- Written by: Roberta Rivett
Poetry I, below, was drafted in 2012 and languished for five years forgotten. Now in 2017 I am working on books for my siblings, my husband and myself - biographical, composed of captioned pictures, writings including letters, timelines and memorabilia. Very little of my production of family history books has been my own writing; to a very large extent they are collections of the writings of my family, past and present. My plan now is to provide commentary about the process of writing the books not covered in previous blog entries, as a sort of contribution to the "writing" section of my own "Life of..." book, as well as to the Niebuhrgathering web site.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
My retirement was only a few years old when I arrived at what Carolyn Heilbrun, in “The Last Gift of Time,” refers to as the passion that is necessary for every person to find with age. She describes it as a necessity, in age, to become utterly absorbed in SOMETHING – doesn’t really matter what – in order to experience continuation of the sense of achievement which was available to us in our working lives.
I had thought when I retired that I would take up the interest I had identified many years earlier – working in some manner with adults who had difficulty with literacy. I applied as tutor in a literacy program, and for ten years tutored adults to help them improve their literacy. It was demanding work, challenging and rewarding. Through that ten year period a broad interest in family history had begun to make itself felt, and when it came time to move on, I knew where I was going – toward producing books of family history.
Several realities underlay this new direction. Retirement had given me the whole 24 hours a day to use as I chose; I had acquired grandchildren; I had extended my interest in and use of computers. The time needed to apply myself to the growing interest was there; the motivation generated by the acquisition, through grandchildren, of ancestor status, was there, and the computer was there, without which the making of family trees is difficult to impossible. Further, I learned – poking about in relatives’ mental and physical attics - that many of my forebears and my husband’s had left scattered bits of their history behind them – letters, diaries, memorabilia. My husband’s uncle had put together a family tree on his mother’s side. A first cousin once removed on my mother's side, ditto. My father had written stories about his life.
Putting all these together and I could see the possibility of moving forward with making family history accessible to the younger generations.
This didn’t happen as a concrete, everything-laid-out-in-an-orderly-manner kind of way, it happened in bits and pieces, moving forward in a lurching fashion, but one day a dozen years ago I found myself with a Project List. On the list were the family history projects I would like to work on to produce volumes which could be shared, and family-related continuing activities, each with a rough plan as to the steps needed to move it forward, and the projected completion year for each. The first project was assembling my father’s book of stories into a coherent, edited, footnoted volume. My project list records that the first project was completed in 1999, thirteen years ago. Since then I have averaged two books a year, now with 27 completed, and about 35 still on the project list.
About 35? Yes, about that. From some of the raw material now in hand, I don’t know how many books will emerge.
I didn’t start out with this many projects on the list. I had no idea that this was going to take up so much of my life. It seems that’s what happens when you find your passion. It becomes all-absorbing.
Recently I connected with a professional genealogist I had commissioned to trace some forebears which my limited search skills could not find. Reviewing her work, I realized that my strategy for collecting family history material bears little relationship to the work done by a professional genealogist, for whom if it isn’t documented, it isn’t a fact, and that’s the case even at times when it IS documented.
No, my strategy is more like that of an orb spider who builds her net, then waits for the insects to fly into it.
Four years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and experienced the usual shock and enhanced awareness of my mortality. This did not, however, result in a higher productivity of family histories, in fact, the rate of production slowed, perhaps understandably, but with the possibility of limited time to work on my projects, the sense of urgency became anxiety, further impeding productivity.
No excuses! The work was there to be done, I had the tools to do it, and surely once the malaise, the “cancer brain,” subsided, work could resume.
In due course it did subside, although my mental acuity has not fully recovered. The fact that four years have passed and I am four years older probably has more to do with that than the cancer.
And so the sense of urgency resumes.
2011 was a good year. Early in the year I caught up with the work on hand of my great-grandfather’s journal. Much remains, but I have gone as far as I can with the material for now. Other much smaller projects came to the fore – five of them, and through the year all came to the boil at the same time, “the boil” being near-readiness to print and bind. As always, they were much bigger than anticipated, but all of them should be DONE early in 2012. Now others are calling out for attention. I think 2012 will be a good year too. I will pass my five year point with the cancer, with no recurrence; I am learning strategies to deal with my failing memory and I have sharpened skills with the computer, meaning I can work more quickly and accurately.
The five 2011 books are numbers 28 to 32. And strangely, about 35 remain due to some strange arithmetic I don’t understand.
I’ll keep going.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
My work with family history goes through a cycle, the pattern of which, now, after years of being in its thrall, is becoming discernible to me. I listen for a particular project to form itself in my head, and hear it begin to call out to be done. I put it on the project list, and make estimates about what is required to complete it, in time and ink and the assistance of others. It sits on the project list until a gap forms between other projects, and then it calls louder, demandingly, becoming raucous.
At hiatus stages of other projects, caused by delays in receiving the input of others, or delays in necessary material coming to hand, these calls become irresistible, and I answer the demand.
