Monday, April 28, 2014

Slipping through a door into the past



"In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage - to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness." -- Alex Haley, Roots

In 1977, fourteen year old Wendy, like many people all over the world, became entranced by the mini-series Roots.



Immediately thereafter I bought a family tree workbook




and set to work interviewing my two sole remaining grandparents: my father's father and my mother's mother.

I am glad I did.  Not only did I hear some stories and learn bits and pieces about whom I was descended from, I got to spend some valuable time with my grandparents.

My grandfather wrote out copious notes for me:




and was so pleased that I cared enough to ask him about his parents and grandparents.  He was born in 1900, so the people he was talking about were long gone.  He's been gone since 1980, but his stories are in my mind, and he is in my office, keeping watch, ever helpful.




My mother's mother shared stories of how she met my grandfather and life in New Zealand where she was born.



Lately, I have been looking at this information again.  I am working on another book, and some of the characters will be loosely based on long-dead relatives on my dad's side.

As part of my research, I was working on Ancestry.ca, which I love, and I came across the name of a family member whom I didn't even know still lived in the province.  He was on my dad's mother's side, a part of my family history that I didn't know very well.

But my 91 year old cousin does.  And he is still engaged and interested in the world around him, this cousin of my dad's, grandson of my great-grandparents.

I'd never met him.  So I cold-called him.  And we chatted and chatted and yesterday, Barry and I spent the afternoon with him.

I walked into his apartment and I felt like I was walking into the home of a long-lost friend.  We were cousins.  My grandmother was his aunt.  We knew each other.  

We were of the same people.  We were family.

Out of the mists of time I was hearing stories of my great-grandparents, of my grandparents.  

I discovered things I'd never known, including the fact that my Great-Grandfather had been the Mayor of the town at one time.
 

J.R.Ayer
My great-grandfather's boot and shoe company

I learned about my cousin's war service and stories of his experiences as a 20 year old boy in England during the war. 

I got glimpses of personality, flashes of family stories, some oft-told, others only recalled in the moment yesterday when I asked a question.

We talked and talked and talked and god willing, we will talk again in July when Barry and I go visit him at his cottage.

He made names on birth, marriage and death certificates come to life for me. 

It was a mystical, magical afternoon, and when we got into the car at the end of the afternoon, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes at the gift that had just been given to me.

How many of us would have give anything to step back into time for even a brief moment to walk beside our great-grandparents, grandparents or parents when they were young?  To know their favourite food, who they kissed first, what they loved to read and learn about, what scared them or gave them joy?  We do not ask enough questions and then the person is gone, taking the real treasures of this earth with them.

There is a new field of genetic research, behavioral epigenetics, that is indicating startling evidence that the behaviours and experiences of our ancestors are imprinted at the molecular level of our DNA, including traumatic experiences.  You can read more about this here.  

My father's mother died when I was only three years old - I hardly remember her - but my cousin told me about a personality that was remarkably similar to mine and similar to the personality of my other grandmother, which explains a lot about me.
  



Is my love of gardening imprinted from her love of gardening?  

Is my silly giggle my own or has it been heard before in a parlour a hundred years past?  

Do I hate eggs because someone else hated eggs?  

Am I nostalgic because someone else was a hopeless (or hopeful) nostalgic?

On the night I was born, my mother ate a piece of chocolate cake with boiled frosting, which is one of the things I will eat if I ever have to choose a last supper.

“We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.” —Shirley Abbott

It doesn't matter really, though it is interesting to think that my desire to own shoes might be less about a compulsion for consumption than about the fact that my great-grandfather made shoes for a living.

Tangential to say the least, but fascinating nonetheless.  So today's clarion call is this: if you have an elderly relative, make them talk!  Write it down, tape the conversation, do whatever it takes to preserve the moment.  Do not wait and do not be shy.

When we hugged goodbye (we had moved from handshake to being family in three hours) my cousin said that I reminded him so much of my father's sister that is was remarkable. 

But of course, the woman he was remembering was a women in the 1950's.  It was high praise indeed, as my aunt was one of the loves of my life.

Our families are uniquely our own.  To tell the stories of our family, to know their stories, is to keep them alive.

“We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.” —Maya Angelou

me and my long-lost cousin, reunited - isn't he handsome?

The stories are there, we need but scoop them up and bring them back to life...

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying. (Herrick)

After we left we drove by the house where my grandmother lived and where my father lived during the war.  We drove through the graveyard and I am sure I caught a glimpse of my grandmother standing by her parent's grave.

But it might have been the tears in my eyes.



45 comments:

  1. That is a great story on your roots Wendy and I've had a similar experience tracing my family with a lot yet to go. Epigenetics is a fascinating subject and I've never heard about it before now.
    Now as for Alex Haley and Roots which is causing so much controversy at The History Channel. The BBC discredited virtually his entire story and Haley had to pay a $650,000 plagiarism settlement back in 1978 to the author of the book he stole his story from.

