

12 thoughts on “Shoe-down-the-river stories and other backwaters of family history

    • Thank you Catherine; I’ve been re-telling Mum’s stories along with my own recently and am so loving the sharing process. 🙂

  1. 🙂 am home alone at the moment and can see my “to-do” list being abandoned while I get the camera out and start rehersing ….. AAAAGH!

  2. Pingback: A Ramsay picnic: Miners’ Gala, 1941 | Shaking the tree

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