Indulging in regret, is a self defeating game if there ever was one. But I like games. As I look through my tiny collection of old family photos, I indulge (let’s just call it nostalgia). I sigh and I wonder as I turn them carefully over and peer at the unfamiliar handwriting on some, and smile sadly at the so familiar hand on others. Names and dates and places on many of them are just as perplexing as the ones that have been left blank. There is no-one left alive to tell me about any of them. I scour my brain for snippets of recollection- I’m sure she must have told me about these people! Some of them she even wrote into songs! And it’s all faded away, crumbling at the edges, yellowing with time in front of me.
It was all so meaningless when I was younger. Bored and dazed I would sit through the family gatherings; I would let my mind wander away while my aunts and uncles and Grands and Greats would reminisce. I would roll my eyes when Nan brought out the guitar and everyone would join in and sing about that thing that happened at Boundary Falls, and dissolve in hysterical laughter when they got to the chorus in another song about so-and-so’s daughter.
Those things bored me TO DEATH once upon a time… and while I have access to a fairly comprehensive geneal…yawn…um, yeah. I look at those pictures and wonder. Who were you? Who were your kids? Have I met any of them? Do they look like me? I have a mental list of last names that are supposed to trace back to common descent from some very large families. I meet an Armstrong or a Love or a Field and I have to resist temptation to start grilling them for their parents names and where are they from. Are you my people?
And what do I tell my son? He won’t listen anyway; he’ll be taken over by that same glassy eyed stupor I used to suffer. Someday he might want to know and what is there to tell him? Worse, what if I’m not there for him to ask? Haha, now I’m indulging in regrets that haven’t happened yet. Who are his people?
We live in an era of immediate access to information. Anyone can turn on a computer and search for the origin of a family name. And for those willing to pay (an arm and a leg) they can join websites that bring people together from around the world to sit in the shade of their digital family trees. Somehow that’s not the same. We’ve lost something. We’ve lost the context; the value of oral history. I can google my great grandparents and there they are, on screen, scanned in, immortalized by the internet. But where are their memories? What was it really like to get on a boat and set sail for another continent to make a life? And who is that in the picture in front of that cabin with an apparently dead bear? Who was behind the camera?
This makes me guilty about how lazy I can be- I should be preserving what I can, and creating a physical history to put in my son’s hands someday. If not for him, for his children. Maybe they will look like me. They will be my people too.