August 1 - 3 2008 in Borden, Saskatchewan was the fourth Reunion of the grandchildren of Katharina and Jacob  Rempel.  Katharina's mother was Elizabeth Niebuhr of the Aron line.  In 1999 in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, in 2002 in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, in 2005 in Victoria, British Columbia and this year in Borden, the grandchildren gathered, and until this year, one of our elders as well.  Those of our elders still in this world are no longer able to attend, consequently the oldest of the cousins who attended, my sister Mary Crane,  reluctantly accepted the mantle of "Elder."   

You know you're old when you are the oldest person at a family reunion.

And I'm only fourteen months younger than Mary.

I have written in a general way  about family reunions in an earlier blog.  A month since I returned from the latest one, I find myself "written out."  I have written a couple of hundred emails and 43 letters in the last month, and the well seems to be running dry.  Perhaps time will offer perspective, and more words...and perhaps not.  Suffice it to say for now that it was - as always - a great experience.

The Borden Reunion was fun - more fun for me than the recent reunions have been because my responsibilities for ensuring everyone else had fun this time were minimal, unlike most of the earlier reunions.  As always, the best part of it was the visiting  - getting reacquainted with seldom-seen cousins, meeting their younger generations, collecting family history from the people who have married into the  Rempel-Thiessen lines.  In addition there were many activities and presentations and events which placed all of us into different configurations conversationally, and this offered new perspectives on old ideas.  

Our Mennonite ancestors pioneered in the Borden area, as did my Quaker forebears, and our roots there are deep.  

We are hoping that the 2011 reunion will be in Grande Prairie, Alberta, and if it is we will have yet another mix of the descendants of Jacob and Katharina.

Blogs in general are  vanity exercises, and consideration of why I have developed the passion for family history in my retirement is also a matter of vanity.  I believe writing a blog will help me to organize my efforts more effectively to discover, examine  and make accessible my family's roots - my roots. If it interests anyone else I would be surprised but not displeased.

Elders are  the roots.  My elders come in two forms - Mennonite and Quaker.  My mother's people - she was Susanna Rempel, whose maternal grandmother was a Niebuhr of the Aron line - came to Canada in the second wave of immigration from the Ukraine - the wave which came just after the turn of the last century.  Their experience in Canada was  similar to that of the many others who came at that time, from that place, to Canada.  I think the theme for their coming - beyond the opportunity denied them in the Ukraine to own land - was education.  My Mennonite grandparents  were intelligent, energetic people whose own education had been fairly limited, but they were determined that the education of their children would not be limited.  Because Grandfather died   when his oldest child was in high school and his youngest child was  a baby, the educational opportunities of the rest of his children were considerably curtailed, and it wasn't until the next generation - my generation - that  completing high school and even postsecondary and university education was possible, thereby giving their descendants the choice of working with our heads or our muscles.

My Quaker forebears' experience was similar in many respects.  They came from a working class district of a city in the industrial midlands of Britain rather than from farming stock, but they too sought a better life and the possibility of owning land, so even with the urban background, they homesteaded.  My father's education stopped at age fourteen,  and both he and my mother were committed to the idea that their children would have the opportunity for more education than they had been able to acquire.    In his memoirs my father writes of turning over the prairie sod behind his oxen Simon and Peter while doing mathematical puzzles in his head and reciting long passages of verse while the oxen moved forward, slowly altering that primeval landscape.  He told himself then that  his children would have the choice of working with their hands or their heads, and the choice would come through education. Among his children there are several university degrees, and among his grandchildren even more.  His efforts, starting with walking behind Simon and Peter, brought his dream to reality.

But both sets of grandparents, and indeed parents, had what we would now regard as hard lives.  

There is another element of my background which has influenced how I go about the process of making family history accessible.  When I was  last in the "world of work" one of my functions was to approve any  material which was written by my department for public consumption.  This was mostly patient education material and articles written by my staff for publication in professional journals.  In addition I participated in interdisciplinary committees charged with producing and updating policy and procedure manuals. For the patient education material I had to master the determination of reading level, in order to assure that printed material intended to inform patients was understandable at the average reading level.  For the papers written for journals I needed to re-learn skills I had never fully mastered in public school like how to parse a sentence and  how to assure noun-verb agreement.  For most of the people writing the material, good English was regrettably not a priority, and  I spent a lot of time editing the material which came before me.  For the policy and procedure manuals, I fought a year-long battle to have these manuals cast in the present indicative, finally winning my point over the future imperative.

