“you have not forgotten about us”

This weekend I’m working on last-minute tweaks of my novella Patrin. This is the last chance I’ll have to make sure everything is in order before the file goes to the copyeditor next week, followed by the book designer in early June. (Patrin will be published by Mother Tongue Publishing in September.) Mostly when I edit, I am looking at sentence structure, the flow of the narrative from one section to another — and because I’ve written this book as a series of “stanzas” rather than chapters, and because the schema is not consecutive or linear, I want to make sure that the transitions are smooth, that the reader moves from one to the next with a sense of inevitablity rather than confusion.

This morning I was reading for another reason: I wanted to ensure that a few thematic elements were highlighted at important moments in the narrative and then gracefully stepped into the background when they’d had their moment. They appear again and again, like a refrain, but I don’t want them to be too garrulous or repetitive, like the dinner guest who keeps telling the same story in the same old way.

I’d forgotten (in the way one does when writing “fiction”) how much of my own life and habits appear in this book. It’s not my story, exactly. Patrin Szkandery is a little older than I am. And her background is not mine. But we went to the same parties in Victoria in the mid-1970s. She worked in the bookstore I loved to visit for its faded oriental carpets and wonderful selection of antiquarian books. Our travels echoed one another’s, though she fell in love with a musician in Greece and my love was a fisherman/taverna owner.

But we share one important thing — which is the reason I began this book in the first place. We both long to know more about our family history in Central Europe in the early years of the 20th century. The more I tried to find traces of my paternal grandmother’s family, the more disappointed I became. And the more attention I paid to other histories that were almost as shadowy. When the writing I was doing became more and more fragmentary, when the gaps became wider and more unfathomable, Patrin came to me as a gift. Her quest was similar to my own but I could allow her to discover things that were not mine to find. I gave her my great-grandmother’s family name as a surname so the exchange was not entirely one-sided.

If I was twenty years younger, or thirty, I wonder if I would have the same difficulties finding the quotidian details of my family’s history? Later in the 20th century, people took more photographs, their names appear in more records (even the ship’s manifest listing my grandmother and her five children as they sailed from Antwerp to Saint John in 1913 got salient details wrong), bureaucracies won’t leave them alone, and by the early 21st c. people began to consciously dedicate themselves to their own personal archive by zealously recording every thought and adventure on social media.

I’m grateful to have access to these details, though I’m reluctant to participate much myself. The other day in Ottawa, my daughter-in-law Cristen and I went shopping for a dress for Kelly to wear to a wedding in Montreal. I bought the dearest little dress the colours of a Monet garden and Cristen bought a tiny cardigan (or shrug) to go with it. And this morning, because I’m not on Facebook where I know there are lots of images for a distant grandmother to pour over (if she could just make herself sign up), Cristen very sweetly sent me some photographs of Kelly in her finery.

kelly in her dressI wonder if mine will be the last generation to try so hard to find so little about family history? Or if subsequent generations will simply feel too burdened by the heavy load of information? My grandmother kept a strange assortment of things — every receipt for building materials used to build a house in Beverly, Alberta; mass cards; the few letters my father wrote to her as a young sailor in the 1940s; photographs of my brothers and me sent by my mum during the years of our childhoods. But there are only one or two pieces of correpondence from her former home in Moravia. My friend Lenka translated one letter for me, sent to my grandmother from someone who is obviously her godchild.

Dear godmother, thanks God for your letter since you have not forgotten about us and after all you wrote us. We were very much looking forward to your letter and we have read it several times and we learned about your life and success. We thank God that you have your own dwelling and a piece of field, so you are luckier than us as we do not have anything, neither dwelling nor own piece of field, not even work. Dear godmother, yet we do have something – faith and trust in God that He has not left us yet and we hope that He never will as long as He wants us to be in this world.

Dear godmother, a few years ago nobody would have thought we would live such a life because this is beyond description what poverty it is here in the old world, not only in our Czechoslovak Republic but in the whole Europe.

The letter was sent from the village of Boconowice, near Jablunkov, which is not far from the Polish border and not far from Horni Lomna where my grandmother was born and raised. (I believe the village is also on the Lomna River, the namesake of my grandmother’s village.) I wonder if the godchild was the child of a brother, sister, or cousin of my grandmother? Sometimes mysteries simply remain unsolved and sometimes you try to imagine an alternate history, an invented story to stand in for the silence of the past. As I read Patrin this morning, I realized that’s what I’ve done. And it’s no surprise that the road between Jablunkov and Horni Lomna is where Patrin finds important information about her own lost family.

4 thoughts on ““you have not forgotten about us””

  1. Hello Theresa. I found you! You had kindly commented on my Juliet in Paris blog. (I found your link on Beth Kaplan’s blog.) What a darling grand-daughter you have. I like how a small cardigan is called a shrug. I hadn’t heard that word before.

    Reading your post here about delving into family history made me think of Joan Didion’s memoir, Where I Was From in which she does exactly that. I adore Didion’s writing style.

    Here’s a line I love – “What had it been all about: all the manqué promises, the failures of love and faith and honor; Martha buried out there by the levee in a $250 dress from Magnin’s with river silt in the seams….”

    Where I Was From (great title) is the story of her family’s move west with the great frontier, from the birth of her great great great great-grandmother in Virginia in 1766 to the death of her mother on the edge of the Pacific in 2001.

    Take care, Juliet

    1. I love Joan Didion but somehow missed this one, Juliet. A nice thing to look forward to now! That river silt in the seams of the Magnin’s dress…wow. It’s strange about family history. Some families keep such careful records but mine didn’t. I did find metrical records for my paternal grandfather’s village in Bukovina but almost nothing else. So I know the name of the priest, the midwife who delivered him, but nothing of his actual life before he came to Canada — and not much afterwards either. And my mum was more or less a foundling so finding anything about her family has been impossible. I can access her birth certificate 100 years after her birth — 2026 — so let’s hope I live that long. (She had a re-issued birth certificate during her life but she said her foster mother had the original which named both birth parents. It disappeared. And it turns out the Department of Vital Statistics in Halifax is particularly officious about sticking to the rules.)

      I think the thing about shrugs is that they cover the shoulders and are fairly skimpy otherwise. Maybe one or two buttons at the throat. Kelly’s is lacy and very sweet.


  2. I forget to mention – another fascinating memoir in which the author traces his family history is The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. He physically gets on a plane and travels to many countries and speaks with many people. Have you read it?

    1. No, I haven’t read The Lost but I’ve read many of his essays (they’re often in the New Yorker) and his translations of Cavafy are superb. Another book to look for…! Thanks.

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