The way we were: exploring your family history

Calgary Herald, May 4: I’m guessing my grandmother was in her late twenties. She’s sitting on the hood of one of those old boxy cars, showing off long white socks, dark bloomers and more than a little attitude. She’s looking directly into the camera, chuffed. It was likely a pretty big day when you hauled out the camera back in 1929.

She’s written “me” on the back of that picture and a bunch of others we found in a manila envelope at the bottom of a big brown banker’s box.  My dad’s neat printing on the top of the box says “Books and Games” and after he died, we found it tucked away among his extensive cassette tape collection.

The box has neither books nor games but it does have a whack of family treasures, including my dad’s report cards. The early ones refer to “Jackie.” But by 1942 and Grade VII (as they called it then) he’s grown into “Jack.”

The top section of the thin paper records his progress in health, social and work habits, with A’s for ‘commendable,’ Ns for ‘normal’ and Rs for ‘requires special help, at home and school.’ Dad was nailing it. He got Ns for “is usually happy” and “has good posture” and he scored an A for “obeys cheerfully.”

The bottom part of the report card covers academics. In the comments he typed on the back, my grandfather is pleased there is: “only one B, for “Music” which is not of primary importance and should not form a part of elementary education.”

I guess my grandfather wasn’t a big music fan. I have to guess a lot about him because we never met. He died just a few years after my dad got that B in music. I don’t think the two events are related. But who knows.

We could have asked my dad, if only we’d gone through the banker’s box before he died. I’m certain he would have put on a goofy grin along with his 1949 paper cone frosh hat and bowtie from the University of Alberta. If only we’d known there was a frosh hat waiting for a photo op in the basement.

That’s a common regret, says Annie Murray, an “expert in boxes of stuff.” Her official title is head of Special Collections, Libraries and Cultural Resources at the University of Calgary. She tells me if you lined up all their boxes in a row, they’d stretch more than four kilometres.

The university’s boxes of stuff are acid free and instead of your dad’s homemade paper badge declaring “Te-ho Champ of the World: The game of all true sportsmen,” they contain letters and papers of the likes of Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler and W.O. Mitchell.

And if you want your family history to hold up as well as your favourite Canadian author’s, the first thing you should do is bring the boxes up from the damp basement. “It’s best to keep archives and records in a cool and dry climate and in the dark and in an area that’s well ventilated,” says Murray. “And you want to avoid using things like staples or metal paper clips and it’s a good idea to get some acid free file folders to protect documents.”

Unlike the famous—and the bloggers—we ordinary folk usually take most of our stories with us. I’ve heard of some people who hire writers and photo editors to research and write beautiful coffee table books. But if you can’t swing $40,000 for a book (who says publishing is dead!), you can likely manage a notepad or recording app and spend an afternoon asking about “back in the day.”

I would have liked to ask my dad about his girlfriend Patty, the copy writer. “It’s no wonder people kill themselves in their agency offices,” she writes in 1954 after detailing a bad day at the ad agency. “I’ve smoked 25 Exports today and am absolutely twitching with nerves. I’ll start screaming. SCREAMING.  S-C-R-E-A-M-I-N-G.”

I expect Patty was more Peggy than Joan. And I think she was kidding about the screaming. “The kids in this office are sweethearts,” she writes before signing off “your berserk girlfriend.”  Patty was a hoot. Wonder what happened to her.

And, I wonder if my kids will ever wonder about my old letters.  I should probably haul them up from the basement, cull out the saucy bits and put the rest in acid free folders in an upstairs closet.

Or maybe I should leave the saucy bits right where they are and throw everything in with my grandmother’s pictures and my dad’s report cards. Maybe I should leave the sorting to the next generation.  After all, they won’t have any of their own boxes of papers and photos to deal with. Just old Facebook accounts.

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