Long before I retired I had decided that one of my retirement activities would be volunteering in an organization committed in some manner to supporting adult literacy.  I became a tutor with Project Literacy Victoria and worked with half a dozen learners over the ensuing decade.  During that experience I learned how little I had known about my mother tongue and its proper use, compared to how much I had thought I knew.  You find out how little you know when you try to teach what you think you know.  So I learned a lot more and by the time I was ready to phase out that activity I found myself deploring the sad state of English usage in the public media.

I got over that.  I still have my personal standards but I no longer bewail the deficiencies of the written word I see all around me - not if it is possible with a little effort to grasp the intended meaning.  I still do stumble over  grammatical, syntactical and spelling errors, but I pick myself and move on without cries of outrage.  The point, I keep telling myself, is that it is an achievement whenever anyone writes about anything in this post-literate era.

What all this means is that I have had a lot of experience in dealing with the written word.

Spelling has never been a problem to me, likely because my first years of schooling were at home, and my mother as teacher had strict requirements about spelling.  For many of the finer points of grammar and syntax, however, I had to go beyond "that doesn't sound or look right" and into the reason WHY it wasn't right, and how to fix it.

All this was preparation for my present family history work, not that I knew it at the time. I feel I am at least SOMEWHAT qualified to undertake family history projects intended to make their ancestors accessible to my grandchildren.  That is my central purpose and they are the target audience for my efforts.  If others in the extended family are interested I am happy to share.

Probably I will post again on this subject.  This is, after all, a vanity exercise and I love talking about myself.  Doesn't everyone?

Deirdre Margaret Lauranne Crane was born in 1965 and died in 1991 of breast cancer.  She was the second daughter of my sister Mary Crane and like me, Derry was a registered nurse.

With a life that short, there can be no significant accumulation of memorabilia or letters or writings, but there can, in the present era, be pictures.  Unlike the story of Dennis Rivett, Derry's story could be illustrated with pictures from every year, nearly every MONTH of her life.  The pictures could not only show the evolution of the baby to the child to the young woman; they could also  show in some small measure her personality.

I gathered pictures of Derry from parents and siblings and the extended family, and sorted them into years, looking for representative pictures for all the years of her life.  Her mother Mary Hinde Crane and her sister Shauna Crane drafted short paragraphs about each chosen picture - perhaps a hundred of them - to help the pictures to bring her personality into view.

This process generated many memories, often far beyond what was needed to explain the pictures. It was a sad time, and yet a happy time, remembering Derry.

When we think about and talk about our lost ones,  we keep their memory alive.

Status:  the pictures have been chosen, the paragraphs drafted.  Time and effort and skill are needed to get the pictures and stories into the appropriate juxtaposition ready to be printed.  The assistance of family members with the necessary skills will be called on to bring this project to fruition. It is unlikely that this project will be completed in 2008.  I am hoping for mid-2009.

Every project I have undertaken teaches me something about making family history accessible.  My father-in-law's book taught me the extent to which pictures with extensive captions can tell a story.  Dennis Rivett died in 1995;  about eight years later I began with the help of his widow and sons to assemble pictures of his life, and to draft the captions.  Other members of the family wrote about their memories of Dad. His widow, my beloved mother-in-law Evelyn Rivett, provided the name for the book:  "Kind, Loving, Faithful."  These are the words she had had inscribed on his tombstone.

The book is simplicity itself - about seventy pictures enlarged to full page size, each preceded by the story of the picture.  The first is Dennis at three, on the bank of the South Saskatchewan River in 1909;  the last is his gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery in Saskatoon.

This was probably the easiest family project in the sense that it proceeded from planning to execution without any lengthy hiatus.  My projects are not usually like that!

The learning from this project was applied to the previously described project, Derry's Book, which is still in process. Pictures CAN tell a story!

Status:  Dennis Rivett's book was completed in September 2005, and copies were distributed to the immediate family.

