Storytelling

My brother Barry says “The instant  after we live an event, we start re-writing it in our minds, and we keep re-writing it until it suits us, until it feels right.  We rewrite it to make us look funnier, or smarter, or more dramatic.  We have very little awareness that this is what is happening.  Everybody does it.

My purpose (relating this to family history) in “making books” is making our forebears accessible to our younger generation.  I have to recognize that it is very difficult even in the best circumstances to get at a dependable picture of  the lives of these forebears.  Earlier I wrote of a great-aunt, a Niebuhr descendant, of whom I had five photographs, a few letters and a quantity of the memories people had of her.  Then there was my grand-father-in-law, of whom there are records, many of them official ones, but so contradictory as to date and name and place that the truth of the matter is elusive.  There have been many other sources of material for others of my family in my history-writing efforts, and I find it is possible to rank the probability of their revealing the character of the subject in the following ways:

  • Family legends.  Memories. These are probably the least dependable; legends even more than everyday memories evolve in the telling and with the passage of time.  The legends that make a forebear larger than life are sometimes borne out by subsequent evidence, but especially in detail, that’s not the way to bet.  I have mentioned in an earlier blog the family legend of the naming of my Aunt Daisie not holding up to documented fact.  This of course assumes that the “fact” will hold up better to the standard of “truth” than the preferred legend.
  • Letters.  Only rarely are both sides of a correspondence preserved.  I made a book of the only such set of letters that has come to my hands.  One sided letters by their nature tell only half the story, but are valuable if that’s what is available.  I have both sides of the correspondence of my mother’s younger sister and her fiancée, covering a couple of years before they were married.  Transcribing these letters emphasized for me how much of the meaning of the relationship would be lost if only one side of the correspondence were available.
  • Account books.  I have the account books of several forebears.  They don’t make very interesting reading without a vast effort in researching the context, and I have yet to try that.  My sense is that they become the more interesting the older they are.    My great-grandfather wrote his journal in the unused pages of his father’s record of his work as estate bailiff at a wealthy  banker’s country home.  These entries, dating to the early nineteenth century, reflect the life and times, but only in outline. The entry,  “Toll for hay wain tuppence,” carries a mass of information but calls for decoding.
  • Diaries – that is, of the limited-space five year kind – are likely to record only the minutiae of daily life, especially so if they are used as a record by more than just the writer.  My best example is found in my Aunt Elsie’s diary.  She recorded my birth as follows:  “Baby came before doctor.  Boys hauling wood.”
  • Journals.  I distinguish these from diaries by the length of the entries, and by the entries being less dependably daily.  Five year diaries strictly limit the amount of content that can be recorded.  For journals there is no such limitation to entries, which can be from a line to a page to nothing.  Journals are much more likely to contain intimations of the writer’s mental landscape.

It is  my observation from examining a great many family materials dated over the course of two centuries that  of all sources, journals have the best shot at conveying the mind of the writer.  Letters (when both sides of  a correspondence are available) may come close, but there seems always to be a part of the writer’s mental processes held back, edited, monitored.  With a journal such as my great-grandfather’s, both the details of his daily life and his thoughts about the details and the wider physical and mental landscape he inhabited are available.  It becomes possible, through transcribing and footnoting his journals, to develop a sense of the realities of his life and the lives of the people of his time and station in life.

And how odd it is, the significance a century and a half ago, of that “station in life.”  Class structure, while not as rigid as in earlier centuries, was nevertheless still rigid.  Through education and striving, working class children could break into the middle class.  Odd too that through Britain’s possession of a vast and mostly empty land, it called to its citizens to populate that land.  And so it was that many of the children of Henry Thomas Wake became owners of land for ten dollars and three years’ labour, through the Canadian Homestead Act, and found themselves in a nominally classless society.

 

The emotional toll of a death in the family is predicted.  We all know and expect the grief, the sadness.  And we all deal with the grief and sadness in our own way.

These are givens.  What surprised me was the physical exhaustion, not occasioned alone by the fact that there were physical tasks to be accomplished outside the daily round.  No, it seemed that the grief itself was a physical load to be carried, generating physical weariness.  Awareness that this is what is happening is minimal, until, looking back, it is realized.

