To keep or not to keep?

What to do with those old letters and diaries! Short answer: burn them!

A few weeks ago, an interesting question arose in a discussion about family documents. Some of us are “of a certain age“, as the French say, and that means we were actually taught penmanship in our youth and are adept at writing longhand. Many of us are nobly trying to keep up with technology and think that tapping reminders into our cell phones is quite a feat.

Not only writing longhand, but writing letters seems to have gone the way of the quill for most people, in this age of email, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These phenomena have undermined letter-writing almost to the point of extinction, largely due to the instant gratification they provide. A life is now described in a series of selfies and cryptic comments punctuated with phonic (not to say moronic) abbreviations that have the personality of a licence plate.

Also, we grew up in an era of keeping diaries, which is another now-quaint habit on the endangered species list. It is said that journaling is coming back into vogue, but mostly as a meditative exercise in the never-ending desire for “self help“.

Baby-boomers are likely the last generation to have practiced the art of letter-writing. I remember studying abroad and staying connected to family and friends by writing and receiving letters. The thin, bluish airmail  sheets and envelopes were an important tool at a time when the only other communication device was a telephone, and long distance calling was expensive. The plot thickens. When I went away I also left behind a serious boyfriend, and we corresponded for months at a time… for a total of 3 years. We ended up getting married, had children, and the bundles of love letters rested in manila envelopes hidden from prying eyes for a few decades. What to do with them? We finally committed to burning them. It was not so much that the letters were improper, but they were special, and held unique memories that we felt were ours alone. In the end, just as our  children have their private lives, of which we cannot, probably should not, know the details, divulging everything about ourselves is simply neither possible nor appropriate. They already know we‘re only human.

In my opinion, the same is true for diaries. Unless they are of literary value, i.e., written in good prose in an interesting or informative way and without repetitive whining, self-pity, self-deprecation or vitriol, I can‘t image someone would enjoy reading them. In this vein, I think we can also blithely burn photos of old boyfriends/girlfriends, because no  one will know who they were or what they meant to us. Do you have silly photos of yourself at high-school parties? Are they really so cute that you‘d want your grandchildren to see them? I prefer to err on the side of caution. In fact, sad but true, few children are very interested in our fond old memories of youth. Usually, memories are like many anecdotes about comical situations…“you had to be there“!

 

 

 

The sentence you never want to hear:

… Mom’s high school diary really cracked everyone up at “Show and Tell” today!

Ancient Stories

 Far-fetched? Of course. But old perspectives may hold some wisdom…

An interesting article came over my horizon recently regarding family trees and ancestors. It was written in Lithuanian by Algirdas Urbanavičius, who has evidently delved into this field. He writes that not very long ago, people were more in tune with their origins than we are today. According to the author, people were familiar with their ancestry up to seven generations back, because it was important to know what you might inherit. Citizens of yesteryear realized that nothing is random, relatives are not just a bloodline, but various characteristics passed down from generation to generation. Thus before marrying, they would want to discover as much as possible about the family they were joining, so they could foresee the family‘s destiny and what their children were likely to bring into the world.

Apparently, old Sanskrit teachings, the Vedas, tell us that we are the first generation; our parents are the second generation. They influence us most strongly through their personal example. They provide the model of family relationships; a daughter will model after her mother, a son after his father. Even subconsciously they mimic their parents‘ behaviour. Parents also influence their children‘s world view. Children inherit habits, lifestyle, manner of speaking, emotional expression and physical attributes. According to this theory, the most dominant characteristics are passed down, thus each generation is ever more intelligent, skilled and able to improve. Children do not necessarily inherit their parents‘ actual talents, but the parents can create a beneficial environment for them to flourish.

The third generation is two grandfathers and two grandmothers. This theory postulates that we inherit creativity, intellect, initiative, interpersonal skills and outlook from them; most often grandfathers pass these on to granddaughters, grandmothers to grandsons. Illnesses may also be inherited from grandparents, but parents are also responsible for providing a healthy environment and good habits. These teachings also parse the types of qualities that are passed down from paternal and maternal grandparents, for example the paternal grandfather passes down creativity and energy; paternal grandmother – worldview and material values; the maternal grandfather – interaction and relationship skills. Arguably the star of the foursome is the maternal grandmother – she is the keeper of motherhood and family relationships, passes on intuition, emotions and feelings, our connection to home, homeland and homestead (namai, tėvynė and tėviškė).