People come up many reasons not to write about their lives.  The people I urge to write are usually in their later years.  Many of their  reasons  for not writing their story have to do with a lifetime of writing - usually in letters - about daily events and suddenly being called upon to write a narrative about their own past.  This generates  myriad excuses.

    My life wouldn't be interesting to anybody else.

    My life has nothing unusual or special about it.

    I don't like to put my thoughts into writing.

    My first language isn't English and my writing in English isn't very good.

    I'm a terrible speller.

    I don't have the time.

    There are other things I would much rather do.

    My  younger generation isn't interested.

    I was never in the habit of writing my thoughts and I can't start now.

It is my belief and indeed my experience that NO life is uninteresting, that NO life lacks events and experiences and relationships which are interesting and unusual and challenging. (A couple of millennia ago, Philo of Alexandria said, "Be kind.  Everyone you see is fighting a great battle.")

It is my observation that putting thoughts into writing is a skill like any other, which requires to be learned.  Being able to write in English, and spell well also are skills which can be learned, and age is no barrier to the learning.  But if those seem like insuperable  obstacles,  there are alternatives like talking  into a tape recorder and have someone transcribe what you say, or talking to a video camera.

Very few people have the time to do everything they want to do.  If you want to record your life in some way, you will find the time.  If you don't find the time, recording your life is not yet of sufficient importance to you.  And recording the story of your life is a little like telling the people you love that you love them.  Do it now, before it's too late.

Edward McCheane was brother to John McCheane, who married the Mary Saunders of the previous project.  Edward married my father's older sister, and like some of the others of my older generations he left evidences of his life for those who followed him.  He was a trained commercial artist who for much of his life made his living operating  Globe Signs in Saskatoon;  his creativity was exercised in painting landscapes in oil, watercolor and pastel.  Many of us have examples of his art; we particularly treasure those which show scenes of the area which we  define as our home country - the area around Borden, Saskatchewan.

Uncle Edward's book includes examples of his art, provided by his son and several other family members, and by the Saskatchewan Archives Board.  After he died his widow, my Aunt Edith, moved from Saskatoon with her young son back to the home place, Valley Springs Ranch, After she died years later,  his memorabilila were included in the donation made to the Saskatchewan Archives Board by his two sisters-in-law.  

Uncle Edward's book contains a transcription of the journal he kept of his immigration to Canada from England, and of the first months of homesteading near Borden, Saskatchewan, more than a century ago.  This homesteading is a different matter than that of my father's family and my mother's family.  THEY travelled steerage on their immigration ships;  they arrived in Saskatchewan with only their own energy and commitment to making a new life.  Family legend is that my Grandfather Hinde had $48.00 in his pocket when the train with his family on it pulled into Borden, Saskatchewan.  Edward and HIS family travelled first class and dined on the ship at the captain's table.  That family's first years of homesteading were not leisured, certainly, but they were quite different from that of my father's family.  Edward's journal of this time describes the transplanted English family as raising hawk chicks, after shooting the parents, in the attempt to train them to kill gophers, and then finding that much time needed to be spent in killing gophers to feed the insatiable chicks.  

Edward didn't remain a homesteader.  Soon he was in Borden, taking up his career as commercial artist.  Old photographs of Borden show the signs he painted on buildings;  some of these are preserved on  buildings which now form the museum of the Village of Borden.  Moving to Saskatoon, he established Globe Signs, and in 1939 at the request of the City of Saskatoon he produced an illuminated scroll for the City to present to Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of their visit.  A reproduction of this scroll is included in Uncle Edward's book.

Status:  this family history project was completed in 2004.

Mary Saunders McCheane is related to me three ways, none of them by blood.  One of her brothers married my aunt, another brother married my father's cousin, and her daughter married my  cousin.The Saunders family and the McCheane family were two of the five Quaker families which immigrated to Saskatchewan in the early years of the last century, the others being the Crabbs, the Wakes and the Hindes.  The families had known each other in England but were unrelated except through their faith.  A century later their descendants are all related.

