On Researching Family Histories: Guest Post by Meg McInnis

tree-701968_640We are so pleased to present Meg McInnis, friend and mother of two, as our guest poster this week for At Issue.  Here she shares her ongoing journey of discovering her family’s historical pathways.  Enjoy!

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Perhaps it was growing up fatherless.  Perhaps it was looking at my somewhat eccentric family and wondering, how did we get like this? Whatever the reason, my interest in family history began early on.  I was lucky enough in Grade 8 to have an elective course in genealogy offered at my school.  I wrote letters to my grandmother and my great aunt in Germany and I received a wealth of information in return.  I was excited to be able to fill in my family tree for a few generations.

I found out that the family had lived as farmers in Westphalia since sometime in the seventeenth century.  There are holes in the narrative due to records being lost over time.  These people were tied to the land and even now the original farm is owned by descendants of the same family.

Imagine my delight when I discovered family tree searches online!  One day, I entered my elusive father’s name into ancestry.ca and got a hit.  I felt the excitement physically rising within me until I realized I was holding my breath.  The link took me to the family tree of his cousin and I began a correspondence with this wonderful man in England.  We traded information and I have a whole new set of interesting people to get to know, some rural, some in service like a groom who moved with his family from Lincolnshire to London.  I even have a publican in my tree.

The imagination is a wonderful thing.  From a few facts we can get a glimmering of  the person’s life, like the sailor who is last mentioned at age 38, or the railroad worker who was beheaded by an engine, or the widows who somehow raised their children in a time when there were no pension plans.

I can happily spend hours looking up records to look for clues as to what might have happened to them.  It is a never-ending puzzle.  And when I find an answer, I can happily share it with my family.

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Family History: a map for the adventure of life

larch-forest-358059_640Last month I had an incredible experience. I was present for the birth of my nephew. It’s not the first birth I’ve been present for, I have three sons of my own, but it is the first where I was fully overwhelmed by the intensity of the situation. I wasn’t listening for my cue to push or holding my breath and bearing down. I was just there, committed to the moment, and as trite as it sounds, witnessing the miracle life. And what a miracle it is.

When my nephew took his first breath I was unprepared for the flood of emotions. Unlike the birth of my own children, at a time when my adrenaline was pumping and my heart exploding with love and gratitude, I was enveloped by a fury of anxiety and devotion. This perfect little person came into the world more loved than most with years of life to live.

And life can be messy. Life can hurt.

But knowing family that will always support him and stand by him through the valleys and peaks of life, will give him the courage to get messy. To get hurt.

When we’re born, we’re born into a family with complexities, eccentricities and deep-rooted psychologies. We’re not simply a mash-up of genetic material. We’re a complicated, mash-up of generations upon generations.

And if for nothing else, preserving my family’s history serves as a map for the adventure of life.

The Many Faces of Preserving Family History

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We’ve devoted this month to family histories because we are, quite simply, captivated by them. They feature in Beth-Anne’s, Nathalie’s and my life in various forms, not least of which our efforts to capture what is happening in our lives with our families now, which we know will become historical soon enough.

I love to listen, and have listened, for hours to my elders telling me stories of their lives.  I’m most struck by content of these family stories, but form can also be mesmerizing. There was the breath-taking quilt hand felted and stitched by a older friend who wanted a way to commemorate the pile of sweaters her mother left when she died.  Or the one I saw online that salvaged the favourite pieces of clothing of her children. Or a handmade item, like the sweater my mother-in-law knit for my husband bearing his name across the chest, that all three of my children have worn in turn.

Then there are photo books, photo walls and even birthday cards that depict the highlights of the year. The video footage, the journals, the personalized children’s stories or songs or paintings created by the people who love them most. The carefully saved letter stacks, the elaborate family trees, the sepia images captured on slides or cracked photo paper.  I’m greedy for all of it.

Here on the blog, over the last few weeks, we’ve given some windows into preserving our own histories, and this week, we’re delving into this domain a bit more. To share what we’ve done to document and capture what it is that makes up who we are and the ones we hold most dear.  Maybe talk a bit about what efforts we’ve undertaken and what has worked, and maybe also about what has stalled or been let alone altogether. Trying to preserve memories reflects a bit of the scope and depth of the histories themselves, and we hope you’ll find it as interesting as we do.

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My Grandmother’s Teacups

003When Nathalie first proposed the topic for this week – how a single object recounts some part of our family history – I knew this was a simplified project for me.  This is because there are only two older objects in my possession to choose from.  One is a batik sarong from my mother’s eldest sister; the other is a set of teacups from my maternal grandmother, who I saw for the last time as a four year old, and who I don’t remember.

I’ve opted to tell you about the teacups. A few years after my mother immigrated to Canada with me and my two siblings, she received word that my grandmother was dying.  My mother got on a plane for a final goodbye, too late in the end, and these teacups eventually came back with her.

There are five of them, blue and white.  I think they are made of porcelain. I don’t know whether they were once accompanied by a teapot; neither does my mother remember.

I don’t know if they were used for drinking, either for everyday or for special tea ceremonies, or whether they were ornamental items.  I don’t know whether they were treasures handed down to my grandmother or whether she bought them at the corner stall.  I don’t know where they were made, or the meaning behind the images on them, and have never tried to learn.  I have no idea if they are valuable or not, and couldn’t be less interested.

