Telling our family stories: Jack and the woman with no fortune


There was once a poor boy named Jack who grew up in England. This was long ago, before iPads, iPhones—well, you get the idea. The only “i” was in yourself. And Jack had a lot of it. He was quick-fitted young fellow and could spin a tale or two.

Somewhere along the way, he learned how to tell a fortune using a simple deck of playing cards. He would ask his supplicant to shuffle the deck, then would deal out a selection of the cards on the table. Next, he would examine the chosen cards to weave a story for his listener. Hearts represented love, of course. Diamonds were for wealth, clubs for good fortune, and spades for misfortune.

Jack left England with the rest of his family in 1926, immigrating to Canada at the age of fifteen. They ended up in northern Alberta, Grande Prairie to be exact, where the winters were long and tough, the nights dark and cold. It was the perfect stage for a storyteller like Jack. Even though Jack’s family came from a humble background, and they could always use another coin, Jack never accepted money for his fortune telling. These were hard years for everyone, after all, and no one seemed to have it easy. Jack’s fortunes were a way to provide a little bit of hope, a little bit of succor, during those times. As such, neighbors from near and far would make their way to Jack’s family home on those frigid nights, pining to hear the young man entertain them for a few hours.

One night, a particularly large crowd showed up at the house. As everyone huddled around the kitchen table, near the old wood oven, Jack pulled out his worn deck of cards and, glint in his eye, began telling fortunes.

One of the people who came that night was Old Bess. Despite her nickname, Old Bess really wasn’t that old. It was that hard prairie living that perhaps made her look so hard and (some say) grim. She and her husband were the closest neighbors to Jack’s family, but she rarely attended Jack’s theatre. Some said it was because she was superstitious and a bit afraid of Jack’s dabbling with the “devil arts.”  Others said she didn’t take it seriously at all, but in fact thought it was all a lot of “hogwash.” Still, others said she was just shy, or patient, feeling that she had all the time in the world to hear what Jack had to say about her future.

Well, this was the night that Old Bess finally took a turn at Jack’s table. The hour had passed midnight, and everyone had heard his fortune when Old Bess’s husband encouraged her to have a seat in front of Jack to hear her future.

“Just a bit of fun, after all,” he claimed.

Jack himself was feeling weary after spinning so many stories, but Old Bess’s husband seemed eager. So Jack passed the deck to Old Bess and asked her to shuffle it, cut it, and select her cards. Then he placed the chosen cards down in front of her and gazed down to discern her future.

He saw nothing.

The cards were simply not speaking to him anymore that dark night. It wasn’t that the cards were blank—as always, there was the typical combinations of suits, the same mixture of face cards with numbers. A certain queen sidled next to a seven, a sword-bearing kings taunted a clever-looking jack, a particular ace stood off to the side, all alone. But Jack could weave no story from their faces, tug no thread from their tapestry.

I must be too tired, Jack thought with a yawn. My brain’s gone fuzzy.

He apologized to Old Bess and told her he had run out of rhythm for the evening. “Come back next Saturday,” he told her. “I’ll let you have first turn.”

Old Bess agreed and everyone cleared out of the house. Jack fell straight to sleep, but his slumber was not entirely peaceful.

Which, in retrospect, was not that surprising. He woke up the next day, walked into the kitchen to find Old Bess’s husband sitting with his parents at the kitchen table. “Bessie died during the night,” the neighbor man said.

If you asked Jack, it was all just a coincidence. But after that, folks weren’t quite so eager to line up to have their fortunes told by the poor boy from across the ocean with the glint in his eye.

* * *

Well, that is a true story. Mostly true, anyway. Or as true as I know. It’s mostly the way I heard it, though I added a name to the neighbor woman in the story, because no one ever gave her a name and I feel she ought to have one. As for Jack, he was real enough—he was my maternal grandfather, and he was quite the storyteller. He especially loved telling tales over a deck of cards. He told many fortunes to friends and family over the years—including me.

Here’s a photo of Grandpa Jack and his family on the ship coming over to Canada. My grandfather is in the back row, second from the left:

Grandpa Wills family on the boat.jpg

Retelling this story about my grandfather is how I began Class 2 of the new workshop series I’m teaching this term. The program is called CWC Family Stories for the Creative Writing for Children society.

The students have been exploring their identities through the lens of family stories and family history. Last week, I had them write a short poem about a moment of connection with a family member. The truth is that they’ve had some trouble accomplishing this assignment—but that’s okay. After all, improving their ability to express themselves is one of the reasons they are taking the class!

In a future post, I’ll publish the poem about my Grandpa Tom (my other grandfather) that I chose to write as way of example for them.


4 thoughts on “Telling our family stories: Jack and the woman with no fortune

  1. I love the picture of your grandfather and his family as they travelled to their new home in Canada. My grandfather was quite a storyteller as well. He arrived, by boat in 1911. A great tale and a perfect exercise for the students.

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