- Written by Roberta Rivett
Rawd's Display Boards 2012
It seems there are no limits to the ways family history can be documented.
In the past two decades I have compiled and printed three score books and more coming. They are similar only in broad strokes: their origins and the material used to make them all differ. Many of them fall roughly into categories, for example those based on letters, those based on diaries or journals and those based on stories. One of the most challenging, largely because it was physically awkward, was made from the display boards of the Rempel and Thiessen families of Great Deer, Saskatchewan.
One of the principles governing my family history efforts is making family history accessible to the family. Diaries in tiny cramped handwriting must be deciphered and transcribed to be accessible, and footnoted to be comprehensible. Photographs without captions are meaningless two generations later. Display boards are accessible only at reunions where they can be seen.
My first cousin John Rawdon Bieber, called Rawd, was a family historian from his late teens. He made a point of seeking out the elders on both sides of his family, to sit with them and invite them to talk about their lives. He made copious notes and intended to make books of these family histories. This did not happen; he died in his fifties, having outlived medical prediction of a year to live by seven years. One of the projects he did complete was in the form of display boards, ten panels three feet by four feet intended to show the descendants of his great-grandparents, one being Elizabeth Niebuhr of the Aron line - the mother of his grandmother (and mine) Katharina Thiessen Rempel.
Not long before he undertook this project, the descendants of our grandparents Katharina and her husband Jacob Rempel had begun to have regular family reunions. To the third of these in 2002 in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Rawd brought his display boards. Through the period of the reunion his cousins and their families pored over them. Because of his in-depth research of the families, he had on display many pictures and stories which were new to the cousins. He took orders for making duplicates of the photographs.
There have been six Rempel Cousin reunions, the last in 2011 in Canmore, Alberta. There was the wish to continue them but the will was not present among us -- many of the cousins by 2011 were in or nearing our eighties. The passion for family history which was strong in Rawd and influenced others in our generation was not to be found, at least not to the extent of taking on the work of planning a reunion, in our younger generation. The value of the display boards, however, continued.
Shortly after the Canmore reunion, Rawd arranged for the display boards to come to me, which they did through the efforts of several of the cousins in a long chain. While ideally suited for display at a reunion, the boards are large and difficult to transport. My sister and I decided to transfer their content, word for word and picture by picture, to the pages of a book, and this was done. Picture us, I at the keyboard, and Mary struggling with reading off the extended captions and the stories from those boards! The pictures were easily removed to be scanned and included; the texts were glued down. We felt the effort was worth it. We made forty or so copies and sent them to all of the cousins and to a few other people we thought should have them. The display boards and the books made from them are but two of the ways by which Rawd's memory lives on.
When he approached his final illness, Rawd arranged that after he died, his family history material about the Rempels and the Thiessens would come to me, to do with it what I could. In August of this year, I heard from Rawd's spouse that the material would be on its way to me in a few weeks -- five or six boxes of it. I contemplated the arrival of the material with both excitement and a certain amount of dread. I am always excited with the arrival of new family history material, whether it be a listing of the changes in a cousin's family to be entered into the family tree database, or a "box of old stuff" which may contain wonders. The feeling of dread relates to my age, and the time and effort that will be required to make Rawd's material accessible to the extended family while I am still functioning well enough to complete the work.
There were just two of us among the thirty-odd people, grandchildren of Katharina and Jacob Rempel, who felt passionate about family history. My sister Mary and our brother Barry are interested, but not passionate about it; while they have been helpful, they have not initiated family history books or other material. Cousins Phyllis Siemens and Margaret Mehler are also interested and Phyllis has indeed produced a book, Kirghizstan to Canada, 2009, and Margaret has produced family calendars. I have detected no more than mild interest among my children's generation, which is why there have been no more Rempel cousin family reunions. That leaves those boxes of Rawd's to me and whoever of my nearest family can be persuaded to aid me. Some days the burden of being committed to connect FAMILY past, present and future is heavy, but I intend to shoulder it with enthusiasm and carry on, confident that the excitement of learning ever more about my forebears will keep me at it.
