Disappearing Acts

A friend wrote me the other day, “One thing I was left very curious about was why this history sort of disappeared from your family lore.” It’s true. It did disappear. I didn’t grow up hearing about William Skinner or the Mill River Disaster. In fact, the only place where I even found a portrait of William Skinner was in our attic, hanging against the beams in a collage of old family photos. Nothing set him apart.

Strange, isn’t it. His name though had retained an air of reverence, no doubt because it was attached to the family company – “William Skinner & Sons.” Many cousins of mine were named after him and several women, like me, were named after his second wife, Sarah. (My full name is Sarah Skinner Kilborne.) Somewhere along the way I heard that William Skinner used to say, “Remember you are William Skinner’s descendants; make good in the world,” and I vaguely knew he was British. Apart from that, he was simply the mysterious patriarch of the family business.

Perhaps, one might wonder, there was some secret to hide? No, I don’t think so. I think the reason has to do with loss. While I was growing up, my father would tell me how painful it was for him to be unable to stop the sale of the business, which, by 1960, was more than a century old. He had grown up thinking that he, his brother and cousins would carry it on into the fourth generation, but the company was sold – within about ten days – in a hostile takeover during February 1961. So I grew up hearing about the sale of the company, not the growth of it. I grew up hearing about what the family had lost, not what William Skinner had built. And as for the flood, since it bore no consequence to the events of 1961, it played no part in the narrative I heard.

But of course if not for the flood and William Skinner’s course correction in its aftermath, his company would not have survived into the 20th century and would not have lasted for 113 years. Almost by accident I stumbled upon Skinner’s story myself, and, as I think about this, I am thankful no longer to be haunted by a sense of loss. Rather, I am buoyed by perspective and a sense of gain.

That portrait that once hung in the attic? It hangs in my office today, the man within it no longer a stranger but a subject – and relative – I’ve come to know well. So while much can be forgotten along the way over time, as one generation passes into another, much can also be remembered, given time. Stories are never over; there is always more to learn.

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