This is the scary part: it is very important for grandparents to be virtuous, to pass on virtuous values to their grandchildren. If the grandparents are “complicated“ people having negative traits, it is likely that their grandchildren will take on that negativity.

The fourth generation – great-grandparents – are eight ancestors. From them we inherit feelings of harmony with the world, appreciation of beauty, morality and the ability to love. The fifth generation is the keystone of the family. From it proceed the highest virtues or the darkest sins. The generations become more nebulous the further we go back: the sixth generations consists of 32 ancestors – from them we get genetic harmony or disharmony, balance or imbalance, lightness or darkness of spirit. The Vedas say that symbolically these ancestors are like our 32 teeth – the upper jaw representing the father‘s family, the lower – the mother‘s ancestors, reflecting their strength, purity, or early decay. The seventh generation consists of 64 ancestors. Misfortune and violence in this generation can influence the destiny of its descendants, despite their best efforts to avoid them.

What can we do with this information besides relegating it to the realm of mythology or astrology? Urbanavicius says that although we have no influence whatsoever on the behaviour of our ancestors, it is simply important to know this and not blame ourselves, for example, for our children being good or bad, for difficulties in creating harmonious relationships or achieving spiritual growth. Sounds like a wonderful excuse. However there is merit to tracking genetic health tendencies, because as we know, there are some diseases that can be avoided or at least mitigated by practicing or rejecting certain habits.

It would be fascinating to find out about our earlier ancestors, but as children of immigrants, many of us do not have at hand the means to gather the threads of our connections without on-site research. The lesson: interrogate your elders while you can!

New Year, New Plans

Thank you to Peg for sharing her experience and giving us concrete information about directions we can take to start a family tree or story. Inspiring ideas and concrete decisions to be made. Sharing like this is an excellent way to motivate and to teach others!

It’s true that the DNA aspect of genealogy can be limited in some ways. As children of immigrants, we may know the names of and have even met our relatives, as I have, and so I was not completely surprised that my DNA test showed me as 99% Lithuanian. And although the services provided through sites such as Ancestry can reveal relatives we did not previously know, there is also the possibility of being queried by people who have no connection to our relatives. I was recently questioned by someone who thinks we are related, but none of the names, places or dates match at all.

What does knowing my ethnicity give me? Proof – possibly, but there are currently all kinds of doubts being cast upon the testing and its accuracy.  (By the way, no one in our generation – dragged to Saturday school and folk-dancing, forbidden from dating “others” and scolded for not speaking Lithuanian – truly had much doubt as to our ethnic background.) Possibly more useful is the analysis showing predisposition to certain diseases, but there again, it may be solid evidence only in some cases, and how useful is it in reality? How can you prepare? Fodder for dinner conversations – do we want to know, or not, and how much?

I think Peg is right that collecting material for the family story is most important: this is what we would like to preserve for the next generation, to find and mark our place in history, in a sense. Every family has a story. And displaced families especially need some sort of anchor in a mixed society here in North America. So, back to the box. It does now have files named according to family branches. As soon as I declutter the sewing paraphernalia that’s currently on my office futon, I will bring it out and aim for chronology. And inspired by Peg, I will begin to compile my family history. I must remember – it does not have to be a Pulitzer Prize contender. My notes and my thoughts in my own handwriting will be more revealing as to who I am.

You never know what you’ll find in your Box! This was my baby tag.

Logic dictates that I begin my story with my parents’ arrival in Canada, as it is easier than trying to go backward from there, for now. A future visit to Lithuania and the tiny cemetery that my grandparents are buried in by the old homestead, while it is still standing, is in my plan for Part Two.

I invite you to tell your story, or the story of your efforts, here and now, for others to read and be inspired. Give us even just a few comments to egg us on…

Genealogy as a Story

Nice to meet you! I am Peg, the web developer for www.lithuanianheritage.ca. Like you I have a passion for genealogy, starting about three years ago. I am not Lithuanian but, just like you, my family immigrated to Canada. I want to know where my family came from and why.

