- Written by: Roberta Rivett
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.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
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?
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
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.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
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.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
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.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
This is a tough one. My generation, born in the Depression, learned to define 'family' as what is now called the nuclear family: father the breadwinner, mother the homemaker and 2.1 children. In an episode of the Murphy Brown television series (1988 - 1998) a position was taken that love is what defines families, rather than a rigid pattern intended for procreation. A couple of decades ago the Family Law Reform Act of Canada made alterations in the definition of family and its components so as to eliminate ___ in law - the concepts of common-law marriage and illegitimacy. More recently same-sex marriages became legal in many Canadian jurisdictions. What some saw in these legal changes as erosion of family (the nuclear family of course) I saw as legal recognition that there is more than one way to be a family, and more than one way to be a parent.
I am interested in documenting families. One way to do this is to develop family trees, and for this I use a computer program. There are many versions of genealogical software; I use one appropriately called Brother's Keeper. Brother's Keeper (or any other such program) allows the user to put together the skeleton of a family - the names, the dates, the relationships. The bones need to be fleshed out , and that happens with the recording and making accessible of family stories, anecdotes, and memorabilia and as well formal documents like birth, marriage and death records, census records, church records, cemetery records and a wide range of other sources. Since the day I first asked the question, "How many first cousins do I have?" this is what I have been doing for my family lines and for those of my husband, so as to provide as much information as possible about their forebears for our descendants.
Defining family becomes important when decisions need to be made about how people outside the old nuclear family concept will be documented. This became clear to me recently, in reading the obituary of an uncle. The obituary stated that he had three sons, and indeed he did, but none of them were his sons by birth: one was adopted and the others fostered. But for them to be defined as his sons, his FAMILY, in the obituary meant that the old definition was irrelevant. I co-opted not only the foster sons as my first cousins, but also their spouses, and so I acquired connections to many more families. MY family is inclusive, not exclusive. MY family includes anyone who FEELS like family.
This presents a difficulty when it comes to entering some of the people who feel like my family in the Brother's Keeper data base. What about a friend who feels like a brother? I would like to include him and his family, but that would mean giving my parents - or my husband's - a son they didn't know they had. So this friend, as close as any brother, must, due to the limitations of the software, remain outside my family tree.
Another difficulty: the software doesn't allow for same-sex marriage and insists that married couples be of different genders. For my beloved cousin who legally married his partner, I cannot document them as spouses unless I change the gender of one of them. The world has moved on, and the genealogy software has not kept up.
Googling "Definition of Family" produces remarkable collections of words, several millions of them. At the top of the first screen, this: A family is a social unit living together. This definition doesn't identify the composition of the social unit, but limits itself to stating that the component parts live together.
My family lives all over the world, however, so this definition doesn't work for me. While most of the components of my family are connected to me by blood or marriage, many are neither, and yet they are my family. Millions of definitions do not alter what I FEEL my family to be. I may feel greater or less kinship with one member or another, but regardless, they are my family. I feel as close to a half first cousin once removed as I do to my blood sister, and as close to a fourth cousin as I do to my brothers.
The example of the three sons of my uncle - all of whom I regard as my cousins - places my personal definition in personal terms: my family is who I say my family is.