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    1. Yes, I had heard about the Hailey controversy, but I still love the miniseries! It was so compelling! Isn't working on family history fascinating?

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    2. Roots was a great mini-series which I was also riveted to; I absolutely love making these discoveries as my paternal Grandfather's parents both died 6 months apart when he was 17 which so traumatized him he never ever spoke of his family so we didn't even know their names until I went to ancestry.com and started digging. I found some fascinating characters who I absolutely feel their behavioral dna is coursing through my veins and that epigenetics you've just alerted me to has me fascinated!

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    3. It is so wonderful that we have these resources that make it so much easier now! I love the idea of behavioural epigenetics, since we call all see the physical resemblance between ourselves and others. It was such a gift to have him bring the past alive for me!

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  2. I love this!!!! Thanks so much for sharing.

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  3. Wow, you are just beaming in that picture. What a treasure you unearthed in your research. I think their is a time in our lives when we yearn for knowledge of our ancestors...or at least we are not quite as "me" centered.

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    1. It's funny - my personality is such that I have always been obsessed with this stuff, but now I have a little more time to spend to do more and get it organized for my children and grandchildren (and myself). One of the neatest things was discovering that through my grandfather's mother we are connected to Plymouth - second boat over and younger brother of the first governor. I doubt she ever knew that!

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  4. Wendy, this is a lovely piece, I hear the Globe and Mail calling!

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    1. Thanks Patricia! I think they have lots who write like this unfortunately!

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  5. Ah, Wendy, connecting and reconnecting and staying connected, how lovely.

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  6. Oh Wendy, what a fabulous adventure, meeting your cousin!! I've done some searching on ancestor.com and come to the conclusion that we are all from a very connected place.
    I am probably your only commenter who will say, I never watched Roots on TV. I just don't like TV.
    When I hunted, my family was spread so far and wide across Canada, I got the feeling, I might be related to everyone! Interesting concept, behavioral epigenetics. I've never heard of it, but will do some more reading. You do bring the most interesting topics to the table my friend. Enjoy your day. xoxo

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    1. it's funny, I don't watch much TV now, but when Roots came on it was a very big deal in our house and we all watched it together. As I got down through all the different branches of my own family tree I discover we were everywhere too, but mostly down the eastern seaboard, Scotland and England.

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  7. How amazing Wendy this is wasted as a blog post, it's too good for the like of us! He looks wonderful for 91, what an emotional weekend day that must have been.
    Epigenetics and gene expression in the medical context not behavioural context is my big love, one of the few lures that will actually make me buy a book and read it.

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    1. Ha! I'll collect these all for my memoir! He looked fantastic for 91, not frail at all.

      As soon as I started to read about behavioural epigenetics it made perfect sense given the research on the physical aspect of us and oddly enough, I began to wonder about the merit of past-life regressions. Maybe want people are mistaking there for their own past lives are really the lives of their ancestors....kind of airy-fairy but interesting!

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  8. What an amazing story and how lucky you were to find your cousin - maybe luck isn't the right word as I'm sure hard work on research was involved!
    It's such an interesting subject, I wish I'd have aske my Grandparents more about our history.

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    1. Actually Jay, there was almost no research required. it was almost as if the universe was directing him towards me!

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  9. FAMILY TIES Wendy there is a story of its own in here. Your cousin has a twinkle in his eye and so do you. What a wonderful commitment and afternoon. Funnily enough, my Dad's massive and convoluted family have their tree traced all the way back to England in the 1500s, including the actually brought back over the Atlantic and married Little White Flower. My mother's was much more reticent and focused on the present. Wish I had asked my namesake great aunt more questions when I was young (family spinster memory and storyteller.) But am going to connect with my uncle and dig through the little trove he has.

    By the way, in best possible way, I envy you the tangible past of things like your family tree book. Moving and hurricanes not conducive to much keeping. And I loved spotting that photo of your paternal grandfather again.

    So glad you are enjoying exploring your tribe.

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  10. We are same - in fact one family line (out of dozens!) can be traced back to 1300s in England. The English really kept good records - too bad they didn't allow the Scots to do the same! ;-) It is a time-consuming task however and my eventual dream is to put it all together into one book that can be copied for my brother and sister and their families.

    I have carried that family tree book with me across Canada twice and to 8 different apartments - it has never left me!