At some point comes the need to pick up the threads of a life that was fully lived before the deaths and acknowledge that it will, in time, be fully lived again even though there are these vast holes in the warp and weft of that life's fabric.  Then it becomes needful to work with deliberation on  - not MENDING the holes, but - figuring out how to work around them, until the holes by imperceptible stages, heal.

We will all undertake this in our own way.  And the way we choose will probably arise from our own passions and interests and ways of life.  Words, deeds - and memories.

I assemble family books.  I don't say I write them, because there isn't much of my writing in them.  I put them together and distribute them to the family.  That is my passion and my interest.  So from the recent family deaths, books have arisen and will arise further.  I arrange memorials.  I make accessible the ephemera of lives now lost, in order that the departed remain with us through their thoughts and images.  

David's mother had an elegant music box, in the form of a white porcelain dove.  The tune it plays is the theme from the movie "Love Story."  He plays that music box every morning while he is getting ready for the day, and remembers his mother.  I quilt, and remember that she got me started in quilting.  I got to know my brother better than ever before when I kept him company when undergoing treatment at a cancer centre far from his home.  I listen to the music of my son-in-law's brother, so happily available on the Internet.

I write about the family, or rather I assemble material about family members and make books which give the extended family access to the lives of their kin and forebears. And - I arrange ceremonies to mark the passing of those we lost.  Next month the extended family will gather for the installation of plaques in memory of the three of my family we lost in the past year - my brother, whose obituary is on this web site as a Niebuhr descendant, my mother-in-law, and  my son-in-law's brother.   The plaques will be added to those of our family already memorialized there.  We will light candles and share memories.  And then we will feast.  It wouldn't be a Mennonite event without the feast.  Forget tea and dainties!  We will EAT!

And every time we sit in the gazebo,  with the birds and bees and the scent of flowers, we will look at the plaques and memories  of our lost ones will  be renewed,  to the end of our own days.

Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis wrote something so telling about the human condition that I remember it vividly while the rest of the book, although I remember the pleasure of reading it, I do not at all recall.  The memorable passage referred to the expectation, when a task is completed or a challenge met,  that there will be an abiding sense of satisfaction, even joy.  He goes on to describe the failure of that expectation.  Instead of lasting satisfaction, the positive feeling is of remarkably short duration, to be followed almost immediately with "What's next?"

This hit home powerfully for me.

This morning I finished a task - two tasks actually - projects in my never-ending list of family history books.  One was the last stage of work on a book about the farewell party we had here for my brother.  He had asked for a family gathering to be organized, knowing he had little time left and wanting to see everyone while he could know them.  We took a great many pictures, and together with captions, and a few pictures from his earlier life,  and memories of him written by several of the family, a book of the event emerged.  The book was printed off in 20 copies, and yesterday David finished binding the copies.  

At the same time he bound the smaller number of copies of "my" book on Angkor Wat, Cambodia.  This is a book of the pictures taken by my brother Barry when he visited Angkor Wat in October 2009.  It has always been a place of fantasy for me and I asked him to be lavish in picture-taking for me as well as himself.  My thought that only one copy would be made - for me - had to be discarded;  several were made at the requests of various members of the family, and now this book too is printed and bound and into its mailing packages.

The point here is that my joy and satisfaction at completing these two projects were indeed momentary emotions.  Jonathan Haidt hit the nail on the head.  I have thought that perhaps there will be a more substantial feeling of satisfaction once I complete ALL the family projects on the list, but every time I shorten the list by one, or by two projects as today, three or more arise, demanding my attention.

I suppose I could just tell myself that nothing will be added to the list until all present projects are complete, but I don't seem to be able to go at it that way.  While I am working on one project (more likely several) I do NOT  resist discovering new areas of family history and realizing that books need to be made about them.  In consequence the list never shortens.

While writing today to cousins delinquent in sending me their memories of our shared grandparents  (this is the next of "What's next?") I realized that another book is crying out to be made, of the letters my mother and her siblings exchanged after they had all married and gone their geographically but not emotionally separate ways.  So there it is, two books finished, a new one identified, and still 22 more in the list in various stages.

So why is it that I cannot take more than the briefest of pleasure out of finishing two books.  With the total completed now numbering 25, all I can see is the 22 on the list yet to be written.

