September 18, 2023 at 8:15 a.m.
By Larry Perkinson
I was raised on oatmeal and guilt. If I didn’t eat my oatmeal, I couldn’t go to school. If I did something wrong, I was given the look - that silent, searing parental glare that shouted, “You did what” and disappointment. Sometimes the look came halfway through breakfast, and I wished I could crawl under the hat William Penn displayed on the Quaker Oats box.
Telling the truth was a family expectation and failing to reach that high moral ground was unacceptable. After all, George Washington not only led our nation in war and in peace but did it honestly right from the get-go. At six he fessed up to cutting down the cherry tree. Evidently the truth not only set him free but also elevated him to historical greatness.
Fortunately, I enjoyed my morning oats, liked going to school, and loved books. Reading became an early obsession, especially if it was history-related, that has continued beyond the guidance of my teachers. Recently it followed Julie and me all the way to Washington DC where I came across an article “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” published by National Mall and Memorial Parks that challenged young George’s admission.
After President Washington died in 1799, Americans were hungry for his story. In stepped Mason Locke Weems, a minister and traveling bookseller who wrote an immediate bestseller, The Life of George Washington. Well, it wasn’t until the fifth edition in 1806 that Parson Weems included the cherry tree tale. Since the friend of the family who shared it chose to remain anonymous, the source is considered unreliable.
So, is the story gospel? Obviously, we have a good lesson that may be true but at best is more acceptable as a myth than a fact. Perhaps we have the forerunner to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In other words, if the story has value and works, let’s keep it going.
This article and information led me back to my childhood. Now I could care less if Mr. Weems ate oatmeal, but did he tell the truth? If not, did the Angels of History give him the look, or did they peacefully bury the hatchet (maybe the same one little George allegedly used) for the sake of giving generations of children a great role model?
None of this would concern me if I didn’t try to recollect and write down past events. Can any writer meet the family expectation of telling the truth? I once asked Jessamyn West, author of Friendly Persuasion, if her book was true. She stated that ten percent was true. The other 90 percent was filler that allowed the affairs of a Quaker family during the Civil War to be told. Whew! Telling ten percent of the truth seems a lot easier than telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Sometimes Julie gets asked about one of my stories. The reader wants to know if it really happened that way. Her response ignores the percentages and may capture what remembering is about and why most of the guilt is unnecessary.
“All of these stories are the truth. They may not be my truth. They may not be completely factual, but they are Larry’s truth.”