Another utterly mundane conclusion: my place in our history

Some of my ancestors were Irish, but I am not Irish.

Some of my ancestors were Indigenous, but I am not Indigenous.

That is the utterly mundane conclusion I have reached, after reflecting for some time on the history and heritage of my ancestors.

I may be a product of their genetic material, their choices, and their histories, but my identity is not their identity, and my community is not their community.

I am that I am because of the life I have lived and the communities I have been a part of, and I have never been a part of a Irish or an Indigenous community.

So what am I?

I am Canadian, I suppose. I was born in Canada. I am recognized by the state as Canadian, and other Canadians recognize me as Canadian. I have benefited tremendously from my membership in this community, and I have contributed to it as well.

True, I have no particular attachment to the Canadian community, broadly construed, or to what is sometimes said to be our Canadian identity, but my personal feelings are irrelevant.

Membership in a community isn’t determined by the feelings one has for it. It is determined by the relationships one forms and maintains. I may not feel any particular affinity for my community, but it does not change the fact that I am a part of it.

Until I am rejected by Canadians or accepted by some other community, I am Canadian, a settler, and all that it entails — for better and for worse.

At the confluence of colonialism and a “Big Two-Hearted River”: a congruent path to recovery

Ernest HemingwayIn “Big Two-Hearted River”, a story by Ernest Hemingway, Nick Adams hikes to a remote and isolated river and fishes it. The hike, the work to set up his camp, and the time spent fishing the river seems to restore him. The story ends on a positive note. There is work to be done on his path to recovery, but Adams seems to think he will manage it.

I recently reread Hemingway’s first forty-nine short stories and his novel Farewell to Arms. I was struck by the utter bleakness of these stories, a bleakness that was foreign to my memory of them.

I was also similarly struck by the shattered nature of his characters. These are men and women broken by their experience of war and, perhaps, the experience of modernity itself. Their stories are fragments of fragmented lives, and a hopeless resignation imbues all of them. Life, living, and its few pleasures are fragile, fleeting, and sure to end in desolation.

The notable exception to all of this is Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River.” By returning to the land, by reconnecting with nature, Adams seems to find a path to healing. The story also seems to imply that he faces no obstacle to a full recovery so long as he is living close to the land.  

Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a Kanien’kehaka Professor of Indigenous Governance and Political Science at the University of Victoria, proposes for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island a path to recovery that is strikingly similar to Adam’s fictional experience. Because Alfred thinks colonialism is fundamentally about the dispossession and disconnection of indigenous peoples from their land, he thinks the path to recovery for them is to reconnect with the land and to develop a relationship with it that is spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. It seems to me that Adams, in his own way, is doing exactly what Alfred recommends.

The congruence of Adams’ fictional experience and Alfred’s well-considered recommendation, of course, may be coincidental. The notion that a person or community can be healed by returning to the land is hardly novel. It may be as old as urbanity itself.

The congruence might also have its roots in overlapping personal histories. It is evident from the Nick Adams stories that Hemingway spent an important part of his formative years living in close association with indigenous peoples. Perhaps, Hemingway is drawing from the same cultural well as Alfred when he proposes that a renewed relationship with the land is the key to indigenous renewal.

Or, as I want to suggest, the congruence might be an indications that settlers and the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have a congruent path to recovery. It is easy to forget, thanks to our colonial histories, that the vast majority of peoples used to displace and dispossess the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island were themselves displaced and dispossessed of their own lands. This fact does not excuse them of their culpability in the colonization of these lands, but it may explain why they too easily embraced genocide as a means to material well being. Displaced and dispossessed peoples all too often retreat into hopeless and destructive behaviour.

Settlers will, of course, need to develop their own relationships with the land, distinct from the relationships pursued by indigenous peoples. They also have a duty to honour the treaties their ancestors signed on their behalf. In fact, it is probably true that settlers will only be able to honour those treaties, if and when they develop a relationship with the land that is, in its own way, spiritually, culturally, and economically sustainable. The settler relationship to the land need not be identical to those developed by indigenous peoples, but it must be congruent, if a just coexistence based on honesty, peace and friendship is going to be possible.

What am I suggesting here is that dispossession and disconnection from the land is an ailment we all share, thanks to colonialism, capitalism, and the will to domination at the root of both. It may also explain why, despite living off the fat of other peoples’ lands for centuries, settler society is empty, shattered, and on the edge of ecological disaster. To honour their historical obligations and to survive, settlers will need to rethink and renew their relationship to the land. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Just ask Nick Adams.

