I’ve recently finished reading Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s Following the River: Traces of Red River Women in which she travels both physically and imaginatively through the country where her great-grandmother Catherine lived and died. Rupert’s Land, Selkirk, Norway House, Warren’s Landing—all these places hold traces of the family story. I won’t tell it here. But it’s worth reading, both for the elusive strands that have been painstakingly recovered, in part or in whole, and woven into something both practical (because we need these records of our ancestors to help us understand our own place in the world) and beautiful, and for the deep sense of the land and what it remembers (those traces). Abandoned graveyards, modest monuments to lost or murdered young women, foundations of buildings long fallen to earth. There’s poetry here, there’s prayer, there’s the simple naming of names in all their possible variants, from both English and the different dialects of Cree that shaped Lorri’s family.
My family history began on a different continent. But there were many moments when I saw in Lorri’s book something of my own attempts to parse the language of old documents and photographs, some of this in a language as difficult to shape in my mouth as Cree was for Lorri. Sometimes what I tried to read wasn’t language at all but images. It was often strange and frustrating but then there’d be a moment when I understood what I was seeing. Lorri realizes that a photograph of her great-grandmother with her husband and children was taken after Catherine’s death and that Catherine’s head has been imposed upon another woman’s body for the sake of the photograph. Thinking about Catherine’s daughter, Lorri’s own grandmother, she wonders, “What must it have been like to stand behind someone else’s body wearing your mother’s clothes, holding still until the exposure was complete, feeling such profound absence?”
I had such a moment with my musings about family photographs and I remembered writing about it on this blog. Here is a post from July, 2011, as I was finalizing the proofs of my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees.
The Moirs Happiness Package
In my forthcoming book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, there’s an essay about my father and his father. I don’t know much about my paternal grandfather and in this piece, I try to puzzle through the mysteries of family connection, try to find traces of my grandfather through the small clues in my father’s stories, the tiny hoard of memories. At one point, I was thinking about two photographs in the basement of my parents’ home in Victoria. This is what I wrote about one of those photographs:
“In the second photograph, my father stands in his white shirt, short pants, dark stockings, and boots on a rattan chair. Someone has told him to stand still, because there is nothing natural about his pose. But — and here’s the bizarre thing — hovering in the air, as though balanced on the arm of the chair, is the swaddled form of his sister Julia, who died three years before he was born. This is the late 1920s, before Photoshop — before any of the techniques we are now so accustomed to using. I know that photographers could manipulate images even in the nineteenth century (I think of Hannah Maynard in Victoria with her trick portraits and artistic interpretations). But this is clearly the work of someone who didn’t have much skill at all. The half of the photograph in which baby Julia has been inserted is blurry.
That only this one photograph survives suggests that although money was probably in short supply, my grandparents wanted a record of the two children they had conceived together. Perhaps they were more sentimental than I’ve been led to believe, because what other reason would result in an image of a baby being inserted into the photograph of her brother-to-be, at least five years after her death? Julia was nearly three when she died, and yet the photograph is of an infant, wrapped in a blanket, wearing a hat against the cold.
Photographs are intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying. I’ve tried to read these ones for hidden narratives of love and family connection and perhaps I’ve interpreted them completely incorrectly. Still, sometimes photographs with their cryptic stories and forgotten conclusions are all we have.”
I wrote the essay as my father was dying and since then my mother has died as well. I brought home that photograph (a grainy image clumsily cut to fit in a wooden frame) and many boxes of family papers which I’ve been slow to sort. Every time I open a box, the smell of the past – dust, old cigarette smoke, the sadness of missed or lost connections – overpowers me and I close it again, thinking that the time will come when I’m more resilient or at least able to look at the materials without crying.
The day before yesterday, I opened one of the boxes, determined to put together some photographs for a family project. The problem is, nothing is sorted or organized, so in some ways, I’ve no idea where to look. There are some albums, yes, but then there are also envelopes with bank statements, stray photographs caught between them, or my high school report cards shoved into folders with baby pictures, drawings, my grandmother’s naturalization papers from 1937, etc. Where to begin?
I began with the Moirs Happiness Package, a chocolate box with a bluebird on it, and the slogan, “There’s happiness in every box.” Inside, a small collection of photographs, all of them bent and foxed, and all of them as astonishing to me as anything I’ve ever seen. My father was the only surviving child of his mother’s second marriage. The first child of that union was Julia. She died of diphtheria, I believe, and is buried in Drumheller, Alberta, where the family lived. There are two photographs of Julia’s funeral. One shows a group of solemn people in front on a bleak house, the men and women dressed in dark suits, the girls (some of them must be the daughters of my grandmother’s first marriage) in white dresses and veils. A small white casket is set on a wooden bench. The second photograph is taken inside. The casket is on a table covered with a starched white cloth and is flanked by two girls in white. A child’s face can be seen surrounded by flowers: Julia.
There are two other photographs, too, which I realized were the ones which had been brought together to create the large image of my father and his sister. What’s amazing is that there are notes on the back of them, obviously the work of the person charged with “regrouping”. Notes about tint and placement. “Boy and baby only. Fair. Grey blue.”
There’s so much I don’t know. I want to find out more about my grandmother, a woman who was born in Horni Lomna, in what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1881 and who left, with her first husband, Joseph Yopek, in 1913. He died of flu in 1918 and she was left with 8 children. She married my grandfather a year or two later (I should know when and will try to find out), giving birth to Julia, and to my father, in 1926.
Our recent house-guests from the Czech Republic, Petr and Lenka, showed me pictures of Horni Lomna. It’s a small village in Moravia, nestled in the Beskydy Mountains. When John and I return to the Czech Republic next February, I intend to go to my grandmother’s birthplace and see if anything remains – a name in a cemetery, in a parish record, perhaps.
And a coda to that post. I did go to my grandmother’s birthplace and although I couldn’t enter the graveyard because of snow several feet deep, I did walk down a road by the Lomna River to stand in the snow and look at the house where she was raised, where she lived with her parents and her five children while her first husband went to Canada to make a home for them to come to the next year (1913). What happened then is the subject of a long essay in my most recent book, Euclid’s Orchard. And yes, it involves photographs, old documents, reading a landscape as foreign to me as the languages my grandparents spoke.