These reflections lead to some serious questions about my expectations with respect to RETIREMENT!  This is retirement?  I work at my projects for at least 8 hours a day (scattered over 15 or 16 hours.)  I will be 75 this year, and while I am in reasonable health I find that my cognitive sharpness is declining.  How long am I going to be able to continue working on the family books I so powerfully see as my mission in retirement to produce?  The sense of urgency is at times overwhelming, and is not helped by being still in my first five years after cancer treatment.  AS Omar Khayam has it, "The bird of time has but a little way to flutter, and the bird is on the wing."

The Great-Aunt Mary book was mailed off today, not without qualms on my part.  I hope that some of the recipients will feel free to make additions for a possible future edition; the story of her life is certainly incomplete.

And as always, when completing a project, I feel not exhilaration, but a species of let-down.

Fortunately, while the HTW Notebooks issue is still in limbo, awaiting the response to my plea to the Archivist at Friends' House, London, England, Package #5 arrived from my kinswoman in Ontario, giving me the relatively mindless task of transcribing the interviews with my kin in the seventies to be done.  I made a start this afternoon, and as always find the CONTENT to be fascinating.  The first one I am working on is Betty Ward's interview with my second cousin, who was reflecting on the survival - or otherwise - of the Quaker Meeting in Borden. This is a second cousin who has been most helpful with clarifications of agricultural terms for footnotes, explanations of events and much other valuable assistance in the making of a number of books.  He is now in his eighties, and at the time of the interview he was still  farming in the Borden area, but no longer a member of the Quaker Meeting.

Hmm...I should date my entries.  A lot of water under the bridge since I wrote the above.  Part of said water will be reflected in a later post entitled The Game's Afoot III; for now I will comment further on transcription of the fifth and final package of the Ward Archive.

I should indeed date my entries.  The last one completed and posted was in October 2009; this one and another sat in my draft box until now. Since October, My brother David died (November) and my mother-in-law entered her final illness and died (January 2010.)  It is obvious that my mind has been elsewhere than on family history for some months, but I trust the challenges and tasks presented by the loss of these loved ones will soon be dealt with and life will resume its normal smooth tenor.  I expect, however, to continue to feel uneasy at nine in the morning - the hour when for many years I telephoned my beloved mother-in-law...

Old images come in so many forms, presenting challenges to the writer of family histories.  While the speed of format change in picture-taking has not been as swift as it has for video or computer format changes, still, making use of old images in current family history books is not a straightforward endeavor.

In an earlier blog I referred to my working on assembling a book about my brother David's world travels as a young man.  My husband David scanned the relatively few slides brother David had kept (after many purges!) of his travels, and we are including them in the book.

Having mastered the scanning of slides, which included equipment, software and the acquisition of the necessary skills, David has moved on to scanning the slides we ourselves took from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies.  For the past several weeks we (he scanning, I assisting with identification) have together scanned one slide tray of 40 slides a day, and at the end of the task, with roughly 2000 slides scanned, moved on to the sets of slides my parents assembled for their four children.  

This process of scanning our own slides has been a visit to the past.  The slides were by no means in good order, with evidences of past use showing in the disorder.  For some of the images, no identifying recollection was available.  Others we think we had not looked at since the images were produced. For only a pitiable few was there information written on the card holder of the slide. The numbering of the slide trays LOOKED logical but the slides within usually bore no resemblance to the label on the tray.

I understand this is fairly typical.

As we have gone along we have chosen some of the images to be printed, and are sharing these with various family members.  The bulk of these printouts will become a book in a single copy.  For the full complement of images in the computer, there is grist for several additional books, but at this point the thought of putting those into my work plan is too daunting to contemplate. Maybe next year.

All this is preliminary to the reflection that has been going on about the nature of family picture-taking.

Pictures are taken for many reasons, most boiling down to the desire to preserve for the future some aide-memoir of a present event.  So far so good.

When traveling we also took many pictures of the scenery,  buildings and places customarily in the viewfinder of tourists.  What we find remarkable now is how little they interest us, decades on, compared to the ones we took of family members.  Even dramatic shots of the Arizona Meteor Crater or the Devil's Tower seem worth preserving in the computer only if there are family members in the foreground.  

Further:  if the image is a typical tourist one and without family members in evidence, there is probably a much better picture of that scene available in a picture postcard.  We certainly found that to be the case when trying to take pictures of cathedral ceilings in England!  But strangely, those purchased images too are of little interest now.

A week further on:  "the main herd" is now in sight.  I have in hand, ready for more scanning, the big boxes of slides my parents gave to their four children when they were reducing the "stuff" in their lives.  

