This is one of my favorite pictures from The Family Archives. It looks to have been taken when my grandmother Velma was in high school, at the age of perhaps thirteen or fourteen. Although the photograph is obviously posed, I now know from my research that her posing with a book was not at all a photographer’s (or a parent’s) affectation. Posing with a book at her fingertips would have been a true reflection of who she was. Funny, though–I remember her cooking for us, cleaning (although she first shooed us out of the house), and arranging wild flowers for the table–but I never actually saw her sitting and reading a book that I can recall.
Along similar lines, when I discovered her name listed in the Nova Scotia provincial records1 as having passed her each of her high school examinations, it gave me the strangest little thrill to see someone I had known in only one context, as my grandmother, in a completely different context.
I’m reminded of E.M. Forester’s explanation in Aspects of the Novel of the difference between flat and round characters:
In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve toward the round.
. . . .
The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. 2
I suppose this must be the family history paradox. We want to know more about our ancestors because of their connection to us. Yet at the same time, we want to take our close ancestors out of their immediate context (i.e., their relation to us) so that we can know them as fully-realized, three-dimensional people, rather than flat characters defined only by their relation to us.
1Journal of education: being the semi-annual supplement to the report of the superintendent of education for Nova Scotia, 3rd ser., VIII, no. 3 (April 1915): 93.
2E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1927), 67, 78.