[July 2008] I’m not sure how relevant this essay is to writing. Perhaps it is only to the extent that it pertains to who I am.

For the past month or two, I’ve been exploring my roots. I believe that you have to reach a certain age (I can see 50 on the horizon) before starting to wonder about such matters in earnest. It’s a shame, really, that this curiosity usually doesn’t manifest earlier in life, when there are more people around from earlier generations who know stuff first-hand. It wouldn’t have taken me the better part of a month to find out simple details about my grandmother’s mother if I had bothered to ask my grandmother before she died at the age of 99, for example. Similarly, I recall anecdotes about my grandfather, but only in the vague, hazy way that I remember books I read when I was 20. Now that my parents are gone, few people are left who remember these stories.

I grew up in Eastern Canada. My mother’s family was full of McThises and McThats. My paternal grandmother was a Skene, a family that originated near Aberdeen, Scotland. I knew that my grandfather Vincent emigrated from England early in the 20th century. I visited distant relatives when I spent a summer in Oxford in 1984, but it didn’t occur to me to ask questions about that part of the family when I had the opportunity. I thought there might also be a little Irish in the mix, but I defined myself as Scottish/English.

My British relatives referred to us as the “French Canadian” cousins. I felt bad about deflating that myth, telling them that, no, we weren’t French—the only French I knew I learned in school and my father turned around cereal boxes in grocery stores so the English side faced out.

And yet, behind many rumors and myths, there is often a germ of truth. Turns out my grandmother’s mother was French. Once I stumbled onto that part of the family tree, it exploded. The French have done a much better job of making genealogical information available online than the British. While I can trace parts of the Vincent and Skene lines back to the late 17th or early 18th century, the central portion of my family tree is chock full of my great-grandmother’s ancestors. In some cases I’ve been able to go back as far as the 1460s.

Along the way, I’ve discovered some fascinating bits of family history. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was burned alive by the Iroquois in 1653 in Quebec. His young son was captured and may have grown up among the Iroquois. Shades of Dances With Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans. Some of my ancestors were forcibly deported from Nova Scotia in 1755 as part of le Grand Dérangement, commonly known as the expulsion of the Acadians, which was inspiration for the famous poem Evangeline by Longfellow and is the reason we have Cajuns in Louisiana. Another ancestor may have headed in the opposite direction, a United Empire Loyalists who wished to remain true to the King of England, so he moved from the US to Canada. A couple of the women in my family were Filles du Roi, sent from France to Quebec to balance out the genders and boost colonization during the time of King Louis XIV.

I’ve found first cousins who married each other, and sisters from one family who married brothers from another, which turns the layout of the family tree into a real mess. I haven’t identified any royalty, but I turned up someone who sold drugs to royalty—the official apothacaire to Catherine de Medici, queen consort of King Henry II of France in the 1540s and 50s. The Vincents also connect to a Sicilian family who moved to France and then England in the early 1800s. They were famous luthiers, and many of the violins, guitars, cellos and bows they constructed are still around to this day, and fairly valuable.

I’ve been rereading Ross MacDonald’s noir crime novels lately. In his books, past generations usually have a huge impact on the present. Forgotten or unknown family connections are the motivations behind heinous crimes. Generations diverge (as in the two McCormack brothers in my tree who moved from the Isle of Arran in the 1820s—one family became McCormicks and the other MacCormacks over the years) but there are still blood ties, no matter how distant.

All these details are circulating inside my head. Will they ever find themselves in stories? Who knows, but I feel invigorated by this new information. I dream about distant times. Even though my bloodline is at best 1/16th French, I’m newly curious about the Acadian story and French history. I want to know what was going on when my ancestors were alive.

Entire communities packed up from France or Britain and moved to the New World, hoping for a better life. Some found it (many were granted large tracts of land to clear and farm), others didn’t. These are the giants on whose shoulders my life stands.

This is how I see this pertaining to writing: I know something new and interesting about myself. If we look at certain (or, perhaps, all) acts of writing as self-discovery, I now have new fuel to run that engine. No, I’m not going to start writing historical fiction, but I have something more to explore. Somehow the things I have learned over the past two months will likely influence me in unforeseen ways for the rest of my life.

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