More book potential.  I suppose I should at least LIST the potential books but at the moment, the prospect is intimidating.

More reflections about photographs, in their various incarnations, are buzzing around in my head but this entry is too long already.  Suffice it, at this point, to say that there will be more on the subject at another time.

This post has been running around in my head for some time.

The overall theme of this blog of family history, family stories, family trees - in short, FAMILY - will, as I age, inevitably include family deaths.  I referred a couple of posts back to the death of my grandchildren's uncle John - see http://johncaspell.allegrasloman.com/wordpress/ for his memorial site.  And now closer kin, my brother, faces the undiscovered country from whose borne no traveler returns.   Less than a year ago he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  He was treated with radiation and chemotherapy and seemed to be progressing well.  His prognosis wasn't good but he had been given to expect a few more years.  Then two months ago he had seizures, and investigation revealed the lung cancer had extended to his brain.  Immediate treatment was whole-brain radiation, to be followed in a couple of weeks by targeted radiation with the linear accelerator in Vancouver.  Now between those batches of radiation, he is fatigued and unsteady but learning to accept the love and help that family offer.  Earlier, his fierce independence had made that difficult.

In December and January each of his siblings went to Kelowna in turn to keep him company while he was undergoing six weeks of radiation.  When I was there I scribbled notes while he talked about his adventurous early life when for four years he traveled around the world.  I went again for the week of his follow-up radiation in the middle of July; by then I had transcribed his story and he had reviewed and edited it.  Meantime my husband (also David) had scanned into the computer the slides my brother  had taken during those years, and printed off a set.  This time we worked on detailed captions for the pictures.  I am aiming for that book to be printed and bound by the time of the party.

The party? When Brother David got the second diagnosis, he called and said that he didn't want anyone coming to see him;  he wasn't going to have a funeral;  he wanted no ceremony.  He was going to be cremated and his ashes buried in his son Michael's grave.  What he DID want was a big family party, to take place as soon as he was well enough after his treatment to make the day-long trip, driven by his daughter, to Victoria.  I was directed to get all the family together for him to say goodbye.  A friend referred to such an event as a "living wake."

So - some time in the next few weeks there will be a family party here for my brother.  We will comply with his wishes and "Sing no sad songs..." for him.  His calm acceptance of his fate will keep us from weeping.  At least on the outside.

Herewith a quote from the July-August 2009 Discover magazine:

"...recent insights into memory are part of a large about-face in neuroscience research.  Until recently, long-term memories were thought to be physically etched into our brain, permanent and unchanging.  Now it is becoming clear that  memories are surprisingly vulnerable and highly dynamic.  In the lab they can be flicked on or dimmed with a simple dose of drugs.  For a hundred years people thought memory was wired into the brain.  Instead we find it can be re-wired - you can add false information to it, make it stronger, make it weaker, and possibly even make it disappear...memory is inherently flexible....The new science of memory already corrodes our trust in eyewitness testimony, in memoirs, in our most intimate records of truth.  Every time we remember, it seems, we add new details, shade the facts, prune and tweak.  Without realizing it we continually rewrite the stories of our lives.  Memory, it turns out, has a surprising amount in common with imagination, conjuring worlds that never existed until they were forged in our minds."

WITHOUT REALIZING IT WE CONTINUALLY REWRITE THE STORIES OF OUR LIVES.

A thought to ponder in many contexts, including the context of family history.

I think I have mentioned in another entry here the many birth dates and birthplaces of my husband's maternal grandfather.   Last week one of his grandsons, my husband's cousin, send me a copy of his father's birth certificate, in which YET ANOTHER birthplace for the baby's father is recorded.  

Perhaps this man, my husband's grandfather, wasn't so much an anarchist, impatient with bureaucratic requirements (recall, all these different birthplaces and dates are on official documents) as simply not remembering with precision where and when he was born.  He had left home at a very early age and perhaps without familial reminders of birthdays and family history, he simply didn't remember.  When documents were put before him to fill in the blanks and sign them, he just did the best he could.  At least all his birthplaces were in one country - Scotland - and  his birthdays were all within a three year span.

The article quoted above tells us we can't depend on memory - ANYBODY'S memory including our own - to reflect the TRUTH.  I have adduced evidence for the proposition that we cannot depend on official documents for such straight-forward facts as dates and places of birth, and I could list many other errors in these in my further experience with family history. We are  left with wondering how important may be THE TRUTH in such matters.  