There will be another blog soon about Rawd's family archive. It arrived while I was in hospital for hip replacement surgery; David opened the boxes a couple of days after I was home. I have been working on it ever since. I have missed Rawd SO MUCH while working on his files that I need to call him consciously to my mind, which I have done by writing a running letter to him. I think this letter will become a part of a book entitled Dear Rawd. In it I tell him what I am doing with his archive, the challenges, the discoveries, the fascination of knowing him probably better from his archive than I did in person.
- Written by Roberta Rivett
The following are two versions of the same thing, written about ten years apart. The partial duplication is due to my incompetent system for filing my writing. The piece below was written in early 2018; the following draft was written much earlier. This may be due also to the nature of change as we age.
Grandma’s Notebook 2
In my 2017 entry entitled Poetry II, I noted that I had been working on making a book of my grandmother’s notebook. Now I want to reflect on how that little notebook affected my thinking about family, about writing family histories, and indeed, about poetry.
I knew my paternal grandmother well as a child. My parents and siblings and I lived in the Cottage across the garden from the Big House, where lived Grandma and Grandpa and their adult children, Aunt Elsie and Uncle Harry. Hired men came seasonally, sleeping in the bunkhouse and eating on alternate weeks at the Cottage or the Big House.
When I was nine, we left Valley Springs Ranch to live in the village of Borden. Then our contact with our grandparents was much less but they continued to be an influence, although more distantly. They both died in the early 1950s, she at 83 and he a couple of years later at 93. After that it was just memories.
After high school and nursing training my path took me to the East Coast, following my air force husband. Thereafter we remained in Ontario in cities until we retired in 1993 to Victoria. My sister Mary had lived near our parents in Victoria for many years before that, and inevitably she fell heir to many family treasures as our parents began the process of divesting themselves of THINGS. One of the treasures was a battered little notebook, the cover detached and the individual pages capable of being shuffled like a deck of cards. Clearly, it was in need of preservation, and failing to know how to preserve it physically I undertook to preserve its contents. My daughter transcribed most of the entries, and we ended up with a nice little book of the material which was important to my grandmother (her great-grandmother) in the ten years from age 16 to age 25 – teenager to young married woman with two of her future eight children born. We don’t know if she continued with this notebook habit thereafter; only the one notebook was preserved to be handed down. But it seems to me that thinking about what my grandmother thought was worth noting in her nicely legible handwriting might reflect her views, values and indeed character.
Among the entries was a very odd little poem, a clipping tipped in rather than transcribed. I think I had read the poem several times, trying to make sense of it, before I read the title! The poem is made up of single lines from a great many poems (that every Victorian child should know!) This explains the odd familiarity of the occasional line, such as “In days of Auld Lang Syne,” “And I will pledge with mine,” “The Walrus and the carpenter,” “Came peeping in at morn” and “Kind hearts are more than coronets.” And these give evidence of how far I fell short with respect to knowing the “poems every child should know.” Determined to root out ALL of the poems represented by each line, I turned to the Internet, which was remarkably helpful. After some thought, I included all or part of the original poems as appendices in the volume Martha Hinde’s Notebook. I include the footnote I prepared for the Nonsense Verses, at the beginning of Martha Hinde’s Notebook.
Grandma’s Notebook I
It is a great thing to have ancestors who in some way made a record of their lives. Collections of letters, journals and diaries, notebooks of favourite poetry, school projects lovingly saved by parents, memorabilia of all kinds. Photographs. These can supply entry points for exploring the lives of our forebears. Most to be treasured are the stories written by our ancestors, their autobiographies, because with such stories we know those ancestors intended their words to be read in the future.
I am particularly blessed with ancestors who left records – all manner of records – of their lives. My present project involves the transcription of a notebook compiled by my paternal grandmother, from 1884, when she was fifteen, a girl living with her family in Derbyshire, England, until 1894, when she was a young married woman with two children and expecting a third, living in a suburb of Birmingham, England. That notebook was filled; there may have been others, but they have not come to my hands as this one did, from my grandmother to her son my father, to his oldest child my sister, and lent to me. I was aware of this book as a child; in my early teens I copied out one of the poems from it, having been told by my father that his mother had used it in smoky Birmingham on the rare clear night to teach him the constellations and the principle stars. This teaching verse begins:
Where yonder radiant host adorn the northern evening sky,
Seven stars - a splendid waving train - first fix the wandering eye.