I do know that my mother has let me have them.  They sit atop a high ledge that surrounds my dining room, about a foot away from each other, and high enough that they are as secure as they can be from my three playful boys. Even so, it’s possible that a ball or plane or other projectile could shatter one (but hopefully not the others as they are interspersed). While the children are young, the only truly safe alternative is to put them away, out of view, and this I will not do.

When my mother came to Canada with her three kids and little else, she left quite a lot in Malaysia:  a large, close-knit family, a career as a nurse/midwife, a good standard of living, a life she built with her husband before he suddenly died.  For reasons only she will really know, she doesn’t, or can’t, talk much about the things she left behind.  I used to wonder about this, question it, evaluate it, because I so much wanted to know something, anything, more.

I don’t do this much anymore. I have my grandmother’s teacups, and I will be careful with them.  And if I’m not mistaken, it gave my mother some pleasure when I put them up on my dining room ledge.

Family Heirlooms According to a Purger

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Yesterday,while other families spent the day outdoors enjoying the soaring temperatures and sunshine followed by a festive display of fireworks, I spent it indoors doing something that gives me great pleasure.

Purging.

Closets, drawers and cupboards that is.

I delight in giving things the toss to the donation bin or garbage bin, it doesn’t matter; the high I get is the same. Thankfully, my partner in life shares my need for clutter-free living. Some extol the comfort they feel in keeping playbills and movie stubs, bric-a-brac and dated magazines, first teeth and hair clippings. I simply can’t relate.

Years ago we moved house and before any piece of paper, item of clothing or page of a book was packed, it had to pass muster. Do I really need this? Do I really want this? Have I looked at/used/wore/thought about it the past year? The past two years?

I held up a stack of my wedding programs. Toss. The pale blue cardstock littered the recycle bin save for one. A small shoebox overflowing with cards and letters was given the once over before dumping much of its contents in with the programs. I have saved a few items: baptismal outfits and meaningful, heart-felt cards and pictures (rarely get rejected), but for the most part, rightly or wrongly, I like to attach my emotions to people and memories and not to stuff.

I am not a complete Scrooge. I do own things that I care deeply about. Our champagne flutes that I carried around Europe on my back come to mind. Recently there was a casualty and our set of 6 diminished to the odd number of 5. My husband and I both looked at the cracked glass, and for a minute there was a moment we wished we could turn back the clock and be just a bit more careful, but it was short lived and I mitigated the blues by toasting the fun times we’d had with that glass.

The pottery my boys made, the hand-knitted blankets and sweaters, and my grandmother’s ring are among the material things that I own and would be sad to lose because they are truly irreplaceable.   I like to think that I have a carefully curated collection of material items from books to clothing that won’t burden my sons too terribly when I die.

I don’t expect the boys to keep much, and I’ve made the task an easy one. Just like my mother and grandmothers (all extremely Spartan women), I have little to bequeath.

But if I am to tell the tale of our family’s history through one object, it is one that is explicitly off-hands to curious, little fingers. It is the cake topper that adorned my grandparents’ wedding cake 67 years ago.

The bride and groom are stoic, with linked arms and pursed expressions, as if knowing that marriage and the years ahead are not made of taffeta and butter cream.

This small, ceramic figurine serves as a reminder of the long marriages that make up my family’s tree. Certainly they weren’t marriages without flaws and struggle. Certainly they weren’t marriages that were perfect or even near to, but certainly they were marriages built on something to last decades and serve as the foundation for a generous number of descendants.

When the time comes, many years from now, for my family tree to add branches, I will carefully pass the bride and groom down to my boys to serve as a symbol of unity, commitment and yup, hard work.

Creating a Family History Book

age-2569_640A few years ago the show Who Do You Think You Are? debuted on TLC. I tuned in mostly because family history, and not just mine, has always fascinated me. I remember my high school friend telling me stories about her German grandparents and their experience during WW2. I hung on her every word. Another friend shared with me her mother’s first love and how after decades they reconnected and rekindled their romance. When she tells the story, I picture her young mother, ever the Bohemian, with her long, tawny blonde tresses matching her long, tanned legs traipsing the English countryside with her beau. Recently a friend started to tell me about her family’s lengthy Parisian history and I made her stop so I could get myself a hot chocolate and really hunker down and listen to her stories.

I love hearing about where people have come from. The colourful characters that make up a family, the experience that turned the fortune of a family, how generations influence and hold power, consciously or unconsciously . . . I can’t get enough of it.

It didn’t take many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? for me to fall down the rabbit hole at Ancestry.ca. I spent countless hours clicking through the website and more money than I care to admit on my membership. Every day I discovered something new about my family and the proof was there – a signature on a marriage certificate scrawled by my great-grandmother, a death certificate of baby only few living relatives know about, a census record indicating settlement in the exact neighbourhood my husband spent his childhood.

The information was plentiful and I knew that I wanted to preserve it for my own children. After researching the merits of several Etsy artists and their family trees, I knew that I wanted something more and a book, that I could design, was the best way for me to compile the information I had gathered.

I used the on-line book making website, Blurb, and had great success in creating my book. I am now in the final stages of editing and I feel ambivalent to hit publish. A family’s history is never really told. There are stories that have been buried long ago and stories that have yet to be told.