Once upon a time.  Starting a story that way gives it the flavor of a fairy tale.  Perhaps that is it should be.  Once upon a time, long, long ago...actually it was in June of 1908, a baby girl was born, the last of a family of eight, in Birmingham, England.  The parents decided to name her Joan Isobel.  Registration of the birth was required within thirty days but the time slipped by and her father Joseph,  in the midst of a business crisis and very harried,  neglected this task until the last minute of the last day, appearing at the Registry Office having utterly forgotten the plan for the baby's name. There were penalties for late registration so he had to go ahead regardless.  He thought that he couldn't go wrong by naming her after her two grandmothers, so he recorded her name as Lydia Margaret.  Her mother's mother was indeed Lydia, but his mother was named Anne, and had never been known by another given name.  

So:  I have demonstrated you can't fully depend on official documents, and to that I add, you can't fully depend on family legends.

Should I go on to the undependability of gravestones?  Newspaper obituaries? Census records?  Perhaps not; perhaps that can be taken as the case without further evidence.  Wherein, therefore, lies THE TRUTH?

And how much does it matter?  Mankind has got itself into a lot of trouble by segments of it believing they were sole possessors of a religious truth, and have gone about killing and torturing those who disagreed with their truth.  It's still happening.  But I feel a rant coming on, and shall deflect it by alluding to the way SCIENCE regards truth, which is much less sure.  Science says, this is what we've come to on this  point, and we accept that this tentative truth is the best we have at the moment, recognizing that at any moment evidence may alter or even overturn what we regard as this moment's operational "truth."   This should be entirely tolerable but I guess toleration of such uncertainty depends on the individual's capacity to handle ambiguities.  To apply this idea to the matter at hand - legends, family stories and truth - I am prepared to accept the varying birth dates and birthplaces of the head of one of my founding families, because of the FACTS of the differences on a succession of official documents;  not the facts of the birth dates and birthplaces which cannot all represent TRUTH,  but the fact that these dates and places are so documented. 

Another cousin of my husband's is determined to get to the bottom of the date and place of his grandfather's birth.  More power to him.  A package came yesterday of the Internet researches he has been doing, which have homed in A LITTLE on a probable date and place.  I am happy to enter his findings into my data base and include them - tentative though they are - in the book I am preparing about this forebear.  But I have to come back to the question, how much does an absolute precision - an absolute TRUTH - matter? I now have for this individual copies of several possible birth certificates, several possible census records from several census periods, British Army records, attestation papers and paybooks for two hitches in the Canadian Army in World War I the ship's manifest for his immigration to Canada - plus the birth certificates of several of his children, and each has reference to his age, several down to precise date.  No two are exactly alike.

How much does it matter?

John Donne's Meditation, quoted in part below, reflects something of how I feel.  The recent death in my extended family (not the Niebuhr branch) gives pause, as deaths do, for reflection about one's own mortality, and about how each life is an tapestry intensely interwoven with the lives of many others.  When one person dies, the warp and weft of the lives of a great many other people, kin or not, are shaken, torn, requiring repair so that the whole cloth can again become functional.  When the death is sudden, unexpected, shocking, devastating, the rent in many lives takes all the more time to heal.  And while we struggle to bring fragile threads of mending across the rent, we think about our own mortality. And we turn to the living in our family and vow to express our love and appreciation for them while they are mortal.

XVII. MEDITATION.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

The death in my extended family explains - but does not, I think, excuse - the dearth of recent posts.  My work in the family history arena have been minimal for some time.  My sense of urgency in that regard has become close to frantic, and yet the weight of my mortality precludes active effort.  

Time must pass.

The urge to write is upon me; the subject, however, is elusive.  I have been working on transcription of the material in Leona's second package, the interviews which Betty Ward, author of The Quakers at Borden, did with various of my kin in preparation for the book.  There have been many surprises.  I lived in that community or near it for all of my childhood and youth, and it seems I knew my Quaker kin only superficially.  There were some suggestions in the 2004 book of levels of knowledge that I had not been party to in my youth, but transcribing the interviews has revealed the depths of my ignorance.

