“A gossamer tie to the past…”

(I wrote this in August 2023 and then it got lost in my drafts. Here it is now. Never too late!)

I’ve been reading a book that has nothing to do with Mennonites or history. But it does have to do with family and identity — just themes I’m noticing, because of my own selfish interests of course. (I’m reading it because I’m in a book group! The book is called Lessons in Chemistry and it’s proving to be a good read! I’m not done it yet. Almost!)

(Hilarious because by now it’s a show that a lot of people are watching and are thoroughly enjoying. Back in August I had no idea this was in the making!)

I wasn’t going to tell you its title because this isn’t a review. It’s more of rabbit hole my brain fell into because of a discussion between characters.

In the book, it seems all the main characters have lost connection with their families of origin. At first I thought this was just an easy way for the author to keep the character list concise. But the reasons for these disconnections are generally tragic, and as a little girl is assigned to explore her family tree and finds it leads nowhere, the question is raised several times (so far as I’ve read, anyway): what good is knowing your family tree, and why would you want to do that anyway? Isn’t it a pathetic attempt to hitch your identity to someone who really doesn’t have that much to do with who and where and what you are today?

A fair point. Because yes, while whatever decisions our ancestors made did result in us emerging here on the earth in whatever time and place we find ourselves in… at the same time a family tree is not a single straight line. It’s a tree. A tree with a TON of branches. An absolute mess of branches. A forest of branches! A gigantic crowd of branches! Representing a myriad of strangers, really.

And to that point, I do find it interesting when we (myself included) select one particular ancestor to hitch our identities to. One that we think is some kind of kindred spirit or whose achievement we value and wish to attach ourselves to.

Apparently my great-grandmother was a horrible pain in the ass. So say some. But others will say she was unwaveringly kind and helpful. I can’t help but see myself in these descriptions. But at the same time, isn’t that any of us? We can’t be only one thing all the time. And anyway I have eight great-grandparents. Why only focus on the one all the time? And they came from 16 people. The math! It very quickly becomes such a mass of people it feels untraceable.

They can’t all have been admirable people who always knew exactly what they were doing and how life for their descendants would play out exactly because of the decisions they were making. But we might hear one or two stories and feel like “yes, THAT is the ancestor I most take after, FOR SURE.” Seems like a lot of bullshit.

Yet at the same time, as I’ve said, I’m preparing to visit the site of my maternal grandfather’s boyhood home. I’m already surrounded by the site of my paternal grandfather, so much so that I’ve taken it for granted (and want to undo that and look deeper yet of course). But my mother’s side has remained a mystery and I want to pay attention and for me part of this is going to the actual spot. I know what remains: a cemetery. (Okay more than one but all of my people are only in one of the two cemeteries is what I’m saying. As far as I know. As recorded in the community book I’m reading, Search for Yesteryears.)

This visit is within my grasp because Saskatchewan is Manitoba’s neighbour and an easy drive, really. Goodness knows I accidentally/unwittingly made the drive all the time when I was 19, without realizing I was very very near to my grandfather’s origin story. So all I need to do… is decide to go. Again. And so I am.

But why? “The past is the past, there’s nothing there now,” et cetera is the argument I typically hear. And now this book, Lessons in Chemistry, posits that people who do what I’m doing are just searching for identity when really I carry my identity within my own self and create it with every decision I make every day. Which is also true. I think two opposite things can be true at the same time, sometimes. I don’t mind that tension.

But also, what’s the point of going to this place when the past is virtually entirely washed away by the passage of time — at this point, nearly a century later?

I feel like, for me, there’s something about standing in a place and thinking about its history, at least as far as I can know.

I started doing this when Andrew and I began traveling — long before I learned anything about my own family history or Mennonite history in general.

When Andrew and I went to Iceland, he suggested I read a saga first. I think I read Egil’s Saga. (The shortest one I could find, haha.) And then when I suddenly found myself at Thingvellir, I was filled with wonder to reflect on the stories I’d read, about meetings that had happened there a thousand years ago. Knowing a thing, in the place it happened, is rich to me.

When Andrew and I arrived in Hiroshima and were exhausted from two weeks of travel, we spent a day in our room to rest and drink tea and I read Hiroshima by John Hersey in its entirety (it’s a small volume, easy to travel with… and read in a few hours) and the next day, revived, we explored the city and visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum — it hit different. Like a truck, really. Just standing there, seeing what evidence remained and sitting with what happened there.

What emerged as a habit in travel became a practice as I explored my own past, as a way of honouring myself and my family. Not trying to escape from or pretend it’s not part of my own origin story, you know? Because as a kid I wanted to be more worldly and glamorous than the naive farm kid I was, with this “Manno” accent and love of cracklings and schmauntfatt and understanding of certain Plautdietsch words like mejal. I mention all this because now I’m grateful for what I can collect and add to my own identity story. I don’t want to wipe it all away and pretend it is not so and anglicize my identity. (Unless there IS English in there somewhere. I did once receive a very interesting email about it… I should follow that tidbit.) No shade on those who do. And there have been many. And many have good reasons for doing so. It’s just that, I’ve felt that pull from childhood, to divorce myself of all these embarrassing cultural markers, and I push against that now, perhaps because of my penchant for truth.

Anyway. There’s just something about standing there in a place where my grandfather was, a place where he was born and he fell in love and left yet continued to dream of, always… and just sit there with that.

I subscribe to Dora Dueck’s blog (I love her books, I should tell you why sometime… sometimes I don’t write stuff because it’s too big or too important to do it poorly and I am a perfectionist who is far from perfect and thus… inaction) and her most recent post revealed she is traveling to see where her grandfather spent time. I love this. I am doing the same, I think. And Shirley Hershey Showalter commented: “Visiting places where our ancestors lived … weaves a gossamer tie to the past.”

Yes. Exactly.

(Feature image is of Marlene’s girlhood home in Lost River. I’m sure my grandpa had been in that house many a time.)