Margaret Jackson and her father James

Margaret Jackson and her father James about 1916

My interest started with two old silver teaspoons: one marked “London”, one marked “St. Nazaire”. They were a gift from my great aunt when I was a teenager. All I knew was that she, despite being a small-town Canadian girl of English origin, had trained as a nurse in Scranton Pennsylvania and then served with the American Red Cross in World War I. I had to find out where she’d gone, what she’d done and why she did it. That was the start for me.

Genealogy and DNA

I think that genealogy study comes in three flavours. Each one needs a separate approach but all three have the same underpinnings.

The first is the analysis of DNA. Of course, you have seen the ads on television for DNA testing from sources such as ancestry.ca and 123andme. Finding out that your ethnic background is either singular or very diverse can be both fun and helpful. You may be able to limit your search to a specific part of the world or it may open up leads you hadn’t thought of. In Scotland people have been using DNA with a great deal of precision in a tribal sense. Haplogroups are a big area of study but I am afraid that I use mine more for cocktail chatter than anything.

The Family Tree

My DNA map: where did the Swedish come from?

The second type of study would be what is called a “Name Search”, the type where you create a family tree. This type requires the most detective work of all. It can be incredibly frustrating as you chase for months for a single fact that has eluded you and then exhilarating when you find it. This type of research often provides the surprises and the unexpected. My family name “Douglas” is about as Scottish as it comes. Imagine my surprise to find that this part of my family is actually from southern Ireland and came to Canada, like many Irish, in the Great Famine period. This single fact changes how I think of my family by quite a bit.

In my family tree I have two Samuel Marlborough Douglases (father and son) who between them had 6 wives, four of whom were named “Mary”! The only way I can keep it all straight is to document it carefully.

The Ontario Genealogical Society provides very helpful forms on which you can record your data: https://wellington.ogs.on.ca/ The forms are found under the “Getting Started” tab on their main page. I use the Vital Statistics form (for details of birth, marriage and death) for each individual, the Family Group record to group family members together, and the Pedigree chart to create a family tree. The forms become invaluable when time elapses between finding facts and to help work out conflicts in information.

They particularly encourage you to document the source of your data: essential if you ever need to reverifywhat you found. I also group all my information by person in a tree structure of folders on my computer. My father Ted’s folder contains his information plus two subfolders for his mother and father. Ted’s father Fred’s folder contains his information plus subfolders for Fred’s two parents. In each folder I’ve put images (jpgs or pdfs) of vital documents such as birth, marriage, death registrations, census lists etc. That way I can go back and reverify anything I need to.

As I search for records I try to remember that most of the data was recorded by hand and that the recorder didn’t necessarily have good handwriting. I always need to search for: Douglas, Dauglas, Daglas, Dugles, Dhuglas (Gaelic), Dogles, Douglass, Duglas… you get the idea. At the Archives we’ve been told that finding information on Lithuanian families can be difficult but you may find items if you search for the Polish or Russian version of your name, remembering that dark time when the Lithuanian language and culture were suppressed.

Storytelling

You may have guessed by now that my favourite type of genealogy is to tell the story of a person in my family. Why did this person come to Canada? How did their family influence the direction of their life? Where did they go and what did they do when they got there? In addition to learning about my ancestor, this type of genealogy allows me to do a deeper dive into the social history of a specific time period.

Besides photos and letters, these stories usually need some name research to help place the person in their family context and to fill out details of their life. So those forms I mentioned in Name research are really useful as you create a story.

Is writing a story like this difficult? Starting can be rough but once you are immersed in another person’s life it becomes much easier. My stories have been given as gifts to my parents and had far more impact than I could have imagined. They were amazed at what I was able to find. I answered a lot of questions that had been around the family for years but had never been answered. And it called forth bits of knowledge to help me move forward on other family members. I would never describe myself as a good writer but these books are treasured and are pulled out regularly.

Getting and Giving

The big trick is just to get started somehow, anyhow. I the case of my aunt I started with an email to the American Red Cross. After all, it was the only fact I had. A wonderful volunteer answered me almost immediately with suggestions on where to go looking and how to do it and I was off and running. There was a bit of back tracking because of errors in some of the record keeping. Eventually, and with a couple of referrals back to the volunteer, I was able to become certain that I had the right story.

