Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Discovering our Roots

Have you ever wondered about the people who came before you? As I get older, the stories of my long-gone grandparents and great-grandparents become more interesting to me. There seems to be an urge to find a connection with the past. What were my forebears like and what did they do?

My mother's father left his home on the island of Whalsay in the Shetland Islands in 1917. He worked on merchant ships until sometime around 1929.  Legend had it that he had left a sweetheart in New Zealand and had sailed through the newly constructed Panama Canal a couple of times.  He may have "jumped ship"in Montreal and made his way across Canada. My mother found a Nanaimo address inscribed in one of his books indicating that he must have spent some time on Vancouver Island before marrying my grandmother in Vancouver.

In 2010, a hamefarin was held in the Shetland Islands to invite home the descendants of the 8,000 Shetlanders who left the Islands. A book, A Kist of Emigrants, was published to commemorate the occasion.  I have borrowed the copy that my mum was sent for her 80th birthday. It was interesting to learn about the role that the Orkney and Shetland people played in the colonization of Vancouver Island.

I had a very dear friend who lived in Cedar-by-the-Sea just outside of Nanaimo on land that had been in her family for a couple of generations. Cedar, has a very unusual history. In the 1920's, an English mystic, Edward Arthur Wilson, took the name Brother XII and founded a community based on the teachings of the Theosophists. There was a revolt among the followers and Brother XII fled to Europe. I visited Cedar for many years and have always been aware of the unusual history of the place.

At the age of 35, my friend, who had just built a house on her family land, was diagnosed with cancer. I spent a lot of time visiting in Cedar during her illness and came to feel a bond of kinship. She died at the age of 41 and I lost touch with her husband and son. We had always joked a bit about being distantly related. Anyway, you can imagine my surprise when, on the map of Nanaimo, a new street appears adjacent to the street named for her forebears. The street name is my mother's maiden name! Some of my kin must have had a connection with Cedar.

My grandfather died when I was 7 years old so obviously I was unable to ask many questions. I would have liked to have known more about his travels. I may have inherited the wanderlust. Have you ever felt an inexplicable connection with a place or a person? Do you believe that some of us are more closely related than we know? There are so many stories in this world and so many questions that will never be answered.

PS. I love the old Shetland words. A hamefarin is a homecoming. If you can be a wayfarer, why not a hamefarer? A kist is a Norse/Scots word to mean "a box or chest". When I visited Shetland after spending time in the Auvergne in France, the similarities of language intrigued me. My grandfather's sister showed me "the peerie fleury park" or the little park with flowers.

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