Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Don't know much about Genealogy

I like comfort reading when life gets stressful -- I often turn to the Anne of Green Gables series. Last night, I was weary (see yesterday's post to know why) and took to the bath with one of my daughter's books, Laura Ingalls Wilder's -- On the Shores of Silver Lake.

(Before I go on, let me note that I'm not going to be Laura's Ma anytime soon. Laura's Ma accepts every hardship and move to wolf-infested, terribly isolated territory with extreme equanimity. Her weakest moments include not being able to whip up food as she recovers from the scarlet fever that leaves Mary blind, and sitting on Pa's knee after a tragedy takes place. I'm more of a Susanna Moodie kind of pioneer myself: sure you gird your loins, but you write down a few complaining letters along the way. And you don't simply answer: yes, Charles, to every new scheme.)

On the Shores of Silver Lake takes place on the banks of a small lake in North Dakota. There is a winter scene in which Laura and Carrie slide on the ice after dark, only to realize they are being watched by an enormous buffalo wolf (which is a wolf, not a hybrid creature).

It made me think suddenly of a family story about my own paternal great-grandmother, who only died a dozen years ago, nearing the age of 100. She lived in rural Minnesota as a child, and remembered seeing buffalo roaming, but the story that always captured my imagination was this: she too lived on the shores of a lake. She and her siblings rode horses to school in the warmer months but more than once in the winter, when the lake was frozen well, they stood on the ice, opened their coats to the wind and were blown across to the far side of the lake.

Isn't that the best picture?

I've long held a theory that the desire to pursue genealogy strikes at a certain age, and usually just as one's forebears are losing their memories, when it is nearly too late. My mother has traveled to the small Isle of Man, in the middle of the Irish Sea, from which her grandparents emigrated to Canada. She visits graveyards and travels to see the estate where my great grandfather worked as a gardener. My brother-in-law, too, is putting together an extensive family tree, using websites and contacting long-lost relatives who are also doing the painstaking jigsaw-puzzle work. In this family, the past is murky as the grandfather was, we think, the White Sheep of the Family, who went off to China as a medical missionary and lost touch with the rest of his family.

But either I haven't hit the magical age or I just don't have the gene to search out my genetic past.

I spent a lot of last year writing the first draft of a novel in which one of the main characters excavates her late grandmother's life by readying her house for sale. (It was weird then to have opportunity to go through my own grandma's things after she moved into the seniors' home. My writing had taught me that you can take months to do this; my experience showed me that you can find what you need in 45 minutes. Maybe the writing prepared me to know what to look for.)

But last night in the tub, I realized that my approach to family history is just really different. I would rather capture a few stories, a few moments that might not even be archetypal ones in the lives of my family, rather than retrace their steps, marriages, births and deaths. (Or maybe that's for now. Maybe I will wake up one day with the need to understand the scaffolding of my family. It is altogether possible.)

I love the story about my mom's parents, who eloped during the second World War, in part to avoid military service. Both my grandparents were working for hosiery companies at the time. They married secretly, spent the weekend away and returned to work. But it was a custom at my grandfther's factory to dip a newly-married man in the dye pots. When my grandfather arrived at his parents' house, stained purple, there was little hiding what he had done.

I've written before about how I like to capture a moment of my kids' lives, how I take a snapshot of who they are at that moment, twice a year. I think that's what I'm doing with my own past, and that of my characters too -- finding a story, in time, that tells something of who they were at least at that moment.

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