Ancestors Out of Context

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.

The Genealogist’s Impulse?

In my last post, I posed the question of the genealogist’s impulse, which was prompted by my memory of meeting a very distant cousin when my mother and I picked up a Moore genealogy packet from him during our 2007 trip to Economy. I was confounded by the thought of being connected to so many people through a common bloodline, but never knowing them, never even knowing of their existence. (The feeling was similar to thinking about death: the thought of ceasing to be and the thought of living forever are terrifying in equal measure.)

Could it be that the impulse to spend countless hours trawling census records, birth records, death records, marriage records, immigration records and every other conceivable record (cf. Cyndi’sList!) is a way of searching among the billions of tile pieces that make up humanity past and present to find the scattered pieces of our own bloodlines, carefully cleaning the accumulated dirt and grime from each piece and holding it up to the light to see its true color and if any of the original detail remains?  Does the impulse then take us one step further to form these tiles into a mosaic of found pieces and missing pieces, knowing all the while that the picture will never be completed?

I subscribe to several genealogy/family history blogs, and the common impulse I’m seeing is a desire to honor the life of each person who makes up the fragmented mosaic that is family: Here is a woman who once lived in this world, and her life mattered. Here is a child who didn’t survive his infancy, and his life mattered, too. Here is a troubled man who took his secrets to the grave: we won’t forget him, but we’ll let him keep his secrets.

For me, writing about my family in personal essay and poetry has always been a way to feel closer to them. (The impetus for fiction is different. It starts with an attempt to understand a family member and ends with a fictional character who is someone else altogether.)

I believe that the act of writing keeps the spirit of another alive in the writer. Publishing the writing in a blog, with its immediacy and potential for interactivity, seems to be the next natural link in the chain as  the act of reading keeps that same spirit alive in the reader.

If I’ve floated too far into the ether with this post, I promise I’ll come back down to earth next week.