Having been born in the late 1950s, I was keenly aware in my youth of the Second World War. It had been over for more than 15 years by the time I started school, but those years seemed to me no time at all. I knew that it had dominated and defined my parents’ world for six years, and I could feel, almost hear, reverberations from the events of the war in the world around me. For those who lived through those years, the war was part of their reality; for those born in the ’70s, for example, the war was a period in history; for me, the war was both at once. No, I hadn’t been there, but it was nevertheless real to me in the way events that happened yesterday in another part of the country or the world are real.
I knew that my godfather—my father’s older brother—had served as flight engineer on a Lancaster bomber, and that my godmother’s three brothers had fought, too: a sailor who survived the war, another who didn’t, and a soldier who died in Europe. These weren’t figures from the past; they were the aunt and uncle I loved, whose regular visits I looked forward to. Another beloved uncle, my mother’s older brother, served in the Merchant Navy. They had been there, and now they were here, in the same way they might have been to Africa and then come to dinner. Because they connected me directly to it, the past was never for me someplace inaccessible, forever gone. The past was just like Africa—a real place despite my not having been there. The past was a place I could have lived in, had I been born just a bit earlier.
My parents, of course, connected me directly to the past, as well, and through their stories of their own childhoods, the Montreal of the 1930s and ’40s was real to me. In my imagination, I’ve walked the streets of their neighbourhoods and the halls of their schools, and over time, the times I’ve spent there became something like memories, imagined perhaps, but grounded in reality. Photos helped flesh out the reality of the past, photos of people I would never meet and places that would have changed if I were to make my way there, but people and places that had been part of my parents’ lives.
By this point, you won’t be too surprised to learn that I’ve always had an interest in history. I also have—I think it’s a function of aging—a growing interest in discovering more about my family’s past, an intensifying desire to identify, untangle, and colour-code all the threads that connect my siblings, my cousins, and me to our parents and their parents and their world. And I now have some of the boxes of photos my mother left us; my sister has even more boxes. Mum and I spent an evening a year or so ago going through those boxes and albums, and I’m fairly sure I know who’s who in most of the photos; what I’m not sure of is how much longer I’ll remember who’s who. I’ve begun to think that perhaps I shouldn’t wait until retirement to begin digging more deeply into our family’s history.
My cousin has already produced the beginnings of a family tree and recently sent me a copy; within hours of getting it, I’d tracked down and sent her a photo of the ship on which her uncle served in the war.
I think I’m hooked.
Murray Lewis, Editor-in-Chief