Recently I finished transcribing and footnoting the eleventh of my great-grandfather’s journals, and while waiting for the remaining seven to arrive, digitized, from an English archive, I resumed work on my brother’s story of his experiences on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, getting the pictures sequenced and captioned. Now he has gone off to write the narrative to link his “Letters from Reunion” and I am left with tidying up odds and ends of data entry, catching up on postal correspondence, attempting with a notable lack of success to organize both my computer files and my paper ones, and yearning for the time when in my working life I had a secretary. The odds and ends done, the demands of THE AUTOGRAPH BOOK became thunderous and now I must yield to them.
When I was in public school 65 years ago, there was a great fad of collecting classmates’ and relatives’ messages and signatures in little notebooks with pastel pages. I don’t know what became of mine, but my sister kept hers and it provides a fine example of the autograph books of that time, with a few entries from older connections being holdovers from a past era. The verses typically are silly or sentimental or punning. The older generation also was very big on moral aphorisms. Most entries are dated. The dates provide clues about the lives of both the writer and the recipient.
It seems that my notion of autograph books being a fad of my childhood days is in error. Once I started looking, I found family autograph books dating to a century ago, and one of a friend dating to the later years of the nineteenth century. There is an extensive Wikipedia article on the history of the autograph book, which will appear in my book of autograph images.
The book that now demands to be made will present for the most part the images of the pages, rather than a transcription of the words. The images too offer clues about not only the writer but the era, as well as the life of the recipient of these messages.
Everything is connected. In one of my great-grandfather’s diaries he quoted an aphorism, unattributed, which gave me a frisson up my spine.
“Count that day lost whose low descending sun
“Views from thy hand no worthy action done.”
The Internet tells me the couplet was found in Bartlett’s Quotations, and was anonymous. But it wasn’t anonymous to me. It connected me, with a shock, to my grandmother. She was about eleven when her father, my great-grandfather, wrote that passage in his diary, and its familiarity convinces me he had quoted it to his children at the time he wrote it in his diary. And many decades later my grandmother quoted it to me.
And the intent of the couplet has been – I now realize – a guiding principle in my life.
There are many books on the merits and values of tracing one’s ancestors. I don’t recall this one being mentioned, although its importance means to me that it outweighs all the other benefits. This sudden sense of kinship – of inhabiting the same mental landscape as my grandmother and her father, was profoundly moving.
And so I will spend my time with the autograph book images my husband scanned for me, captioning them to show the family relationships reflected therein, and imagining the lives that were being lived when the verses and drawings were made.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
Diaries and Journals
Many times have I alluded here to the transcription of my great-grandfather’s journals, this being my family history labour since February 2010. In the course of the transcription, often challenging to decipher and requiring use of a magnifying glass, often baffling as to strange abbreviations and archaic terms, I have frequently thought about the nature of diaries and journals: why people keep them, and what they might convey about the mind of the writer.
Whole books have been written about how to write journals and diaries. There are in them lists of the reasons for the writing, examples of the styles of writing, and the processes of getting the words on paper. My sense is that they are all just about useless, except for one thing: they do suggest to the person who has the impulse to start one that on the whole it’s a good idea, if that’s what you feel like doing. The rest is just filler.
My great-grandfather, Henry Thomas Wake, hereafter referred to as HTW, began one when he was 21, at which time he had been on his own in the big city, a boy from a country village, for four years. It seems to have been a sort of dare with his friend, that they both start diaries. In June 1852, he wrote the reasons for starting a journal or diary; he used the terms interchangeably, but I define journal loosely as a record of a life made roughly daily, without space limitations , and a diary as a record of a life made within the limitations of the few lines in book ruled for five years of entries on a page.
Here are his reasons:
“…before we parted Watson and I resolved each of us to keep a Diary of passing events, etc. Our motive for so doing was in the first place to assist the memory by recording such facts and speculations, connected with our own observations, as we thought worthy or remembrance. 2ndly it would be an exercise for us in English composition, and perhaps be a means of improving us in that branch of literature. 3rdly and lastly, to preserve correct dates or remarkable events which are so soon forgotten unless noted with pen and ink.”
By 1866 – the year I am now working on - HTW had several times noted his anniversaries of journal-writing, (“This concludes my first month of diary writing;” “This is the tenth anniversary of my diary.”) He makes, however, no reference to whether his friend Watson had been similarly successful.
Started thus, HTW continued his daily entries until he was in his seventies. At this point – the end of September 2010 – I have transcribed fourteen years’ worth of his entries, more than four thousand of them. His entries will continue until a few years before he died in 1914.
A blog is a sort of diary or journal – with differences. A blog entry may be unrelated to the date, and while it is often connected in some manner to what is going on in the writer’s life, it more usually arises from the life of the writer’s mind, rather than of the writer’s quotidian experience. In consequence of my interest in the “mental landscape” as described by Ursula LeGuin in “The Language of the Night,” I follow a number of blogs, in addition to making irregular contributions to this one. Blogs usually are written around one subject, and can be understood outside the context of the physical life of the writer.