Betty Ward, in assembling her information for the book, asked people questions I never thought to ask, being then a part of the community, so she received answers that were surprising.  I have to wonder to that extent she heard what had not been freely discussed earlier in the community because she was an interested stranger, and had a talent for encouraging people to be open with her.

My present transcription effort involves several interviews Betty Ward had with the mother of Uncle Billie, the object of my previous post;  she was my father's first cousin, and well-known to me - as I thought - in my younger days.  These interviews, it seems, were conducted without tape-recording;  Betty Ward took notes, then later expanded her notes into a tape recorder, and later still, transcribed on a typewriter.  This suggests a fairly high level of "processing" of the information received.  It is also clear Betty Ward had in advance put together a list of questions to be asked at the interviews.  In one case certain questions were forgotten as the interviewer told his or her story and a later letter asks for those factual details.

I see that I have hundreds of hours of effort to put into the overall project of the "Betty Ward Archives, and that several books will result.  At the moment I feel daunted, intimidated by the prospect, but also excited.  I will have deeper and wider knowledge of the Quaker side of my family as a consequence of this.  Extending my understanding of my kin has its own rewards.

People who become involved in family history, particularly the genealogy branch of it, often tell of hitting brick walls and coming to dead ends in the effort to trace an ancestral line.  This suggests an image of their running full tilt up a path which might or might not be clearly marked, then coming to grief when it ends.  I think my approach to family history is more passive.  I am as the orb spider in her web, waiting for my prey to come to me.  An obvious advantage is the avoidance of the metaphorical bruises when that brick wall suddenly stops one's dash forward, and the distress that is expressed when a promising line of inquiry suddenly stops.   I simply wait, decorating my web with attractive bits of this and that to lure the unwary relative into sending me my dinner - not flies and beetles, but information about our shared kin.  A disadvantage is that I don't have a lot of control over the direction in which my effort to obtain new information is going.  I just wait, and make use of whatever comes to me.

After close to 15 years at it, I don't have to wait long.  Almost every day, SOMETHING arrives to keep the old lady spider well fed.  Those years have seen a lot of sowing seeds and shooting arrows into the air.  Information about new marriages, new grandchildren now comes unsolicited from my first cousins.  They know I want it, and there is a small reward for telling me about a new member of the clan - the grandparent gets a printout of that child's ancestry chart.  That's the decoration on my web, because especially if it is a first child, it is likely that the child's ancestors on the side of the parent who married into the family are sparse, and who would want to see blanks in one's new grandchild's ancestry?  This often elicits a flurry of activity to fill in the blanks and provide me with the wherewithal for a more complete ancestry chart for that child.

One cousin recently delayed for more than a year getting information to me about a new son-in-law and grandchild.  She looked ahead and realized that it would be to her advantage to send me information about the forbears of all her sons- and daughters-in-law.  It took her a year to assemble the material, which came to me in  the handwriting of many people.

All this is NOT to say that I don't find obstacles in my path.  In the last week an insuperable obstacle has appeared in the path to solution of the Case of the Spider in the Sailor's Ear.  I wrote of this two blogs back, in The Game's Afoot II.  At last report, Nancy-the-Artist was to go to Foster's Store-cum-Museum and look at the Player's ad/logo/display card to see the spider in the sailor's ear.  Disappointment.  Dead end.  Brick wall.  There was no spider.  She described what she saw.  The image of the sailor was about as big as your fist, she said, and the art seemed much cruder than anything else she had seen of Uncle Ed's, more like it was drawn with a magic marker than his delicate pencil and brush strokes.  Where there should have been a spider was a black blob.

So we have had to figure out what was going on here.  I have input from my sister;  Leona  (who first identified this puzzle) and I have emailed back and forth about it,  and I'll be writing Nancy.  Three possible explanations:  the Player's ad  at Foster's store was a later version, much like the one Uncle Ed designed but with the spider eliminated.  The exigencies of lithography had erased the spider.  OR - and this is my favourite because it fits so neatly with my knowledge of my species:  Uncle Ed, when he realized his art was being used far and wide with minimal reward for him, said to - whoever - that he should at least have signed it, and since a signature wasn't possible, he should have signed it with a spider in the sailor's ear.  This remark morphed in the retelling into his actually having done that.  But it never happened.

In a future blog I will reflect about the nature of memory, and the way we all experience the world differently, and how everybody tells a story to make it better.

Aficionados of A. Conan Doyle will recognize the title of this entry as the phrase used by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson at the start of a new case.