To deck Great Ursa’s shaggy form these brilliant orbs combine;
And where the first and second point, there see the North Pole shine.
There are 35 more verses; the language of the poem is Victorian but rhyme and scansion make it a verse possible to memorize – at least in the late Victorian era when memorization played a considerable role in education. The Internet offers one reference to this verse, in The Midnight Sky at London, first published in 1869; it too quotes the first two verses, however substituting Polaris for North Pole.
Picturing my grandmother pointing out the stars and constellations to the boy who was to be my father has set me to contemplating the mind of my grandmother, as revealed by her choice of the poetry she carefully copied into her notebook. Further, while reading her choices and looking them up on the Internet for date and history of the author and context, I have been compelled to think about the nature of the education she received in the late Victorian period in England in comparison to the education I received on the Saskatchewan prairies in the mid-20th Century.
Children now are not called upon to memorize as a central component of their basic education. Memorization was central to my Grandmother’s education, and was still in the education system half a century later and an ocean away in mine. The poetry she liked, and the poetry implicit in the “nonsense verse” on a clipping tipped into her notebook do, I think, give me a sense of her mind and how she saw the world, complete with Victorian sentimentality and Quaker sensibilities. I knew my grandmother in the flesh only to the extent a child and teenager can know a family elder. I know her now, as a family elder myself, through what she thought was beautiful and memorable, worthy of a place in her notebook.
My grandmother’s notebook was a lined “scribbler”, soft-covered, and by the time it came to my hands 115 years after the last entry, it had lost most of its staples and glue which had held it together. I took it apart (with my sister’s permission) and put each page into a sheet protector, enclosing the whole in a loose-leaf binder. When this project – transcribing my grandmother’s notebook to make it accessible to her descendants – arrived at the top of my project pile, I asked my daughter – who had offered to help with my projects – to transcribe the contents.
She found the process unexpectedly difficult: not the technicalities of typing from the notebook into the computer but the words themselves, and the attitudes, the paradigms, the values which the words represented. She found herself conflicted, thinking about the content of that notebook and what it represented about the life and times of her ancestor.
That set me to wondering why I didn’t share her experience. Perhaps it is because this not the first book I have assembled from the writings and memorabilia of my forebears. For her it was the first, and she was not prepared for the impact it had on her. Perhaps I am somewhat immunized. Certainly much of the poetry is unappealing to contemporary sensibilities, but I enjoyed the light it shone on the mental and emotional life of my grandmother as a young woman. But Allegra was not enjoying the task she had undertaken. I am always delighted to have assistance with my family history projects but helping me with them is supposed to be fun! She had almost finished the transcription; I took it back from her and completed it myself and then worked on the formatting and footnotes.
One of the items in that notebook was a clipping from a newspaper. It was utterly baffling. It rhymed and the lines scanned but the content seemed to be utter nonsense. I pondered its meaning for some time, finally clueing in to a line in one of the ten four-line verses: “The Walrus and the Carpenter…” Re-reading the poem, I thought I recognized a couple of other lines, and turned to the Internet for help. Looking up one line at a time, I found that my suspicion was correct – each of the forty lines is one found in a poem which would be available to a child in the late Victorian era, those same poems probably constituting a significant part of that child’s education.
Having made this discovery – which I take it any child in a literate household a century and a half ago would have made instantly – I decided to put into my book of my Grandmother’s notebook the text of the poems represented by the lines in the puzzle verse. Here is the poem. Including most of the suggested poems occupied about ninety pages of the finished book.
POEMS EVERY CHILD SHOULD KNOW
By Carolyn Wells
Strike! For your altars and your fires!
In days of Auld Lang Syne,
Whose flag has braved a thousand years
And I will pledge with mine.
When the drum beat at dead of night,
The consul’s speech was low:
“Shoot if you must this old gray head!”
On the reef of Norman’s Woe.
“Come forth! Come forth, ye cowards all!”
Oh say, what may it be?
“Lie there!” he cried! “Fell pirate, lie!”
A scornful laugh laughed he.
Alas, alas, my Cumberland~ -
But hark! That awful sound!