Much of the nursing she did was for sick soldiers in the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918

Wide, contextual searches help too. I did a lot of research on nursing in World War I in order to understand what it was like for the nurses going off to war. I got really lucky: one of the books for general research had a wealth of photos from the specific hospital at which she served. Among those photos was a picture of the whole nursing staff and there she was!

I also want to commend to you www.familysearch.org. This website is a huge resource and collates most of the free genealogical data sources on the web. Although it has been sponsored by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, its orientation is non-denominational and I haven’t found a reason not to use them. They also have local family history centers which you may visit in person. These are staffed by volunteers who are mostly not members of the LDS and can help you get started. As with all genealogical data, the origin of the data needs to be evaluated before using it.

Another is www.wikitree.org which has the ambitious task of creating one giant family tree for the whole world!

You can give back by volunteering to work on genealogical projects yourself for an Archive or one of the databases like familysearch. For example, familysearch uses volunteers to read and transcribe records from new sources which are then added to the database.

Finally…

I am hoping that this post will help you find the type of genealogy you really want to do, then get started. Every time I go backwards in time I find out something new. I would love to hear what you’ve found out for yourself.

Now back to finding out exactly when George Douglas came to Canada.

Come forth!

Readers and relatives – come forth! 

The time has come to confess. Writing a blog is much more difficult than one might think. It can also be quite boring if no one provides feedback. Throwing your thoughts out into the ether is easy enough, but realizing that they linger there, lonely and cold, can be a deterrent to sending any further envoys. I can see both sides of the equation and provide a multitude of excuses for both readers and potential respondents, because I am guilty of using them myself: summer, laziness, other projects, work, family, travel.

The lesson is: never give up. As in any project, initial enthusiasm may wane if no relatives respond to a Facebook page you have set up to unite them and make your plans accessible. Have I actually contacted some or any of them to tell them clearly what my expectations are? As in any form of teamwork, I am responsible for providing some leadership, guidelines and examples.

Bertha Mikenas - in Southern Ontario tobacco field

My sister’s sister-in-law Birute Mikenas on her parents’ tobacco farm in Tillsonburg, Ontario

Even while a project simmers on a back burner, inspiration may come in strange and unsolicited ways. Research on an article for Lithuanian Heritage Magazine about Lithuanian tobacco farmers in Southern Ontario renewed my interest in refining information about my own ties to that area – I spent most summers of my early youth there with an aunt and uncle. When someone mentions Delhi, it creates an immediate understanding of a whole other lifestyle than I knew in the city. It evokes seeing vast fields of giant-leaved tobacco plants, the unforgettable smell of tobacco drying in kilns, and praying for rain, but please – no hail…

This in turn encourages me to write down the names of the people I knew, talk to others who knew them, tell their story before it’s too late. Many of our elders are gone, so we rely on cousins and old acquaintances to help remember or connect the sketches of our past. Why is it important? Most likely because our true roots are overseas, and we have little or no “proof” of it in our hands, as do some of our friends whose families handed down homesteads and histories in what seems to be the here and now as opposed to a distant, foreign past. We lack a real connection with it, unless our parents made supreme efforts to educate us about that past and gave us opportunities to go back there.

The question then is — why do we search for our roots? Why is it important? I offer this as a starting point for a discussion. In my view, for children of immigrants living in a country of immigrants it is particularly meaningful to have a sense of connection to something more permanent than ourselves, something unique. The desire for permanence may be particularly important to the children of refugees. A person born and raised in Lithuania does not have to prove they are Lithuanian – it’s inherent, like the colour of their eyes. In Canada, Lithuanians are judged by whether or not they speak Lithuanian and how well, which wave of immigration they hail from, and how they are connected to the Community. We strive to display or explain our heritage and our interest in it. Why? One reason may be a need to portray our uniqueness in a giant mosaic of ethnicities, or – in a mass of average Canadians (if there is such a group, referred to in the US as “Middle America”).

Finally, and mostly, defining our connections with our family network and history can give us and our children a satisfying context and a sense of inclusion in a vast anonymous world.