The case is The Mystery of the Spider in the Sailor's Ear, and the game's afoot.  It might never have become afoot had I paid more attention - that is, any attention at all - to a cigarette ad.

Here's what happened.  I have referred to Uncle Edward's Receipt Book, and the book of his drawings which came out of it.  Leona, a connection in Ontario who is actually more closely connected than I to Uncle Ed (who is my uncle by marriage), being his great-grand-niece, learning about the art found in the receipt book, added this to the mix:  As a child she had heard the story of Uncle Ed producing the artwork for an ad, perhaps more accurately a logo,  for the Player's cigarette company, showing a sailor.   The ad was used widely, indeed internationally, for many years.  I'm guessing from the prices Uncle Ed reported in his receipt book that he was paid perhaps $8.00 for it.

Commercial art is not signed, so, his great-grand-niece told me, he drew a tiny spider in the ear of the sailor, visible only on VERY close inspection.  That spider remained in the ad for many years.  

Leona asked me if I had heard the story.  I had not, but thought I might have a shot at tracking down the actual image, either through Uncle Ed's son, my cousin Gordon, or through the Borden Museum.  Gordon reported that he had heard the same story as a boy, and had tried to track it down through the Internet, without finding it.  Wikipedia has a graphic of the image - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Player_&_Sons - but I think that is an earlier one than Uncle Ed's - it is dated about 1914 and I believe his commercial art business got started a few years later.

When my sister Mary and I were in Borden, Saskatchewan for the centennial of the village - and of Saskatchewan - the Borden Museum had a special display of the work of  Borden artists past and present.   Included were landscapes by Uncle Ed - and the Player's ad.  I didn't pay enough attention to it to discern more than that it was a cigarette ad;  my sister remembers that it did indeed contain a sailor.  

Another kinswoman, also an artist, undertook to track down that piece of commercial art through the Museum, and found the Museum closed for the winter, the committee chair away, but that she was hot on the trail.  Then I told my sister about this and SHE said, "But the Museum doesn't own that piece!  It is owned by Stan Foster of the Borden General-Store-cum-Museum."  He had lent it to the Museum for the centennial display, and had told her that for many years it was on display - as a cigarette ad! - in the store.  

Present status:  Nancy has been asked to please take a magnifying glass and go and see Stan Foster and have a look in the sailor's ear.  I await, more-or-less breathlessly, for the result.

There aren't many interstices otherwise unoccupied in my life, but "the game's afoot" is what I fill them with when they occur.  Sometimes my family history work hits a tedious patch, like right now, with a great many finished and printed books waiting to be bound.  This is physically hard work, and exacting.  Tracking down The Mystery of the Spider in the Sailor's Ear enlivens my days of bookbinding.

My big achievement in family history this past week has been making a list of all the projects completed, with completion date and number of copies on hand, and another list of the projects in process.  The 16 completed projects (plus four ongoing ones) are cause for some satisfaction.  The first is dated 1999, the most recent, last month.  Not so satisfying, in fact daunting, is the list of projects at various stages of completion, and I use that term completion with some hesitancy.  One of them reared its head only yesterday, too late to get on the typed list.  Yesterday my sister Mary called, having had a brilliant idea.  Of the first cousins on the English side of our family (fewer in number than those on the Mennonite, Niebuhr side)  three of the seventeen are already gone, and a large majority of those remaining are in their seventies and eighties.  Mary's idea is to capture the memories of the remaining cousins of our shared grandparents, who died half a century ago.  To that end this morning I started to draft a letter to all the cousins, asking them to participate in this project by writing their memories of Grandma and Grandpa Hinde, who came to Canada in April 1912 with their children and founded the Saskatchewan branch of the family, now numbering 172 descendants and 80 spouses. I discovered that I don't have enough pictures of Grandma and Grandpa Hinde scanned into my computer, so that will be the next step in the project, to go through the albums and present David with a pile of scanning to do.

And so it goes.  Another project.  

