PERSONAL ESSAY

Uncovering a family's hidden past

On shiny websites and in musty archives, millions are using their DNA to delve into the past. Anne Letain knew she was taking some risks when she set out to look back, and marched ahead anyway. Her essay is called, “Revisionist History.”
Anne Letain and her father, c. 1954. (Submitted by Anne Letain)
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On shiny websites and in musty archives, millions are using their DNA to delve into the past. Anne Letain knew she was taking some risks when she set out to look back, and marched ahead anyway. Her essay is called, "Revisionist History."


It was one of those unholy scorching prairie summer days where the air is so still that even the mosquitos go AWOL.

Under that hot, bright sky we had gathered to celebrate the life of the last of my paternal uncles.

We were not a large crowd, yet it had been so long since we had seen each other that identification was something of  a struggle.

None of us there at the memorial — beyond me — knew very much about our family history, about our parents' childhood and youth.

I was in no way surprised when a cousin informed me that our uncle, not long before his death, had told her not to believe the stories she'd heard about the past.

When some serious health concerns, both mental and physical emerged in my own smallish branch of the family, I decided that perhaps some of the answers I sought could be found somewhere back in time. I wasn't wrong.

For the last five years, I've immersed myself in genealogical research, and become the de facto family historian.

I'm also a kind of repository for the few memories that my paternal cousins actually have, fragments that I've carefully knit together into a narrative.

Understanding doesn't make coping with my genetic legacies any easier.- Anne Letain

I know where all the fault lines are and sadly I've come to know where the anxiety, abuse and alcoholism lived, and where they linger even now.

Unfortunately, there is a troubling thread of dark behaviour in this family which seems to rear its head unbidden and unwanted through each generation.

Now, after years of digging and listening, I understand why my generation knows so little, why there are so few photographs or mementos from the generation that preceded us.

There was no deliberate conspiracy of silence. 

Our parents simply chose not to talk about their childhood because they wanted to forget it.

Maybe there was shame.

It's quite likely that our grandfather was his family's remittance man when he arrived in Canada from England around 1912.

The records show trouble from very early on. In Winnipeg in 1915, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but when the regiment was to go overseas, he deserted.

A year later in Saskatchewan, he enlisted once more, only to desert again, forfeiting all pay and reputation.

He changed his name to cover up. 

It's the one we all carry now.

Anne Letain has spent the last five years diving into her family's history and uncovering, at times, troubling details. (Submitted by Anne Letain)

By 1917, he had met and married our grandmother whose own Yorkshire background was replete with poverty, mental health issues, alcoholism and criminal activity.

Within 11 years they had nine children — four sons and five daughters.

Life was hard. 

After a fire destroyed the family home, all 11 of them moved into a 450-square-foot house on the side of the river in Saskatoon.

The whole yard was a vegetable garden.

Our grandfather was employed during the Depression, but it's pretty evident that he drank away a lot of what he earned. 

He was a rigid disciplinarian with this children.

His behaviour was erratic and extreme.

In the end, he was carted off to the Provincial Mental Hospital in North Battleford where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 50.

Our grandfather's enforced hospitalization in 1937 left the family destitute.

Shoes were confiscated at the end of the school year and heads were shaved.

Teeth were neglected and lost. 

In brutal Saskatchewan winters, small feet froze in inadequate boots, leaving my father with a lifelong obsession with proper footwear.

The older children were sent out to be hotel maids and delivery boys, forfeiting any chance to complete school. They were often hungry.

In my childhood, the pantries of my aunts were so overloaded, it was as if they were preparing for an apocalypse. No wonder that my dad and his siblings never spoke of their childhood.

Today I am more sympathetic to some of his demons, and I have a better understanding of why he behaved the way he did.- Anne Letain

Has all this new-found information changed how I see my own my father? 

In some ways. 

Today I am more sympathetic to some of his demons, and I have a better understanding of why he behaved the way he did.   

From his childhood, Dad absorbed most of life's blows stoically.

But when he couldn't, he turned to alcohol, and his binge drinking was a defining part of my youth.   

Understanding doesn't make coping with my genetic legacies any easier. Not everything is forgivable.

Some in my generation are deeply uncomfortable with what I have uncovered, and I am very careful about what I expose and to whom. Yet deep in my heart, I believe that we would have been better off had we known the reality of our parents' childhood much earlier in our own lives. 

The truth about our grandfather.

In knowing, we would have been better prepared when some of the big and inevitable issues knocked on our doors, too.

And our legacy is not all one of instability and misery. Strangely, the family also shares one trait that I always enjoyed and admired in my dad. He had a wicked, sly sense of humour. It was never malicious or mean. And he had a highly-developed sense of the absurd, which made him an exceptional storyteller.

On that hot Saskatoon summer evening as we swapped stories and reminiscences, I was so appreciative that humour was also part of our common inheritance.

It was pretty obvious that among the other less-than-perfect gifts we had all received, we had been given that too. 

We could laugh at ourselves.

 And it felt wonderful to do it.

Click "listen," above, to hear the essay.

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