By Victoria MacGregor.
Since the late 1980s, when my mother gave me a detailed family tree document, I’ve lingered around the perimeter of getting into family tree research. It recorded the names, birth and death dates of her father’s side of the family. Mostly his distant cousins. I pulled that old, faded Xerox chart out the day after I finished my fourth 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle about three weeks into Covid19 lock down in 2020 and was struck by the fact that no one had followed the women. In particular, my maternal grandmother’s side of the family was not represented at all on the family tree I’d been given in the 1980s.
So, that’s what I decided to do… follow the women. Which turned out to be no easy task, as I discovered the complexities of researching women. At the end of it all, what I had were dozens of photographs tossed in an old shoebox and some pretty compelling ancestry research. The next thing to do was to go searching for how to bring the photographs, documents, and the stories behind them into some sort of album. A family album that I could share. Or could I?
My first hard covered album was created online, using one of the many “all singing- all dancing” photo book platforms available. Very one-dimensional concept though. One author, one point of view, one memory, just mine. After printing the initial copy, I discovered, much to my horror, a few embarrassingly unfortunate typos. Seriously bad, don’t show to grandma kind of bad. The expense of printing additional edited copies removed most of the joy out of creating them. To add insult to the injury, if I unearthed more vital information and stories that I’d want to inject into the hardcover album it wouldn’t be possible to do so without printing more books. And oh, the trees! The bark covered kind.
But of course, I found more information, additional documents, and then I had to rethink what I was doing. The cost blowout was going to be the end of my family storytelling journey. While a hard covered album has a place in the world of heirlooms and a nice thing to have on a bookshelf, the search was on for an alternative way to share my research and source more stories. The engagement of other family members to help grow the stories still hidden in the research, was my ultimate goal. My thoughts are that social media isn’t the place to share personal family history, nor are those sorts of platforms what I am about or what I was after. I wanted private, intimate interactions with family and friends.
Many of us get extraordinarily enthusiastic about our ancestry journey and we count on our family members also catching the fever, feeling the spark. Regrettably, that doesn’t happen much, and we end up being the latest relative that “is doing” the family tree. Like my 1st cousin, twice removed, Beth, who was the master of the Xerox version in the 1980s.
Things are changing. Imagine sitting at your computer and privately sharing those special family moments or ancestral stories in real time? Making use of the communication platforms that we are all Covid19 experts in using now. Your parents, grandchildren, and children can enjoy digitally prepared family albums with you, at the same time. Amazing to me that we can do this. But we can.
Once I’d familiarised myself with this new technology, I was creating scenes, telling stories, and sharing history with some 25 family members in Canada. All in a private, secure way.
Turned into this…
My cousins and I walked down 50-year-old history memory about $10.00 in an envelope at Christmas time. Not a big deal, but at the same time a very big deal. It’s simply amazing to me that a single photograph can ignite a deep dialogue with some family members. But it certainly can and did! One photo, two relatives plus myself. Both are first cousins. Norman, whom I’ve never met, and Wendy, whom I hadn’t talked to in perhaps 45 years.
Wendy: “Wow that is something — this would be the Uncle Bert of Uncle Bert and Auntie Pat? I believe they were the so generous relatives who sent a cheque each Christmas — I remember it as $50.00 and boy did my parents always cherish that cheque and purchase something very special for the family with it. One year it was water-skis I think. I don’t know that I ever met him. He and Auntie Pat (do I have that right?) were always offered up to us as the reason we must have good table manners — i.e. we’d never be invited to dinner with them if not — I don’t think we ever were so I believe we failed ….”
Victoria: “That’s him. The 50.00 would be right…since there was 5 of you. We all had an envelope on the Christmas tree with 10.00 in it. Big money for a kid in the 1960s. They were very generous, extremely actually. Auntie Pat used to have Barbie doll clothes made for us that were exact replicas of her gorgeous outfits, complete with little fur collars. You’re right about the table manners… they were the gold standard.”
Wendy: “Yes that was big money! You know, we got barbie doll clothes too and I thought they were from Gramma Ester — I wonder if she and Auntie Pat exchanged pattern or if we got some of Auntie Pat’s as they were gorgeous!”
Victoria: “I’m thinking that they came from Auntie Pat… she was generous and fair and equal. What she gave to one, she gave to us all. Mind you, no idea what she gave to the boys!”
Norman: “One Christmas Uncle Bert passed on an old camera and asked my dad to take pictures of us kids on Christmas Day. Dad learned to develop the film and print them. That was the start of my photography.”
It’s more than the photograph that inspires the spark. The spark for Norman was clearly my comment about the boys. It ignited a personal memory for him, of being given a camera, which in turn ignited his love of photography.
This is all terrifically exciting, wonderful, and exactly what my digitally presented albums were intended to do, that is, to open a dialogue of shared stories. However, it has done so much more than just that.