Mary Saunders started a journal when she was twelve years old, as a child in a Quaker boarding school in Fritchley, Derbyshire.  Her widowed father and older brother had come to Canada earlier to homestead and establish themselves in the new land.  When she was sixteen, Mary joined them.  Her childhood journal, written in a small notebook, was replaced by a large bound volume, which was filled in 1915, shortly before her marriage.  

Mary Saunders McCheane resumed diary-keeping after her marriage, and continued, using the five-year diary format, for the rest of her life, which ended in 1992 when she was nearly 102 years old.  Her daughter Ruth kept her diaries.   Ruth lent me the two early journals, which I transcribed, completing the project in 2003.

Style in diary-writing and indeed journal-keeping exists on a continuum, with a record of purely physical events on one end of the continuum and a record of the events of the writer's mental landscape on the other.  Mary's journal is of the first kind, like that of Elsie Hinde Ingram, and on the opposite end from that of Walter Bieber, of whom more later.  Mary recorded what was going on in the world around her with virtually no reference to her opinions or her feelings.  These had to be inferred from what she wrote about the facts of her life.

Lack of  that personalizing of her writing is a loss in one respect, but in another it makes the story she tells of her early years homesteading much more widely relevant.  In consideration of this I sent a copy of the transcription to the Saskatchewan Archives Board, where anyone wishing to research the pioneer years in Saskatchewan could have access to it.  

As with Elsie Hinde Ingram's diary of decades later, I provided footnotes to the transcribed text wherever I felt that my urban children and grandchildren would be baffled by references to people, farming activities, social events, organizations and even patent medicines.  The Internet was of considerable help in this effort; for example I now know the meaning of the term, "bile beans."

In addition to binding and distributing printed volumes of the book, I sent the text as an email attachment to several people.  One of them, widow of my first cousin and first cousin also to Mary's daughter Ruth, put  the text of the book on her web site.

Status:  Project was completed in 2003, and the text can be seen online:  http://chamness.org/Rachel/

Checking on this, I found that my cousin-by-marriage Rachel Chamness has also entered the text of the Elsie Hinde Ingram diaries which I recently sent her,  into her web site.

The two volumes between them provide not only family history - my primary interest -  but also Saskatchewan history - the one of the early pioneering period of the first decades of the 20th century, and the other of the depression and World War II.

David Stark was my husband's maternal grandfather, who died of cancer in his late forties, leaving his widow with children still at home - the youngest was four.  There is  little evidence of his life in document form.  One item is the draft of a letter he sent to a hospital requesting a reduction of the bill for the isolation care of three of his children in the fever ward for six weeks. The family story is that the letter received a favourable response, but with his death shortly thereafter his widow required years to pay off the reduced bill. Beyond that there is little:  his inscription in a book he gave to his daughter - a fine copperplate hand;  a few pictures; his military record, obrained by his youngest son from England.  And as for memories, only his two youngest, one being my mother-in-law, survive, and the youngest doesn't remember his father at all.  My mother-in-law says of him that he didn't speak with his children.  She didn't recall any dinner-table conversation, in fact she recalls no conversation with him ever and she was thirteen when he died.  She does recall him inviting each child to pick something from the Eaton's Catalogue as his gift when he returned from overseas after the end of World War I.  She picked a brown velvet dress.

The David Stark story as I am assembling it is in strong contrast to that of my great-grandfather Henry Thomas Wake, of whom more later.  Henry Thomas left MUCH documentary evidence.

Even with the dearth of material for the David Stark book, I feel it is worthwhile to assemble everything that can be found and make it available to David Stark's descendants.  But there is not enough to get a feeling for the man, or to grasp some small portion of his thoughts.  This saddens me, and I am impelled to make everything I can of the scraps available to me.

Status:  Another grandson of David Stark has been trying to track down evidence of David Stark's birth in Scotland.  Although the documents of birth, death and marriage as well as census records are all available for the relevant times, nothing has been found.  The family is inclined to the view that when he fought with his father and left home at an early age to join the army, he may have lied about his age, and even given a different name.  

The few pictures have been assembled, the memories of his daughter have been drafted,  the scant material evidences of his existence have been assembled.  His daughter, my mother-in-law, has his army paybook - I have seen it - but she cannot at this moment put her hands on it.  A copy of its pages belongs in David Stark's book, so I must wait for the paybook to be found.  I feel I cannot pressure someone of her age, though she likes the idea of a book about her father, but I feel pressure myself due to her age.  I hope the book will be complete while she is still with us.