In the mirror of history: a reflection of colonialism

220px-frankensteins_monster_boris_karloffNine months ago, I finally understood that I am one of the Adams of our planet’s colonial history. The penny dropped when I realized, thanks to an Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that the English first perfected the tricks of their colonial trade in Ireland long before they plagued the shores and lands of Turtle Island. Colonialism, I realized, defined and disfigured the lives of my ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the warp and woof of my identity too.

Today, I’m reflecting on this new self-understanding at the Rosemount Public Library in Hintonburg, a gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. I sit at the very same worktable where, twenty-eight years ago, I did my homework or read one of the very many books I borrowed from these shelves. The cozy children’s section seems to me to be almost unchanged. The front desk, the adult fiction and nonfiction stacks, and the worktables are located exactly where I remember them too. There are computers now instead of card catalogs and a few other concessions to the latest technologies, but the geography of this place is exactly as I remember it.  

From the age of ten to sixteen, Rosemount Public Library was my land and territory. It was in these book stacks that I found the words, ideas, and culture with which I would compose myself. I started in the children’s section, moved on to the young adult section, and eventually found myself, perhaps a little too quickly, in the adult section. I easily remember The Great Brain series, everything by Gordon Korman and Judy Bloom, the Dragonlance series, David Eddings, Michael Moorcock, Alan Dean Foster, The Chocolate Wars, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Not Wanted on the Voyage, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut. There are a host of other books and authors lost to my memory, but they are all preserved somewhere in the thicket of my identity.

Growing up, I thought of myself proudly as the “Great Canadian Mutt” because I was an uncertain mix of Irish, French, Algonquian, and, possibly, Scottish. Canadians, as any Canadian will tell you, don’t have much of anything like an assertive national identity. We have a few positive totems, like hockey, universal healthcare, and peacekeeping, but, for the most part, Canadians define themselves through negation. Not-American. Not-European. Not-as-bad. Not-as-radical. In a way, I thought of myself as the prototypical Canadian because I had no ties to any culture or history. I was a not-anything.

My pride evaporated and my identity was turned on its head when I read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a book I stumbled across during an online catalog search at the Rosemount Public Library. Thanks to that book, I realized that my white-washed, ahistorical, acultural, and English-speaking identity is the very aim of English colonialism and has been ever since Henry II first asked the Pope for permission to conquer the pagans of Ireland. The colonial wave that swelled in Ireland surged westward across an ocean and engulfed Turtle Island, clearing the lands of its peoples, languages, cultures, and communities.

Raised in the thick cultural vacuum of colonialism, I had thought of myself as the high watermark of our progressive liberal democracy because, despite being raised on welfare by a single and very unwell mother, I am well-educated and unencumbered by any particular culture or history. Now, I realize, thanks to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that I am, in fact, the nadir of our colonial history. I have a language, a culture, and a history, but they tie me to no one and no one to me.

I am, nevertheless, white and assimilated, as the colonizer intended. I’m also a heterosexual cis male. The perks and privileges that come of my skin, gender, sexual orientation, and assimilated identity are tangible but, ultimately, empty — a sugary substitute for that which the colonizer has always intended to take from people like me. The ties of community that bind us — land, language, and a shared identity — also empower us to stand against those who are driven by domination and exploitation. Once the ties of community are severed, the acultural human is isolated, vulnerable, and, at best, a complacent and easily replaced cog in the colonial machine.

It’s fitting, I think, that I came to understand the true nature of my colonized identity through a history of the United States. Canadians have long resisted, cherished, and exploited the kid brother persona we have adopted for our national identity. We like to define Canada against our swaggering sibling to the south because it allows us to characterize ourselves as a peaceful middle power that took a less assertive and destructive path on our long colonial march from ocean to ocean to ocean. Admittedly, Canada’s genocidal habits have been slightly more subtle, but they have been as destructive, devastating, and detestable. Our collective capacity to ignore our shared colonial history is almost too much for me to believe, but I then remind myself that I was only able to see my own place in that history when I caught a glimpse of it reflected in the broken mirror of America’s colonial history. Some truths, it seems, can only be caught out of the corner of one’s eye.