When coldness wraps this suffering clay
Like noises in a swound.
The walrus and the carpenter
Came peeping in at morn;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Was yellow, like ripe corn.
A wet sheet and a flowing sea;
The fevered dream is o’er.
I never loved a dear gazelle
Loved I not honor more.
Next morn the baron climbed the tower,
And smit with grief to view
The daughter of a hundred earls, -
The soldier’s last tattoo!
Earl March looked on his dying child,
Whence all but him had fled, -
Before Vespasian’s awful throne,
Behind the Tuscan’s head!
It is not along my inky cloak
All buttoned down before;
Kind hearts are more than coronets
That round my pathway roar.
The combat deepens. On, ye brave!
A-hunting of the snark;
The plume of Henry of Navarre
Was bit off by a shark!
It took me the better part of three weeks to track down all of the sources of the forty lines in this verse. I think it was worth it, in a salutary sort of way. I enjoy poetry greatly, so my ignorance of so many of the standard poems from the Victorian age and earlier came as a bit of a shock!
- Written by Roberta Rivett
Some months ago I had word that a woman I knew was in the last stage of her life. I didn't know Lyn well but had met her a few times; she was cousin of my beloved friend Sue who had died earlier.
What can one do for a person who is dying, at a great distance, and not deeply well known? I asked her by email if she liked poetry. When she enthusiastically answered YES! I began writing to her every few days, including in my emails poetry that had meaning for me. Lyn was delighted, and this continued until she died, peacefully in her senior's residence suite, among friends.
The process of selecting poems for Lyn had its challenges. At first, realizing that many of my favorites referred to death directly or allegorically, I thought this might cut too close to the bone, but Lyn was pleased with my selections, commenting on them in detail. One of them, a childhood poem from my English grandmother, had Lyn analyzing the underlying theme, inclusiveness, which had been quite invisible to me before Lyn pointed it out. To me it just brought memories of my grandmother reciting it, without consideration of any deeper meaning.
Years earlier, in the fall of 2009, when my brother David was dying, cheerfully philosophical to the end, I wrote letters to him every few days, illustrating them with pictures of our shared childhood, and my favorite pictures of him as an adult. And years again before that, it was letters to my dear friend who had retired to England, and found that her cancer had returned after more than a decade silent and was now killing her.
Knowing what to say to a dying person, or what to do for him or her, is a problem for most of us, and we may resort to greeting cards which we hope may at least tell the dying that they are remembered. I recall going from card shop to card shop looking for one for a particular kinsman, and failing to find anything I could think of as appropriate. This triggered the thought that perhaps my own words are POSSIBLE, if I can only figure out what to say.
It helps when the dying are well aware of their situation, and expressions of hope from friends and relatives are simply wrong. It helps when you feel it possible to talk to them (email or letter or in person) about their situation. I have before me an email from Lyn in which she says in effect, "Yes, send me poetry. I know exactly where I am on my journey, and poetry will ease my separation from this world and give me something to think about other than whether it's time for my next pain pill."
So I sent her poetry. And earlier I sent my brother and my friend letters. I know that to the last, these emails and letters were read to the recipients by friends and family, the recipients being too weak to do so themselves.
I think that in this, there is an element of offering the dying a sense of what their legacy is in this world. Not just THAT they will be remembered, but HOW they will be remembered. I don't think many of us will be like Alexander Pope in our latter ends, in his poem Ode to Solitude, the last verse of which is:
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
Thus unlamented, let me die.
Steal from this earth and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
I think most of us would like to think there will be a memorial of some kind where those who knew us can go and commune with their memories of us. Less often now this is a gravestone, with people increasingly choosing cremations and natural burials, and burials at sea. My niece got a cherry tree in Beacon Hill Park, overlooking a rose garden where as a Guide she had planted roses. For us, we built a Memory Gazebo, with plaques in memory of those of our relatives and dearest friends, including pets, who have died. There we sit in fine weather, which here in Victoria, BC is early spring to late fall and indeed at times in winter. In high summer, surrounded by the memorials, we float on tides of memory with the scents and colors of flowers, the butterflies wafting on the breeze, and the gentle conversation and calls of the birds in our ears.