It is difficult now to picture how precious were books and indeed the paper they were printed on, a century and a half ago. Nothing was wasted. HTW through the first decade of his diary is working up toward what will become his life’s vocation of antiquarian bookseller. If he came upon a battered book that was of some interest, though falling apart and missing pages, he got his hands on a complete copy and HAND-PRINTED the missing pages, often the title pages, and rebound it. The implicit paradigm is strange to us now, we who discard and recycle a slightly battered book as being too poor for inclusion in a used book sale. And space in notebooks too was valued. Two of HTW’s early journals were contained in the unused pages of notebooks of other people. One of these was his father’s notebook containing his record of his buyings and sellings and daily activities as farm bailiff and head gardener on the country estate of a wealthy London banker. Scattered through the notebook were empty pages, which HTW used for his journal. His father’s farm record is worthy of transcription on its own, and might call for even more Internet research to understand the references. An entry like “Tuppence for hay wagon toll,” evokes a picture of even farm tracks being toll roads, in a world where the user paid directly for WHATEVER he used.
Another of HTW’s journals was written in the unused pages of a notebook which had first been used by a Bishop in the North of England to record notes for a botanical work he was writing. Again, HTW filled the unused pages with his journal. And in addition, wherever there were blank spaces on a page – anywhere in any of his journals - he would enter short notes on a wide range of subjects, whatever interested him at the moment, and usually date the entries. Thus a journal nominally for the period of April 1861 to May 1863 might contain entries dated any time in the next decade or more. This practice has made decisions about the use of these entries a considerable challenge, and after much thought and with my sister Mary’s help, the decision was made to place the “non-journal” entries in proximity to the journal entries by date, but set out in another font to make clear their being other than regular journal entries.
Beginning his diary when he was 21 as he did, HTW’s entries might be expected to change over time, and they do. I made one abortive effort to keep a journal, unwisely beginning it shortly before the birth of my first child. Her arrival put a stop to spending time in that manner, it seems, but having kept those early efforts I can now be embarrassed at myself when young, in the ponderous self-consciousness of my writing. HTW’s entries reflect his maturation, and also his changing focus as his life changes, from being single and on his own in London, to being married and becoming a father; from being spectacularly concerned with the cost of EVERYTHING, to costs disappearing from his journal when he obtained a “Cash Book” whereafter, presumably, his concern with costs continued but was not reflected in the journal.
HTW became an antiquarian bookseller in the 1860s, and made his living thereby until the end of his days. With the help of my search-skilled daughter Allegra I have been delving into the references found on the Internet about his business. So far – and my search is by no means complete, I have found his advertisements to buy books appearing in half a dozen periodicals. I plan to include these references in the journal, in the relevant time period. He didn’t advertise to SELL books; for that he put out a monthly catalogue illustrated with his tiny drawings. I have several of these catalogues, and full sets of them are in the Archives of the British Museum, and in the Derby County Archives, Derby being his county of residence for the last decades of his life.
Reflecting about this process of getting into the head of my great-grandfather through his journals, I have been struck that the time-travelling I am doing – back a century and a half and an ocean away – is a eerily uneasy experience. My great-grandfather doesn’t know that he and his Lydia are soon to have their last child – my grandmother, and that six years later Lydia will die of a condition that would not have killed her now. That two years later he will remarry and will have two more children. That four of his children will die before he does. In 1866 he doesn’t know this, and I do.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
I have just experienced loss of the first draft of this blog, and I know not how so it could happen again. In my frustration I let out a yowl of dismay, to which David, fortunately just arisen from his blameless sleep, responded with a comforting ginger chocolate. So now I have to try and reconstruct what I said, which I thought was brilliant and insightful. As it is lost, the brilliance and insightfulness will have to be taken as givens, because NEVER have I been able to recreate lost posts. Therefore what follows is my ordinary pedestrian prose.
Recently there was a documentary on television, the Time Travel episode of Stephen Hawking's series, "Into the Universe." In it, Hawking reviews the many actual and possible forms of time travel (and a few impossible ones as well) but in my view he omits two forms: one being the fact that we all travel in time - one day at a time - into the future. The other is the time travel we do in our minds.
In our minds we can also go into the past. If we have a suitable vehicle, that experience of the past can be extremely vivid.
I'm not talking about science fiction, or any other kind of fiction, or indeed science fact. I am talking about my great-grandfather's journals. He began keeping them in 1852 and continued for most of the rest of his life. I have (with some effort and indeed cost) got my hands on all of his notebooks, and have been transcribing and footnoting them, and because of the style of his writing and the nature of the content I have been time-travelling to (at the moment) September 1859.
In September 1858 he wrote this:
"15th III The late Inspector of the East and West India Docks, William Thomson, told me today that just off the Trinity Corporation's premises at Bow Creek, a sunken Vessel, apparently of about 200 tons Burden, has from time to time become visible at low water. He says that now the Vessel can be plainly traced out at low water, and it has been found out that at that particular point a number of Vessels were sunk to block up the Thames (so that only one or two ships could pass) at the time of the Spanish Armada was feared in 1588, and this Vessel, which has lately made its appearance, is one of the sunken Ships, as is thought."