I can’t overstate my gratitude to the Rosemount Public Library. It was and remains vital to the slow and steady excavation and reconstruction of my identity. I’m also certain, nevertheless, that it was and remains vital to my identity only because my family, broken by hundreds of years of colonial history, had no land, language, stories, or culture of their own to share with me. I also suspect that I am not the only person, young or old, who has found refuge, identity, and hope in the cultural commons of a public library like Rosemount. It is my hope, I guess, that some of them, after this glimpse into the broken mirror of my colonial history, might catch — out of the corner of their eye — a glimpse of the truth of their own place in our colonial history.

Two Lines of History: Parallel or Converging?

img_20150130_213626By blood, I am much more Irish than I am Indian.

My paternal grandparents, as far as I know, were both Irish. My father described himself as Irish. His surname, which I share with him, is also Irish.

In contrast, my great grandmother, Angélique Kaponicin, was the last “full blooded” Weskarini in the genealogy of my family’s history. She was probably the last person in my family to have lived some part of her life traditionally. She lost her Indian status when she married a French man, Frank Maheux. If she lived on reserve, she probably didn’t live on it for very long. She eventually settled in Ottawa.

And, yet, despite the quantum of my blood, I don’t feel any more Irish than I feel Indian. The distance between my identity and the cultural identities of my ancestors on both sides of my family feels about the same: intangibly distant.

There is, however, one important difference.

On my mother’s side, there are places, artifacts, people, and stories that connect me to a rich history and a cultural identity.

On my father’s side, in contrast, I know nothing of my paternal grandparents and their families. I don’t know where in Ireland they came from, when they emigrated, or how they came to settle in Ottawa. I don’t even know where in Ottawa they lived. A history exists, but I have no personal connection to it.

For a short time, thanks to the historian Desmond Morton, I thought I was a little more Irish than I previously thought. In the footnote of an article, Morton incorrectly describes Angélique’s husband and my great grandfather, Frank Maheux, as Irish. Morton, I eventually learned, was wrong, Frank was French, as my mother’s family had always said, but, during the time that I believed Morton’s claim about Frank ancestry, I had a new, sudden, and strong desire to learn about the history of the Irish both in Ireland and here in Canada. I had a personal connection to it.

As I dug into the history of the Irish, I was immediately struck by the parallels between the Irish experience of English colonialism and the First Nations experience of it. Crucial to both are the theft of land, the murder and displacement of peoples, and the sustained assault on language and cultural identity. The English, it seems, invented their own unique brand of settler colonialism in Ireland and strove to perfect it in Canada and the United States.  

Of course, the displaced Irish who survived the crossing from their colonized lands to the newly colonized lands on the other side of the Atlantic themselves became agents of colonialism in their new world. This in itself is no great surprise. Colonialism has often managed the oppression of one people by giving them a supporting role to play in the oppression of another. Dividing and conquering is a tactic as old as conquerors and conquered. We also see it at work today in the colonially created divisions between status and non-status Indians and those who live on reserve and those who don’t.

Although there are strong parallels between the Irish experience of English colonialism and the First Nations experience of it, when I look at the history and non-history of my parents’ families, I don’t see parallel outcomes. It seems to me that the English were far more successful at colonizing and killing the Irish in my father’s family than they were at killing the Indian in my mother’s family.  

Optimistically, the difference between my families may highlight the resilience of indigenous identity on this side of the Atlantic. More ominously, the difference between my two families might be a forewarning, a sign of what’s to come. Perhaps, the identities of my families are different only because the English had a several hundred year head start on the murder of the Irish in me.

A Small Act of Grace: A Story We Can Tell

Frank MaheuxI don’t remember my Aunt Grace — technically, my great Aunt — the same way that I remember my grandmother, Ethel. Grace was our next door neighbor for three or four years, but somehow her presence during my boyhood seems less tangible. Perhaps, it was because she lived close to us only when I was quite young.

I do, however, remember her cottage. I remember its smell, its layout, and the land it was built on. I remember the old and the new outhouse. I remember the barrel that collected the rainwater from the roof. I remember playing thirty-one by the light of an oil lamp in the inky dark of night.

I also remember the short walk to the nearby lake. I remember the spot where we’d wade into it to swim or launch the canoe. I remember the shape of the lake, and the spot where we’d collect spring water. I remember the low bridge, a short walk from the lake, where my brother and I would fish a shallow creek for trout.

I don’t remember how often I went to Grace’s cottage when I was a boy, but the depth and clarity of my memories seems to suggest it was reasonably often. I do know that, in my adolescence, I went to the cottage on my own a few times. The solitary time away was regenerative.  