Meanwhile the list will serve several purposes in addition to letting me feel positive about the past and daunted about the future.  Daughter Allegra has offered her help with a project, any project, and I will share the list with her so she may choose which she might like to work on.  If I had my preference and she had lots of time - dream on! - she would work on the Uncle Walter book.  It is several hundred pages;  it was transcribed several years ago from a draft which was scribbled over with emendations and often illegible marginal notes, and it has not been looked at since.  The plan had been that I would get it into the computer and send a copy to cousin Rawd (Uncle Walter was his father) and Rawd would take it from there.  But Rawd became more and more ill, and although he was working on family history until days before he died in October 2007, his output in his last months was limited to shorter works of family history which are now captured in the Rempel Cousin Stories, printed in late 2008.

The list will also serve to remind me of tasks to be done in the various projects.  A family historian on Dad's side has a practice of starting a project and finishing it before starting another. That doesn't work for me.  I like to have a choice of projects to work on at any given moment.  In addition, when I have the help of others with the projects, I am dependent on  their time availability to do the work they have undertaken, and that means if I used the former strategy I would go months with nothing accomplished.  

This "many projects" approach applies also to my needlework, but there the prohibiting factor is carpal tunnel syndrome rather than others holding up progress.  When my hands get numb doing one kind of needlework, I move to another, with half a dozen projects, each using my hands in a different way, on the go at any moment.

If this suggests I have a Type A personality (those folks who like to do more than one thing at a time) the suggestion is well taken.

Meanwhile, THE LIST. Perhaps I can metamorphose it in my mind from a whip to a kindly encouragement. 

Once upon a time I did not think well of Christmas letters.  A relative on David's side began sending them at least 35 years ago, detailing the wonderful doings of his successful, brilliant and beautiful offspring.  I was tempted then to reply with a parody letter, cheerfully listing the fictitious disasters of our year, but I never did, and in the last fifteen years - since retirement and since my interest in family history began - I have come to realize the value of these letters.  A card with a signature sends one message.  A card with a note and signature sends another.  Adding a typed and duplicated letter, often two pages, with photographs, sends yet another.

The card with signature says "I am aware of your existence," or "You sent me a card last year."  The one with a note says, "I have something specific to communicate with you."  The one with the duplicated letter says, "I want you to know about my family and my year, and this is how I can get my message to the many people I want to have this information."

I appreciate them all.  They all connect person to person.  The third is a particular treasure to the amateur genealogist because of the genealogical information contained in the duplicated letter.  If a hundred cards are sent, it is not reasonable to repeat a hundred times in handwriting the details of the family news.  The duplicated letter can provide that trove of information to help  keep the family tree current and accurate.  

It is many years now since I was impatient with duplicated Christmas letters.  Now, I read them for the joy of knowing more than I would otherwise know about the year of the sender, usually kin,  and then go over them line by line to extract every bit of family information for the family data base.

I am a reformed character in this regard!

Educational Psychology tells us that people have different learning styles, and ideally teaching should be tailored to the individual.  While this works well with one-on-one tutoring, it doesn't in a classroom, where the lecture mode means that one style has to fit all.

My learning style, while comfortable with interactional learning  in social situations, requires a massive amount of repetition for learning anything technically detailed.  I am fortunate in that for all learning necessary to managing my computer's hardware my husband David is my tutor, and for the same involving hardware, my son Jeff is my tutor.  When first I asked for coaching about the computer more than twenty years ago, both husband and son used the "Tell her once and she'll get it" approach. On me, of course, it  DID NOT WORK, and frustration reigned on all sides.  Slowly they learned to accept how I learned, and slowly they adapted their teaching style to my learning style.  Consequently in the middle of November when son Jeff visited, he coached me flawlessly and patiently through learning a new skill, departing with the reminder to practice every day for a couple of weeks.  David  has reiterated that reminder daily, and here I am, now able to perform MOST - but not all - of the operations necessary to incorporate pictures and text on the same page.

HOORAY!

Perhaps I am not conveying well what a big deal this is for me.

It is A BIG DEAL for me.

However, it brings complications, one of which is my father's book.  I had prepared the illustrations for it almost a decade ago using my then-available skills, and do not want at this point to discard about a foot thick of sets of illustrations.  Dad's book will have to be old-format with  his pictures and the same with his footnotes.  There is discomfort for me in this as now that I know better ways something in me wants to discard hundreds of hours of work and apply my new skills.  But to do that would not only be unacceptably wasteful but would cut into the time allocated for the next project.

Later, rethinking the matter, I should be able to combine text and photographs in the last section of the book, the decade of the 1970s.  The pictures from this time have not yet been scanned.  Perhaps that's the solution, including with it an explanation of the changing format...