culture & community relationships & love

Where Do I Come From? (or: How Easy it is to Loose Your Roots)

by Niffer — October 1, 2012

Reading Lem’s post from last week, I began to contemplate my own family history.  Specifically I began to contemplate how little I really know about my family.  What I do know doesn’t go back more than a couple generations, and even that is spotty and vague.  Neither of my parents came from a particularly tight family.  They were at best typical of the 50’s baby boom and at worst completely dysfunctional.  Not surprisingly there was little family pride and history passed down.  By the time I was 27 the last of my grandparents had passed away.  The first died when I was only 3 years old.  One of the only photos I have of myself with my Nanna is below, the back of the faded rectangle lovingly inscribed by my mother “ Jen 2 1/2 yrs with mom”.

Not long after that photo was taken, Nanna died of some illness which even my mother isn’t quite sure of.  I guess people didn’t share those things with their children in those days, and doctors didn’t even feel it was necessary to tell the family for medical history purposes.  Two years later her husband, my Grandpa, died of a heart attack.

I don’t know where either one was born and raised, but I assume it was Toronto.  I don’t know if they were first generation Canadian or fifth. I do know that Nanna had 12 pregnancies, 8 living children, and an emergency hysterectomy. I also know that she worked in a munitions factory during WWII, and that her first fiance was (I believe a pilot who was shot down and) lost in action.  I know Grandpa Ryan was a St. Mike’s choir boy, and later a classically trained Irish Tenor and that he worked for the postal service.

I know my mother was the eldest of those 8 children, and that she left home at 18, put herself through teacher’s college, married a good man and raised three good kids.  Her brothers and sisters are spread across North America, and some of them I haven’t seen since I was a kid.  I have relatives in the Yukon, Vancouver, and sometimes Australia.

On my Dad’s side the connections are a little more clear.  His parents didn’t pass away until I was in my 20s, so I was able to pick up some small details.  My Grandma was born in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia called Larry’s River.  Her family name goes back to the founding of the village many generations back, and there’s a bit of a vague notion (supported by some lingering facial characteristics) that there may be some Mi’kmaq blood in her family.

My Pappa was born in Plymouth, England and came to Canada when he was a teenager.  He left behind a scholarship to an art school, and also a younger sister when they emigrated.  His sister was legally blind, and was considered to be a potential drain on the system so was denied entry to Canada.  In my teens she came for a visit, and we heard all about how Pappa would take her around in a wagon when they were kids.  I can’t imagine how hard that separation must have been on the whole family.

Pappa met Grandma during the war.  He was a petty officer in the Navy, and spent time in Nova Scotia.  Rumor has it that he broke off an engagement back home and pestered Grandma until she agreed to marry him.  In their wedding photo he cuts a handsome figure in his sailor’s uniform.  They lived in Toronto and in Nova Scotia, raised 5 kids, and when Grandma died at 84 years old, Pappa followed soon after.  She was the love of his life and once he didn’t have her to take care of…

Those are the bare bones I know.  Sometimes I wonder what the flesh of the stories might be, and where the stories all started.  One day I’ll start searching for the answers, and maybe I’ll figure out who the one legged man with a dog is, or the year my Grandma’s family settled in Larry’s river, or if I’m really descended from Scottish royalty.  Until then I’ll try to pass on stories to my nieces when they start to ask about their great grandparents, and even how their Nana and Pappa met.  That’s a pretty funny story too… the story goes that Mom said yes to a date just to get Dad to stop asking!


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