My great-grandfather, Henry Thomas Wake, time-travelled to 1588, about 280 years before his time, through this evidence of that era. I time-travelled back to his time a century and a half ago, and then further back with him to 1588. This would not be possible were it not for the vivid detail with which he records his life both the physical and the mental landscape. Working on the writings of others tt has often been necessary, as with the diaries of HTW's granddaughter, my aunt Elsie Hinde Ingram, to infer states of mind because the text gave little indication of anything except the PHYSICAL landscape of her life.
With HTW, I walk the streets and lanes of London - finding that most of those streets remain on present-day maps - and reflect on his annoyance at forgetting his umbrella when it comes on to rain, and his concern about the putrid state of the Thames - an open sewer - and share his delight in his children and his fatherly concern for their welfare. Time travelling. And now, through the laborious but highly rewarding process of transcribing his journals, I am making them accessible to the immediate family, and those of the extended family who might be interested. Making their forebears accessible to my grandchildren has been my central purpose in all my family history efforts.
I suspect that several books will arise from the transcription and footnoting of his journals. I am on Notebook #4, with more than 400 typed pages resulting. And many more notebooks await transcription.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
"The game's afoot" is what Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson to entice him to join in a search for clues to a mystery.
In July 2009, my second cousin Christine in the south of England told me that in about 1989 she had donated our shared great-grandfather's notebooks to the Derby County Archives. She had, as she said, lugged them from attic to attic in her moves across England, and it was time. She passed them over to a connection who was traveling to Derby (this being Great-Grandfather's home county for the last many decades of his life) and would see them safely into the hands of the archivist.
Apparently that didn't happen. I contacted the Derby County Archivist, who searched and did NOT find the notebooks. I had it in mind to arrange for them to be photocopied, and then I would produce a companion volume to the "Victorian Antiquarian..." book I finally finished last winter. The archivist recommended consideration of the Derby County Library system as a possible repository of the notebooks, and undertook to make inquiries.
My lack of results was duly reported to my second cousin, who undertook to make some inquiries of her own, and a few days ago emailed in triumph: the notebooks have been located! There are fourteen of them; at about 200 pages each we estimate between us that photocopying them would cost in the neighborhood of two thousand dollars. This is daunting, but not an insuperable obstacle. Now I await further word from Christine, who awaits word from the archivist at Friends' House, London, England, where the precious notebooks ended up. The Archivist is to send Christine scanned copies of a few pages from the notebooks; she will forward them to me, and leave it with me to negotiate about photocopying the whole.
Having transcribed the three notebooks which found their way to Canada and included them in full in the Victorian Antiquarian book, I know their value. They are partly diaries, partly records for Great-Grandfather's antiquarian business, partly his ruminations about life, the universe and everything. The Crystal Palace of England's Great Exposition in 1851 is a historical fact with many references including illustrations available on the Internet. But it it is another matter entirely to read my Great-Grandfather's thoughts upon seeing it. Christine said she had remembered the notebooks as being mostly about business, but it had been decades since she had looked at one of them; the Friends' House Archivist told her they were much more than that. I am looking forward breathlessly to see the rest of the notebooks.
Several days on and Christine has forwarded the scans of several pages of the notebooks sent her by the Friends' House Archivist. The sample page included reference to my great-grandmother's imminent delivery of her fourth child, Annie, grandmother of Christine. I MUST HAVE THIS MATERIAL! The most immediate obstacle to getting it is the Archivist's word that Friends' House does not have the resources to photocopy this much material - he estimates 2500 pages - and that it would cost 600 pounds to have it microfilmed.
My next task will be to contact the Archivist directly and see what I can persuade him to do! Meantime I will look into finding a microfilm reader. I am prepared to argue that if he can send out the precious notebooks to be microfilmed, maybe he can lend them to me (under a suitable bond) and I can do the photocopying myself. I am further prepared to "bribe" him with a copy of my first Henry Thomas Wake book, and will start the negotiation by sending him a copy of the index.
To be continued.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
In June of 2008 I entered a piece here on the eponymous Family History project; rereading it now I see it needs updating, so update it I shall.
I reported then that in 1999 I had found my cache of my brother Barry's letters from Reunion. I collected his letters from others in the family and transcribed them, in date order, into the computer, along with the text of his notebook. The deal then was that he would work on the material after he retired.
Retire he did, in 2004, but it wasn't until quite recently that work on this manuscript resumed. Retirement, as I well know, is a hard-working enterprise.
He too had moved a great distance on retirement, and he too had taken a while to find everything that had been packed, stored, shuffled about, from his previous life. Recently he came upon a package of letters which our mother had returned to him in one of her periodic purges as her life narrowed, finally to one room in a nursing home. Half a dozen of the letters had my note on them, to the effect that they had been transcribed in 2000. The rest were new to the project, filling in big blanks in the overall story. Meantime Barry had written several pages of the linking narrative, and now with these additional letters I am off to the races again with this project.
Talking about these letters of Barry's reminded Brother David that he too had been recipient of HIS letters to Mum and Dad, from his time in the army, and later from his years abroad. These letters too will be added to the narrative of my brother David's story, which, by the way, is now in his hands in draft form, lacking of course, the letters, which have only just come to my hands.