Sometimes the people who have had the most adventurous lives in one sense or another are the toughest to get to write about their lives.  My brother David had a VERY adventurous youth which included extensive world travel by backpack and thumb, as it were.  My husband David's whole life has been adventurous as well, for a different reason.  Sixty years ago when he was first in the work force (reserve airforce at fifteen - he lied about his age) there was the expectation that a person got his high school education and then found a job and remained in that job for the rest of his working life.  In the 21st century, someone graduating from high school can expect to have many different careers, each preceeded by a spell of education.  David was  merely half a century ahead of his time, having had so far seven careers and more than twenty years of schooling.

But these two near-and-dear Davids are not at all inclined to WRITE about their lives.  My brother David is a raconteur, and in order to have a story from him for the Rempel Cousins book, I compelled him to sit down and concentrate on A STORY, while I made notes.  You will find that story in the Rempel Cousins Book, July 2008.  

We don't see Brother David often;  he lives at a distance and we don't travel much.  But even with Husband David being more of a captive in this matter, he does not write!

But wait!  When we lived in Ontario, he wrote regular letters to his parents in Victoria and these were preserved on computer.  And years ago when the grandchildren were small, he wrote a series of stories for them, the Grandpa Stories.   AND he kept a journal of his experience in the air force on Arctic Survival.

He didn't have to write anything MORE for me to have enough content for a book!  I assembled these materials and voila!  A BOOK!

There are always surprises working on family history.  It was not a surprise that he wrote entertaining letters, nor that he wrote an enthralling journal of his adventures in the north, nor that his Grandpa Stories each had a moral.  What surprised me was that the letters he wrote to his parents (those preserved were from the seventies and eighties) about our life in London, Ontario, and his work as a lawyer, had such a strong feeling of ANCIENT HISTORY about them. Reviewing them in preparation for their inclusion in the book, I read of events I had not thought of since, which in consequence seemed to have happened in the distant past, not just two or three decades earlier.  This caused me to reflect that the past which starts only a split second ago is just as lost to us as the centuries-old history of a family line - if we fail to record it.  From this experience came more motivation to persist with the work on books about the near and extended family.

Status:  "David Rivett:  Stories and Letters" was completed in January 2007.

Helen was  my father-in-law's younger sister; Charlie was her husband.  For years they lived a few blocks away from us but we saw them rarely,  at large family gatherings or when their daughters, David's cousins, were in town.  Helen said she had often invited the girls to ask questions about the early life of their parents, but they had never taken  up the invitation.  It occurred to me that it wasn't likely to happen while their daughters were in the throes of their own careers and families, and living two provinces to the east.  

Those questions needed to be asked, and I told them that I would ask them and record what they said.  

The basis for the questions was a little book, "To Our Children's Children:  Preserving Family Histories For Generations To Come,"  by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford,  1993.  I quote from the introduction which is directed to someone wanting to write their own story but it applies equally to writing someone else's story.

"You will find in these pages many questions - questions to lead you down the pathways of your own life.  What you are going to be doing is putting together a personal history for your family.  We're here to show you that it can be easy and full of pleasure for you - something intimate and special, the creating of a lasting and beautiful hand-me-down for your children, your children's children and generations that will come along far in the future.

"Your story will mave much more resonance for your children and grandchildren than any biography  or autobiography of a famous person.  It's almost startling that making this kind of personal history has not been a custom.  Older people are often able to leave property or money behind for their descendants, but this - a package of memories of a person's life - is what usually doesn't get passed along.  The most precious commodities of all - people's own recollections of their worlds - seldom get preserved, at least in a proper and permanent way.

"The secret of all this is found in the particulars.  The specifics of your own memories are what your family will treausre the most.  The main thing for you to know is that you need not attempt to sum up your life in grand, sweeping historic strokes, but stick to the seemingly small basics.

"Thus a man in his seventies shouldn't try to tell his children what post-World War I Canada was like; he should answer for them the question 'What did the neighborhood where you grew up look like?'  Or:  'Who was your best friend when you were a boy, and what did the two of you do together?'   Or:  'How did you get your first job, and what was it like on your first day?'

