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.

Oral Personal Histories of Women I Love: A Winding Process

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No less than three times with three different people have I tried to compile and compose a personal history based on oral interviews.  First with my mother, then an elderly friend, and finally an aunt who was like a grandmother to me.  With my mother I just took notes, but with the next two women, I sat down for some beautiful, unforgettable hours and recorded interviews about all aspects of their lives.

The goal was grand: I wanted to transcribe the interviews, and extract and recount a narrative that reflected the woman’s voice and subjectivity, and convey all the fascination I felt for their lives.

Dear Reader, I failed.

I have learned a few lessons about oral storytelling though. For one thing, it takes eons to transcribe interviews and gives me a sore neck. Also, people do not talk in linear pathways, but take rambling strolls through memory, criss-crossing back and forth through time and across anecdotes, and don’t always bother with consistency (not to be confused with truth).  The most intense and interesting and integral revelations are often exactly the ones she will ask you not to include.  And that trying to piece together the vagaries of anyone’s life into tidy chapters that flow one to the next, and doing so with some decent literary texture, is a grueling and massive work.

Which is why I have three incomplete personal histories under my belt.

As suggested above, I viewed this, for a long time, as an utter failure. Two of the women I worked with have long passed away, and I presented neither with the book of themselves I had so clearly envisioned and told them about.  Their stories, their amazing stories, lie tucked away in cabinets or the recesses of my computer and no one knows them except me.

And yet… I’m not sure what has shifted for me exactly… maybe a greater appreciation for grey areas?… but recently I am not experiencing my unfinished projects as the defeats they once were to me.  It’s true I haven’t accomplished my written goals of preserving their lives, but I did take enough steps to at least preserve the ability to to do so.  Their stories are not public, but neither are they lost. At the least, I have the interviews, the raw data and materials that they shared.  With a bit of editing out to honour their wishes of what should not be shared, the histories of these women can be passed on, imperfect but intact, as they are.  Maybe my one of my sons, or my great grand niece should I be so lucky, will come across the files one day and do with them what I couldn’t, or something else entirely that I can’t imagine.  The chance has been preserved.

Or maybe it will be me who comes back to it.  It’s possible that the chance that has been preserved has been preserved for me, and the thought of this is as warming as the spring.  Maybe I will revisit these projects at a more right time and have better success pulling the pieces together, and the talk of failure will have even less hold than it does. I feel reassured by this possibility, how it brings me just that much closer to the lives of the women I love. They are remembered, and somehow with that, the process of preserving their history feels yet alive and well.