Confused? I am. And overwhelmed. FOUR projects are now making screaming demands on me for urgent, prompt completion. The story of David Stark, my husband David's grandfather, because his daughter - my mother-in-law - is half past ninety-eight. Brother Barry's book. Brother David's book. Great-Aunt Mary's book. Three of the four are about Niebuhr descendants.
I did not grasp, when I retired, how hard it would seem necessary to drive myself to accomplish my retirement goals.
In addition I did not grasp the limitations fate - and age - would put on my cognitive ability. The feeling of urgency is close to overwhelming...
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
...and slowly I am gaining acceptance of the fact of a life in my extended kin group being cut short by a drunk driver. My husband in his lawyering days was wont to tell his clients when charged with alcohol-related offenses that they had to make a choice between alcohol and - everything else. He had seen so many people lose their job, family, home through this dire addiction. The woman in the SUV who brought about the death of my kinsman was alcohol-impaired, at two in the afternoon on a Sunday. I shall stop there. Ranting doesn't help.
Meantime I have worked at the computer transcribing more material from the Ward Archive. I have almost finished the transcriptions from packages 3 and 4, and shortly will return them to their owner. The insights and the previously-unknown FACTS about my kin continue to astound me, and continue to generate reflection on how utterly oblivious young people are to the lives of the adults around them. Children can see and sense interpersonal difficulties among their elders, but they cannot understand what these sensed tensions mean. My childhood was sunny in all the respects I remember it, but it was lived in a community with a variety of tensions, probably not significantly different from any other community in that time and place. The Ward Archive reveals the roots of some of these tensions. It also reveals straightforward FACTS about the community. Who did what when. The psychosocial and the factual are both pieces of the puzzle of my childhood environment.
In revealing the roots of tensions in that community, the Ward Archive has saved me the effort of putting together a book (or books) of the material. The material is TOO revealing, and with several of the dramatis personae in the archive still living, to say nothing of their descendants, I will print copies only for my siblings, whilst exhorting them not to share their copy outside the immediate family group.
There is nothing dire in the archive. The most serious skeleton - already out of the closet in any case - was fully revealed in the book, The Quakers at Borden, for which the Ward Archive was the research. Rather than skeletons, they are sensitivities. Many years ago when my father was writing his memoirs, and my mother was reviewing them as he wrote, she was wont to say, "But Bob, you can't say that! The grandchildren are still alive!" So Dad would edit out whatever passage she deemed to sensitive to put into his memoirs. At the time we, his children, deplored the resulting loss of "the good stuff," the material the most entertaining to those of us well-removed from the events and people. Four decades on, I begin to understand my mother's caution.
In consequence of the decision to strictly limit the distribution of my transcription off the Ward Archive papers, my approach to footnoting changes. For earlier efforts, my grandchildren and their understanding were in my mind when footnoting, which led to extensive footnotes for things like farming terms, which my urban grandchildren would not otherwise grasp. Now I need only footnote for my siblings' understanding. My sister is helping me with this process, much of which involves cross-referencing to other material, or reference to information found on the Internet. For the latter, the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan online has been a great help.
And as always, delving into the byways of the Internet has enhanced my knowledge of Saskatchewan history, and indeed wider history. Yesterday while footnoting I had cause to study the roster of Canadian Prime Ministers, the life of Rufus Jones, Quaker evangelist, Barclay's Apology (Quaker doctrine) and the village of Hansack, Saskatchewan.
The village of Hansack, Saskatchewan, like many villages on the Canadian prairies, no longer exists, yet the Internet was helpful even so. To my surprise and delight, one of the references to it was in an essay written by Betty Ward (she of the Ward Archive!) for Saskatchewan History magazine. The subject was the immigration of large numbers of Doukhobors from Russia to Saskatchewan in 1899. Betty had arranged to have many National Archives documents and letters about this immigration copied because of the involvement the Quakers had had in bringing the Doukhobor immigrants to Saskatchewan. She used very little of the material in her book, The Quakers at Borden, but there it was on the Internet, a substantial essay with pictures, what might be regarded as a spin-off from her main thrust. Evidence of the process in the writer's mind while moving from the raw data in the letters and documents to the finished article is fascinating.
A week has passed since the above paragraphs were written. All the remaining Ward Archive material has been transcribed and footnoted, and is now in my sister's hands for proofreading and more footnotes. It is time to move on to another project, and I think it will be Great-Aunt Mary. I found another scrap of information about Great-Aunt Mary in the translated letters of Maria Friesen, assembled by Phyllis Siemens and mentioned recently in "News" on this site. The reference indicated that Great-Aunt Mary had said at her father's coffin that she had been the cause of his death. This would have been in 1912 in Russia; GAM would have been 22. To that I can only say, "Thereby hangs a tale" and express regret that the tale can probably never be known. I have no doubt that what she said - if she indeed said it! - was not literally the case.