"A woman in her eighties shouldn't try to reconstruct the political events that took place during her youth.  She should reach into her memory to answer questions on richer topics:  'What was your schoolhouse like?'  Or:  'What to you remember about going on automobile rides with your family?'  Or:  Describe what you would do on summer days when you were a girl.'

"The purpose of this book is to help you along the way.  If you know what questions to ask yourself, the answers almost take care of themselves - you already know them but you may not have thought about them for a while.

"Maybe you have never considered that the stories from your life are important.  But be assured that they will be cherished far beyond anything money could buy.  Whether you write your history or speak it into a tape recorder, your stories will be eagerly awaited by the most appreciative audience of all - your family.  Far into the future, your family will read your words or listen to your voice and be grateful that you took the time to put this gift together for them."

For the better part of one winter, I went over every Tuesday afternoon for two or three hours and we three, Helen, Charlie and I,  sat at the kitchen table, asking and answering the questions and recording the responses.  Then I went home and expanded and transcribed my notes and sorted them into chapters - Ancestors, Childhood and so on.  

I didn't use all of the questions in the book;  there were literally thousands of them.  But the book was helpful in exploring the lives of those two - the particulars of those lives, not the grand sweeping history, but the personal and intimate living of those lives.

From a standing start, people will often say, "I didn't have an exciting life;  I didn't do anything dramatic," and will be prepared to leave it at that.  But knowing that Helen and Charlie had the urge to tell their story and were merely waiting for someone to ask, I asked.  Through them I was helped to learn that there are NO lives bereft of drama, and excitement, pain and joy.

In due course the book was produced, and illustrated with photographs from Helen and Charlie's collection.  Copies were printed and bound for the appropriate people.  Within  a couple of years Helen had died at 89, and six months later Charlie  at 91 followed her. The last chapter of the book, their reflections about their life as a whole, was read by their son-in-law as Charlie's eulogy.

The timing had not been right for their daughters to tell their parents' story;  it was, however, right for me, and the story was written.  This was a great satisfaction for me, because I had myself left it too late to record so many of my own family's stories from their  memories, and had to rely instead on the printed reflections of their lives and the memories of others.  For Helen and Charlie it had not been too late.

One consequence of this experience has been my effort to pull together stories from my Rempel first cousins - and even with this group, now in the grandparent stage of life, it is too late for some of them.  

Every life has a story - a unique and important story.  Every story needs to be told for the younger generations to understand the lives of their forebears.  My conviction about this drives my interest - my passion - to spend most of my waking hours working on family history in one manner or another.

Status:  "Helen and Charlie:  Our Life Together"  was completed in 2002.

Genealgia:  a disease causing the infected person to experience enjoyable  obsessions about family trees and family stories.    The sufferers of the disease are not only the people with the disease, but also the people in the near environs. This second category of sufferers are those who flee when the dread term "second cousin once removed" is uttered.  

Derivation - from  genealogy - the study of lines of descent;  and  - algia, pain.

There are several stages of the infection.  

The first stage is barely noticeable to the observer.  The afflicted may be heard to comment that genealogy is a lot of nonsense, it isn't the past that matters -  it's what you are here and now.  

The next stage is characterized by comments like:  "I'll buy a copy of the family history when you get it finished, but don't expect me to make any contribution to the book, I'm too busy."    "I think I might get interested when I retire."   "You're doing a fine job, keep me posted."  

This may progress to an interest in old things and may first manifest itself in collecting antiques, but focuses increasingly on old letters, wills, land titles, and photographs which may be found in the storage areas of the afflicted person's residence.

The infection has taken hold once the individual begins to question, "How many cousins do I have?"  "What is the difference between a first cousin and a first cousin once removed?"

Then there will be efforts to learn about family history through questioning elders, collecting photographs, visiting cemeteries and sending out blank family trees to kin far and wide.  After this stage comes enrolment in a beginner's class in genealogy, and the acquisition of genealogy software for the computer.  

