Friday, March 19, 2010

Uncovering roots

I've been watching Lisa Kudrow's new show Who Do You Think You Are? with fascination. There is something about tracing family roots that I find compelling. I think it has something to do with finding a sense of history, of continuation. A sense of home.

I imagine this is because of my feelings about my own impermanence.

It may have something to do with the fact that my family moved every few years as I was growing up. It may also have to do with my own loss of family when I was five and again when I was 12.

My older siblings and my younger sister and I do not share the same mother. Our lives have been completely different from each other. The oldest three were raised French-speaking and Catholic. My sister and I were raised English speaking and atheist. They were poor. We were middle class. They didn't have a father around because we had him.

Before I was born, the three of them came to live with us. It had to have been a strained situation for them, to say the least. My mother was the Jezebel who had stolen their father away, or so they had been raised to believe.

They lived with us after I was born and for the first five years of my life. At least the boys did. My older sister had gone back to live with her mother sometime during that period. Exactly when, I am not sure. I have no recollection of her although she was the one who picked my middle name.

My older brother was the next to leave for work and then marriage.

It was my other brother, Gilbert, whom I idolized.He was the middle kid of the first family. Born with a club foot, he spent years in and out of Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. Back then, there were no accommodations for parents to stay near their children so his mother couldn't visit. Although Mom and Dad went to see him, it wouldn't have been the same as things are today for hospitalized kids. He must have been so alone. He was the one who struggled the most in school. He was the kid who grew to love my mom. That couldn't have been easy for him either.

While most little girls go through a phase when they want to marry their fathers, I wanted to grow up and marry Gil.

When I was about four, he bought me a white bathrobe. It had three-quarter length sleeves with layer upon layer of white lace from the elbows down capped by a single band of red velvet. The belt was a piece of red velvet ribbon. It made me feel like I was a fairy princess.

When I was three or four at dinnertime, Gil noticed that I was fiddling with my peas. I hated them and he knew I did. He also knew that if I didn't eat them, I might be at the table for a long time. He promised that if I ate them all, he would take me on his ship. I wolfed them down and he was true to his word. When the day come for my parents to take me on board, I was excited and hopped around his cabin waiting for his shift to end. After some time, a tall black man entered and laughed when I didn't recognize him.He showered and there he was, my big brother. While I pictured him as a captain, he worked in the engine room shovelling coal.

When I was five, my older siblings had a disagreement with our father and vanished from our lives. In a second, they were gone. I didn't know why. I don't know if I ever asked.

I was, at some point, instructed not to talk about them. In grade two, when the class was given an assignment to write a story entitled All About Me, I began by listing the names of my siblings. My mother made me erase it and start again leaving them out. She said that other people won't understand divorce or step-families.

It was a few years before I saw them again. Contact was first made with my oldest brother. Some time later, as we were en route to our new home in northern Quebec, we stopped in northern Ontario to see my sister. She pleaded with us to call Gil. My father acquiesed but when Gil asked us to visit him, my father refused.

It was the last time we spoke with him.

He killed himself the next year. His funeral was on September 4, 1971, my twelfth birthday.

I remember people saying how awful he looked in his casket. That his skin was blue from asphyxiation. I thought he looked beautiful.

I remember too that I felt guilty for not having argued with my father that day when we talked to Gil on the phone. I remember wanting to, but holding my feelings inside. That's what good girls do.

It was a long time before I stopped looking for him. Watching for him in crowds, behind the wheel of a big rig (I'd heard he'd been a trucker for a while), walking down the street. I still think about Gil almost everyday.

So, tracing family roots is a project I have slated for my retirement years. Names filled into squares that connect to other squares that let me know that I am a part of something. To be able to run my fingertips over the names and know that I belong somewhere.

And that no one can take that away from me.



  1. I'm speechless. This is an incredible story.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Stephen.

  3. John has spent a lot of time doing research on He has had trouble with my family because there was a fire and a lot of Canadian records were destroyed. I hope you enjoy your endeavor.

  4. Cheryl: I've heard that's a good site and plan to try it out although don't think I'll get to it for a few years. I didn't realize until reading Beth's paper on Canada that your family is from here. You you as well?

  5. OH HON! How Have we been friends so long and I didn't know this??? HUG