And that will lead to my next blog, which will be about legends, stories and truths in family history.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
Uncle Billie wasn't my uncle at all, he was my first cousin once removed - my father's first cousin. But I was taught as a child to regard most non-parental adults as aunts and uncles, including some who were not related at all. So Uncle Billie it was.
With the arrival a couple of days ago of Package #2 from Leona, the shape of my near future is becoming clearer. Basically if I do nothing else I will probably be able to do everything the material cries out for, which is in effect, make books of it. Leona has advised me sternly not to start on any project until I have reviewed the whole and while I estimate I have only about 20% of "the main herd" now in hand, I have been entirely unable to resist getting started on the project that jumped right out at me from the outset. Uncle Billie's stories.
When he was retired in the late 1960s and early 1970s Billie wrote stories of his childhood in England, of immigrating to Canada and of pioneering in Saskatchewan, and also of his work with the Moral Re-Armament movement. These stories were in one of the files in Package #1 from Leona and I have (with difficulty considering the wretched quality of the photocopy) now transcribed them into my computer. Next step - to transcribe certain passages from the book Uncle Billie wrote in 1950, into the book I am evolving. My interest is very much focused on his early life and his pioneer experiences; his MRA career can be left to the existing book. However, I did take a side trip into the Internet to discover more about the MRA, which was a kind of quasi-religious organization which became a fad in the Borden Quaker community in the thirties and forties. Once again family history has led to better understanding of a wider history. I plan to include the Wikipedia essay on the MRA as an appendix in Billie's book of stories.
Meantime, some of the other projects have been neglected, which is regrettable, but it seems I need to heed the loudest call. Perhaps I operate in my family history efforts on the squeaky wheel principle. Some projects emit bellows, some mere squeaks, and perhaps unwisely I heed the loudest calls, which often seem to come from the new material that comes to my hands. I really do need the discipline of a Leona in this matter!
Leona meantime has been deployed with her army unit (she is a logistics officer) to Winnipeg, where the soldiers will help deal with the flood threat. I am not to expect to hear from her until late May. When she returns we will resume our email conversation on her observation in her last post that she has reconciled being in the army with being a practicing Quaker. Quakers, like Mennonites, are pacifist....
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
The other day my sister Mary called up - I mentioned this before - saying she had a brilliant idea. And indeed, it IS brilliant. She said that we first cousins of the Hinde family - our father's - should while we still can - write of our memories of our grandparents, Dad's parents. They died more than half a century ago, and for some of their grandchildren the memories will be few. Three of their grandchildren are no longer with us. If we are going to do this, we need to get on with it.
Mary and I are putting together a letter to go out to all the first cousins on Dad's side, proposing that we all write our memories, and Mary and I assemble them into a book. We propose to target completion of the book before April 2012, which will be he centennial of the Hinde family's arrival in Canada.
My contribution to the book has been started. I realized that my memories of my grandparents were few, and blurred together in my child's mind. Is it MY memory, or a recollection of what I have been told, or an old photograph imagined as a memory?
Science journals of late have been full of scholarly articles on how the mind and the memory operate. Vast questions remain without definitive answers. Neural biochemistry doesn't help me to work out what is real and did in fact happen to me, and what exists only in my mind. Comparison of memories with others is not useful except in the broadest factual statements, like, yes, we did have that holiday trip, and the year was 1948...
The arrival of another project might have been daunting, had I not been giving a lot of thought to my purpose in my retirement. Family stories, family connections, family genealogy - that's what I DO, and increasingly, what I AM. And it seems that's all right with me.
Sometimes these blogs take days to write. Today I am packaging up my father's book for mailing tomorrow to all of his children and grandchildren. The book has been "in process" for more than twenty years and finally I just said STOP. It doesn't really feel finished because - predictably - as I was finishing the printing runs two days ago a package arrived from a connection on Dad's side. The package contained material which could/would/should have been in the book, and it's NOT. Perhaps in a later edition, if such is ever wanted? Or perhaps another book altogether?
The rest of the material in that package - which represents a small part of what my connection proposes to lend me in stages - has it it at least three new projects, so my "in process" list just got bumped from 23 to an estimated 30, in consideration of the material yet to come.
The daunted feeling is edging back a little into my consciousness. It is A VERY GOOD THING that I love doing this stuff.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
Re-reading the first blog I wrote on my father's book, I have become more comfortable with the shocking amount of time it has taken me to get to the stage of finalizing and printing the book. I have been working on it since before I retired, but in fact it was finished in one sense about ten years ago. That was then I had assembled my father's memoirs from all the places I found them, edited them, transcribed them into the computer and printed a copy. That copy was then read in the immediate family, including aloud by my son to my mother. Now the time has come to produce a number of copies, complete with illustrations and an index. So why do I feel apologetic? Maybe because it shouldn't take twenty years to bring a project to its final stage.