With the commencement of online searches for elusive descent lines, and the acquisition of skills in searching birth, marriage and death data and census records online, the case has become hopeless of cure.  Soon after this, a visit to Salt Lake City may occur.

In the final phase of the disease, the afflicted individual goes to the computer before ANY other activity upon arising, and turns off the computer only on the way to bed.  Friends and relatives become alienated by the esoteric language now used by the afflicted individual.  All hope must be given up that the individual will ever be rid of the infection and rejoin normal society.  

Grandchildren make one an ancestor.  Once you have raised children to the state where they can begin themselves to raise children, you are a "reproductively successful organism" in  evolutionary terms and once I became that, the feeling of ancestorship came over me.

Grandparent-ancestors have the responsibility for conveying the past of the family to their descendants, more so than parents who are busy with raising the children, and besides, grandparents are closer to the past than their children are.  My grandchildren were in their early school years when I retired from the world of work and took up the ancestor mantle in all seriousness.  Retirement provided - at least theoretically - the time to undertake this responsibility,  and to develop a relationship with a computer.  The impetus of being a grandparent and the facts of being retired and at least marginally computer-literate, coincided, and I was off and running.   

An important ancestor task seemed to me to be to make their ancestors accessible to my descendants.  Many of my forebears had had the foresight to make records of their lives, but these records were usually not in an accessible form.  Fifty years' worth of five year diaries, five minuscule lines per day in an elegant but cramped hand with many abbreviations, could not be called accessible.  Those diaries had to be transcribed and footnoted.  The scattered notebooks and memorabilia of another ancestor had to be assembled, transcribed and again footnoted.  The writings of my parents too, although more legible, were scattered and needed to be pulled together to form coherent narratives.  The letters written to the place of my birth where my grandfather and father homesteaded needed to be assembled, transcribed and footnoted.  And those are a few of the score of family history volumes that cried out to be produced, made accessible and shared with the immediate family, and to a limited extent, to the extended family.

And then there are family trees.  How very close to impossible they would be without genealogy software!  From my early hesitant efforts to discover how many first cousins I had, my family has grown.  Almost every day, in response to my known interest and my widespread requests, family information comes to me to be entered into the family data base, with printouts made for all who want them.  I like to send the grandparents of my generation printouts of the family trees of any new grandchildren they tell me about!  Often these produce information on the parent of the grandchild who married into the family line, and my family of connections grows along with my family of kinship.

My mother always said, "My family can never be too large," as she welcomed new members.  My family too can never be too large.

Journals are records written of a life as it is lived; entries might not be daily, and there is no limitation on the amount written.  Usually they are found in notebooks.  I have transcribed two of this kind, one of which set me thinking about the nature of the enterprise.  There will be more about these journals in later posts.

And then there are diaries.  As a child I was given a five year diary, a small book with a minuscule lock and key, showing five years of a given date on each page. I believe I wrote in it most days for a time, but I didn't keep it up.   I think now that I understand why.

My Aunt Elsie's diary was of the latter kind.  This and the two journals mentioned have given me some insights into the ways people can record their lives. Reflections upon these insights will be recorded here another time, under the "Family History" rubric.

Aunt Elsie was my father's younger sister.  The evidence in hand tells me that she began her diary-writing at the age of 19, and it was of the journal kind rather than a five year diary.  In 1923, at the age of 19, she spent a year away from her home at Valley Springs Ranch in Saskatchewan, visiting her older sister Winnie who was married, living in Iowa and expecting her second child.  After that there is a break of twelve years;  her diaries - of the five-year kind - apparently resume in 1935.  I say apparently because when they do resume it is clear that the writing patterns and the habit of daily entries are well-established.  It seems that for unknown reasons the diaries of the intervening years were not preserved. The five year diaries then continue until 1988, at which time  Aunt Elsie,  well into her eighties and with arthritis and failng vision gave the collection of little volumes to her niece in Iowa.  She felt a special bond with this niece, who had been born the year Elsie spent in Iowa.  The niece, learning of my interest in family history, sent the diaries to me, to make of them what I could.  