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  11. Wonderful post Wendy. I love Ancestry.com.... I used it to find family in England, looked at census forms for addresses they lived in, and then on google maps walked the street to see the houses they lived in all those years ago. Fascinating.
    The series "who do you think you are" often touches on Epigenetics.... one Australian version featured a very well known Aussie comedian, Rove McManus. He was the "black sheep" of his family, as they were all very talented in sport - loved sport, passionate supporters of sport... whereas he would spend all his time doodling in a notebook, and of course was very funny when he did stand up. Eventually they traced his family back to one of the very early settlers in South Australia, and found his Great-Great-Great grandfather (I think it was) did the exact same doodles as him, and had the same sense of humour. There was a book of his in the State Library. It was uncanny. So despite no one else in the family for many generations having this shared personality trait, it came out eventually. Fascinating. xxx

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    1. I love that series too Heidi - so interesting!

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  12. Wonderful blog post and how interesting that you were able to meet this cousin! He is very handsome and seems like a lovely man. Congratulations on your new-to-you family member, it seems you made fast friends!

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  13. Beautifully written post, Wendy! Your cousin is amazing for 91 ( will not show MLane all the hair he has--superb) and a treasure for you to now have in your life. Fascinating how far you can trace back. Even small mannerisms seem to be coded for in our DNA.

    I can trace back to central Sweden to 1700's as the church kept good birth/marriage/death records. In the 80's we visited an elderly relative by marriage in the little town we hale from and there, on his coffee table, was a photo album with my baby picture in it, sent by my grandfather. He spoke no English at all, but we got the gist of things.

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    1. I love stories like that Lane! I think the connections will out every time!

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  14. My relatives have traced us back a long way and I'm still pouting that I do not seem to be in line to any thrones. Impossible!

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    1. Oh but there are many lines from both your parents' sides.. I bet you are in there somewhere - some descendant of a French king...

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  15. This is one of your best works ever Wendy! What a great reminder to stop and smell the roses each day before their season ends.

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  16. Wendy, this is a beautiful post. I am fascinated by genealogy and (as a social historian) can't help but want to document everything! When I was a little girl, I used to ask my grandparents about their lives, how the met, their parents, etc and I have a pretty complete mental picture. Like you, I should write it down!

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    1. Writing it down and labelling photos is a must. I just wrote my cousin a thank you note and sent him a copy of this picture and I not only put our names, but also how we were related to one another on the back!

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  17. What a lovely post Wendy. I believe we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking to the past. My mother's ancestry is mapped back to the 1700's and there are some very interesting characters along the way.

    Your cousin is indeed handsome and now I see that your beautiful skin is a family trait!

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  18. What a great trip into your past. I am sure the visit left you with more inspiration for your new book. Great post!

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  19. I hope when I am ancient someone as interested and as interesting as you comes to talk to me on a Sunday afternoon.

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  20. Oh Wendy, first my apologies. I allowed the whole Alex Haley controversy to darken my mood which didn't put me in the right frame of mind when I first read your post.
    Upon a 2nd reading now with the dark cloud lifted; this is such a beautiful story beautifully told and you brought a tear to my eye.
    Upon taking up my own research, I just missed a great Uncle we had only a vague idea of who lived until 2010 who apparently lived an interesting life and could have unlocked many family mysteries. He died all alone.
    What I would give to have had that meeting with him you just had with your elderly cousin.

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    1. GSL - I missed a similar opportunity and did not want to miss another! I sent him a note yesterday with a copy of this picture and hope he enjoys it!

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  21. What a great chance discovery! It looks like you had an awesome time! I have one remaining grandparent (my mother's mother) at present, and not long after the girls were born, we spent some time sitting down and trying to map out her and my grandpa's families -- both the people she could remember and who was related to whom, as well as all of the little anecdotes she could remember. My family came to the US in the early 20th century and came from really rural areas in the Austrian Empire/Russia/Poland area and spoke no English. We have no records and in fact I don't know precisely where they even came from. Which is a bit too bad, as now that I am living in Europe, I find myself so curious about where it is we came from, and wanting to be able to go and visit the physical place, but it is impossible.

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    1. There are lots of records, though you need the time to do the research. I am only having real time to start working on this now. I am sure it isn't impossible, but might be herculean!

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  22. Wendy, this is a wonderful story! My grandmother had a life that would read like fiction; I was very close to her and heard many of her stories, but I wish that I had fleshed them out with her when I was grown. (She died when I was in my 20s.) Part of the problem was that most of her memories were painful ones and I was reluctant to bring it up unless she started that conversation...

    As an aside: a couple times a week after reading your posts, I will think "AH, I will do THAT" (much like Gerald and Piggy in Mo Willems kid series, if you know it) but it's sort of in my head... then out. Maybe I'm the source of my son's ADHD! (Altho, since it only seems to show up in his music and spanish classes, I'm not convinced that his ADHD isn't actually just a case of goofing off while bored... a behavioral trait that could have been from me too...)

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    2. well I am sure the source of my ADHD!

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Kindness is a virtue...