Being the first family history project I undertook, my father's book was at its start the defining moment for my interest in family history. I literally didn't know what I was getting into. I was approaching the event horizon of a black hole, about to fall in. I fell, not knowing then that there was no return
The minutiae associated with finalizing a book can be tedious. My biggest problems have to do with format such as making sure all the chapter heads are in the same font and dealing with "widows and orphans." Such as these would not be problems if I had worked on the book steadily over a period of months; they are problem when I have worked unsteadily on the book over two decades, and forget what I have done. And even after twenty years I keep finding more material to include in the book, the latest being transcriptions of newspaper clippings of letters my father wrote to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix about the political situation in Saskatchewan in the Fifties. They are worth including; they say a lot about my father. I suppose they could be appendices? To put them anywhere else would destroy my pagination and I have worked on that LONG ENOUGH. My son Jeff finally repaired the mess I had got myself into with respect to the index; I cannot alter that. Yes, I have talked myself into it. The letters to the editor will be appendices.
And there will be several appendices. From the family genealogy come Dad's ancestry and descendant printouts. There are teaching rhymes handed down to him from his grandfather; one begins, "These are the Britons, a barbarous race/Chiefly employed in war and the chase/ Who dwelt in our native England." It's a cumulative poem, each verse adding another group of the inhabitants and always ending with the first verse, like The House that Jack Built. I have tried repeatedly since I acquired an Internet connection to complete that verse, as Dad didn't remember the entire poem. His younger sister added a few lines, but the poem is incomplete and likely to remain so. There is reference to it on one site on Internet. The reference looks promising, as it is one which Dad's grandfather Henry Thomas Wake mentions in one of his notebooks of the 1850s. However to access it I would need to become a subscriber to "Notes and Queries" which seems excessive merely to find lines of an ancient piece of doggerel.
Well! A moment ago I looked again on the Internet. Since I last looked, the Oxford University Press has put ALL Notes and Queries back issues, 160 years' worth, online, and my daughter is going to drill down at that site to see if it is now possible to get the relevant article without having to subscribe to the periodical, which otherwise would be of minimal interest.
The game's afoot: "The Adventure of the Lost Teaching Rhyme." But I won't hold up finishing Dad's book for this. If I AM able to track down the full text of the poem, I will write a piece about teaching rhymes in general (incorporating my protestations about the lost pedagogical device of memorization)and my adventures with this one in particular.
Well again! I had calculated that using this blog as a way of sorting out my thoughts on my family history projects would be of value. Here is evidence of the efficacy of my calculation.
This blog has been written over several days. Yesterday my sister helped me finalize the captions for some of the illustrations for my father's book. I had been stuck on the names of some of the children in a school picture including my father at age nine - 1904 that would be. With her aid I now have them all identified. The picture includes the best one we have of Dad's younger brother Alfred, who died very young.
One thing leads to another; it was ever thus. Writing about Alfie's death, and recalling the deaths at a young age of so many of my kin a century (and less) ago - everyone's kin, one must suppose - I think there is a story there, with the underlying theme that the good old days were in fact dreadful. Deaths from communicable diseases and deaths from puerperal fever are extremely rare in this country now; this was not the case in the relatively recent past. On the Internet is a table of the names of the diseases which killed our forebears, and the present equivalent names. Consumption - tuberculosis. Dropsy - congestive heart failure. Brain fever - haven't found a clear equivalent for that yet but with it often following measles, perhaps it was measles encephalitis. I am an old nurse, and these things interest me. But I won't put it on the list yet as a project. This requires further mulling. And it represents ANOTHER value of writing this blog.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
More than five years ago I photocopied a draft of an autobiography written by my uncle by marriage, with the intention of entering the text into my computer, printing out a copy for his son, my cousin Rawd, and there ending my work on the book. It didn't work out that way. In 2003, Cousin Rawd was four years into a predicted TWO YEAR survival with lung cancer. He lived until October 2007, but other than reading my transcription and starting to make footnotes, he did no further work. I believe his thinking was that the book was already written, and work on it was not as urgent as writing the stories that existed only in his own mind and memory. He continued writing those family stories until weeks before his death.
I was left with this autobiography sitting neglected in my computer for five years while other projects arose and were worked on. But two weeks ago, when I had finished most of the work on the book of the letters Rawd's parents had written to each other when they were courting, I felt the urge to re-examine the book, and found that without input which could be provided only by 'Rawd - or his sister, who died last fall - there was little left to do. So I did a final edit/proofing, finished the formatting and indexing and the last three copies are printing out as I type.
Some doubts have assailed me in the process of working on this book. My uncle had a troubled youth and he did not hesitate to write of his troubles; there was little joy in his life until he met his future wife. He was a man of challenging complexity - brilliant, analytical - and given to critical self-analysis. He completed what Rawd and I took to be the final draft of his book - several drafts were found in a trunk of family papers - in 1951, and now almost six decades later some of his analyses about mankind and the world are seen to be prescient. His early bitter self-criticism, his remarkable intellect and phenomenal memory contributed to his highly successful career in law and regional politics.
Perhaps my biggest doubt has been about the frankness with which he revealed his mental processes, his relationships with people and occasionally his self-loathing. I recall my mother's view about being too revealing or too critical of others when she read the autobiography my father was writing. She encouraged him to delete passages which "might be hurtful to those of that family still living." I had hoped to leave to Rawd the making of any decisions about such deletions. Lacking his input, and not feeling competent to alter the text (except for the usual editing) I am printing it as it came to me.