What I made of them was that they were a family treasure, and further, a treasure of the history of Saskatchewan.  Over the ensuing years my sister Mary Crane and I transcribed the first five years fully, the next five partially and the following years very selectively, transcribing only her entries for major family events.  Even this limited transcription became  about 500 pages. The process of transcription was laborious;  the the small space allowed for each day, the abbreviations, the elegant but often inscrutable handwriting, the disintegrating tiny books meant that sometimes an hour's effort - Mary deciphering, I typing - would generate only a few days' entries.  The need to include footnotes to help the reader also kept the pace slow.  In five years, working about two hours on most Tuesdays, we finally completed our task in the spring of 2008.  We added the transcription of the 1923 journal, a few other items and some illustrations, then printed and bound several copies, one for each of the branches of the family who had known Aunt Elsie. Several people in addition received the text as an email attachment. The originals along with a paper copy, on the recommendation of Elsie's son, were sent to the Saskatchewan Archives Board, which received them with considerable excitement.

Status:  This family history project was completed in spring 2008.  Comments have come back from several recipients.  Special acknowledgement is made of the contributions to the footnotes by Frank Saunders, our second cousin, who helped us make the farming and ranching references accessible to our urban children and grandchildren.

At the Niebuhr gathering in Abbotsford in the summer of 2006, visiting at lunchtime with cousins and second cousins, a vast interest in a shared great-aunt was discovered.  That great-aunt was Mary (Maria) Thiessen Falk Tuesher Anderson, 1890 - 1966, was  a descendant of the Aron line through her mother Elizabeth Niebuhr.  I have this image in my mind, the memory of our younger generation at that lunch table.  With their jaws dropping and their eyes popping out of their heads  they listened to my generation tell stories of Great-Aunt Mary.  One of them was my daughter, who promptly wrote a song about her great-great-aunt, having found at that moment that she did after all have an interest in family history.  Her interest, however, was fixed on the "black sheep"  rather than the hard-working good-hearted souls comprising most of our family.  In several senses, Great-Aunt Mary was indeed a black sheep, and of this category of kin, there will be more in a later post.

My daughter's song was the start of a book I am assembling about Great-Aunt Mary (GAM.)    I have collected memories from many people, and because my brother Barry has more personal memories of GAM than I do, he accepted the task of reviewing the transcribed memories and other material.  I THOUGHT he might just do a little editing and proofreading, but no, the material cried out for a narrative to be written, with the memories as appendices. Being familiar with the phenomenon of family history telling me how it wanted to be written, I accepted this plan, and   Brother Barry is in the process of writing  the narrative.  

We agreed that GAM's descendants had to be included in some manner, and found that we had little information about the life of Mary's son Henry, only that he had moved to the West Coast and lived out his life in Comox, British Columbia.  He had married and there was reference to his having twin daughters, as well as glancing references to his work.  Alberta cousins said that  GAM visited her son every year and stopped with them on her way from Saskatoon to Comox;  they had a wealth of anecdotes about those visits.

Attempts to track down these descendants have so far been unsuccessful. No record has been found of Henry and his wife and daughters in Comox.   The next step will be to advertise in the local paper, asking anyone with knowledge of this family to contact Barry, for family history purposes.

Barry tells me writing the narrative has been a challenge largely because the materials we have are so conflicted about her character and her ways. One image of her arises from the letters she wrote to Canada from Russia when she was a young woman preparing for her marriage.  She had stayed in Russia, the youngest of the family, when many of the rest in 1902 and later, emigrated from Russia to Canada.  The letters were to her older sister, my grandmother Katharina Thiessen Rempel.  They were written in German and fortunately other family members who are fluent in German have translated them.  

Another image comes from the stories she told to her sister Katharina after she too came to Canada, of her life in Russia after her father died in 1912.  She went through World War I, the Russian Revolution, famine and plague - and with her son, survived.  

We have few pictures of her:  as a girl in Russia;  her first wedding; with her son when first in Canada; her second wedding.  These are studio portraits.  There is a snapshot of her third wedding.

It is not possible to know people well through the scraps they may leave of their lives.  It IS possible, however, to know them better, and to honor their lives through making them accessible to the later generations of their family.

I would have liked to know Great-Aunt Mary well.  Failing that, I can at least try to tell a little of her story.

Status:  Waiting for Barry's narrative and the discovery of GAM's descendants.