My uncle's book has a smaller audience now than it would have had in 2003, and vastly smaller than if had been printed soon after it was written. Copies will go only to his children's spouses and his grandchildren.
I can but hope that this is what Rawd would have wished.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
It's done. Printing and binding were completed yesterday. Ten copies. And as always at the completion of a project I feel a moment - no more - of exhilaration, and then a weight of "What's next?" There is always a next, as I have observed repeatedly, with more material coming into my hands with daunting regularity, each item crying out to be addressed, made accessible, made into a book. My last entry here reflected on the making of a list of projects completed and projects in process. I made the list and over the ensuing week added projects to it which require my attention at some point - perhaps not immediately. I added target dates for completion, usually hopelessly optimistic. But I had a target of early 2009 for the Mary and Walter book, and I've made it.
Every project involves compromise. A balance has to be found between completeness, which for perfection would mean the project was never finished, and adequacy, which lacks perfection but at least gets DONE. Sometimes the last scrap of highly necessary content is in someone else's hands - or skills - and I must wait for it, or for the skills to come to my hands. But the Mary and Walter book is done.
There is always a point of trepidation, of hesitancy just before I say, "Enough." Is the adequacy - adequate? Should I strive more energetically toward improvement, should I give the project more time? The perfectionist would deplore the notion of "adequacy" and take a very long time indeed to move past adequacy and into a higher realm of achievement. But time is against me. I'm working on my third cancer, and while I am told the cancers are not likely to limit the life expectancy I could otherwise expect, nevertheless they have given me a sense of urgency about finishing what I have started. And cancers aside, I can feel my cognitive sharpness blunt day by day.
Adequate will have to do.
And anyway, the other day, from a second cousin in England, I received praise for a previous completed project, the Henry Thomas Wake book. She called it a "magnificent manuscript." I think "adequate" is going to have to do when it can garner that kind of praise! Since very few of my books are WRITTEN, and most of them are ASSEMBLED, I cannot take credit for the magnificence of HTW's own writing but at least I will utter an "aww shucks" for the assembling.
And on to the next. I started this post several days ago, before the Walter and Mary book was finished, and in a blitz of effort since, I have finalized the content of Letters to the Ranch and need only to organize the illustrations before printing the 15 copies. In addition, Uncle Walter's memoirs called to me, and I am at page 100 (of 275)of what I hope will be the final edit. There will be more on this project in another blog.
- Written by: Roberta Rivett
In 1900 my great-grandfather Henry Thomas Wake gave to his grandson, my Uncle Leonard, a small notebook. Then nine years old, Uncle Leonard wrote in the front of the book his "life-list" of flowers, and in the back, his "life list" of birds. Between was recorded in an adult hand a set of household tasks, apparently his daily jobs at the Quaker boarding school at Fritchley, Derbyshire. Later, at about fourteen in 1905, Leonard lists the gifts he planned for his family. There are no dates on the entries; all must be inferred from the other facts known about this family. One fact is that at fourteen he commenced full time work, and it seems that among his first expenditures were the gifts for his family. His youngest sister Daisie remembered that later when all the family was in Canada, when Len came home for a visit he he always brought exciting gifts. He started work at fourteen, but his brother Alfie who is on the list for a gift died when Len was fifteen, in 1906. These events bracket this entry.
Other entries include lists of names and addresses of family and friends in England with whom he wanted to keep in touch after he immigrated to Canada. These lists are assigned a date of late 1910 or early 1911. He and his older sister emigrated a year ahead of the rest of the family.
In 1924 Len lent his notebook to his younger sister Elsie, for her use on her extended visit to their sister Winnie and her family in Iowa. Elsie recorded similar lists of gifts, also a variety of expenditures. It is astonishing to see the prices for items such as yard goods 85 years ago.
Yesterday I emailed my second cousin David in Newfoundland to ask about one of the addresses, which had been of his grandmother's family - his grandmother being a daughter of Henry Thomas Wake. I explained what I was doing, and in his reply he described me as a "forensic diary interpreter!" Delightful!
The point I make is that ANY scrap of family memorabilia can be a rich source of information about that family and its life in the past. This little notebook was first written in more than a century ago, and without the entries being dated or the several writers identifying themselves, it is possible to put flesh on some of the bones of the family's story. And this means that every scrap of memorabilia, every document, every photograph from the past must be preserved. This will be a joy to the "keepers" among us, but a burden to others, the "tossers." I beg the tossers to find someone in the extended family to whom to toss family treasures. I hear horror stories about bonfires, and visits to the town dump, and they appall me.
My beloved cousin Rawd who died in October 2007 was, like me, a keeper, but he had been one all his life whereas I am a relatively recent convert. Soon, from his partner Graeme, I will be receiving Rawd's entire family archive. I have had to make alterations in my living space to prepare for the arrival of MANY archive boxes, and I do that willingly, even joyfully. There will be more family history projects to do to make the material accessible to the extended family, and I look forward to that too. I only wish Rawd was still with us, so we could work on these projects together.