It was Grace who donated Frank Maheux’s war letters to the Public Archives of Canada — now the Library and Archives of Canada. I can’t be sure why she did it, but I seem to remember that she understood the historical value of her father’s letters, which had reached her mother, Angélique, uncensored. I suppose there might have also been a measure of vanity in the gift. Once the letters were accepted by the Public Archives, we were a family with a relative who was institutionally recognized to have been historically significant. We had a place in Canada’s history.

All of that is probably true. I also wonder if the decision was motivated by another kind of hope.

I have read that the land, for indigenous peoples, is a kind of encyclopedia of stories. Plants, animals, places and activities are all cues to tell and retell the stories that remind them of their place on the land, their connection to each other, and the knowledge that makes all of it possible. The land — just as effectively as the letters, words, and sentences of any book — helps a person, a family, and a people remember the stories they tell and retell to know who they are.

When I was in grade school, I went to read my great grandfather’s letters in the Public Archives. I wrote a short speech about his experiences for Remembrance Day and won an award for it. I recently learned that my brother also went to read the letters when he was a teenager. A few months ago, when I returned to the letters as an adult, I found a note slipped in among them. It was written by a relative, unknown to me, who had also gone to read the letters at some point. It stated simply that he, Christian Maheux, had visited the letters and that his grandfather was Frank Maheux.

I don’t know much about the other descendants of Frank and Angélique Maheux, but I do know we are all connected to each other through those letters and the stories we tell about them. Not everyone of us who visits the letters will blog about the experience or leave notes behind, but, every time one of us visits those letters, we create one more story that connects all of us to each other. Our family no longer has a traditional territory, sacred places or the daily routines of life to prompt our collective story-telling, but we have those letters.

And I suspect Grace might have had something like that in mind, when she donated Frank’s letters to the Public Archives — the letters of my great grandfather and possibly yours.

A Portrait In History: Me, My Grandmother, and Colonialism

Painting by Ethel MaheuxWhen I was a little boy, I liked to draw portraits of my grandmother.

This is how I drew them:

I would draw the biggest circle possible on whatever sheet of paper I had. Then, I would add a tiny little head, tiny little arms, and tiny little legs.  

To make sure there was no doubt about who I was drawing, I’d always label it “Grandma.”

And, then, I’d show it to her and giggle and giggle. “See how fat you are, Grandma. This is how fat you are!”

My grandmother always enjoyed my playful gibe by portrait and she always laughed along with me. She encouraged me to draw and she also taught me how to draw better. I can still see the effects of her tutoring in my half-formed doodles today.

I recently discovered art that my grandmother made as a child or, perhaps, as a young woman. It was mixed in with the notes a musician and self-taught anthropologist prepared for an unfinished book on Algonquin culture. My great grandmother, Angélique Maheux, was one of her informants.   

I’m not sure what I expected when I went to look at the notes, which are held by the Canadian Museum of History, but I know it wasn’t what I did find. There are reams and reams of notes, documenting many aspects of Algonquin culture — and much of it is attributed to my great grandmother.

Mixed in among the notes, I also found artwork created by my grandmother, Ethel, my great aunt, Grace, and a great uncle I never knew — Frank. I also learned that it was he who carved the sculpture of Paginawatik, a chief who played a crucial role in the creation of the River Desert Reserve No. 18 — known today as Kitigan Zibi. My great grandmother, it seems, was a descendant.       

My grandmother was a constant presence during my boyhood. She looked out for me and my brother, contributing in ways that were obvious and in ways that were probably not so obvious — especially to a child. She must have been aware of how unwell my mother was becoming and stayed close to help out anyway she could.

“Grandmothers never abandon their grandchildren,” my great grandmother once said — according to one of the notes attributed to her in the collection left behind by the musician-turned-anthropologist. Unfortunately, grandchildren sometimes abandon their grandmothers.

In the summer of 1995, when I ended my relationship with mother because of her mental health issues, I also ended my relationship with my grandmother. I don’t think I intended to end my relationship with my grandmother but, at that time, if I thought of my grandmother at all, I was probably resentful. I didn’t think she was doing enough to get my mother help and seemed, at times, even to enable her delusions.

I realize now that I really had no idea what my grandmother was doing or not doing to help my mother. I had lived with my father for the last few years of high school and had fled to southern Ontario for my first year of university. I had returned to Ottawa for the summer only because I had no other choice — to take a job I didn’t want. I can’t remember if I even saw my grandmother that summer. From her perspective, it must have seemed like I simply disappeared.

With the benefit of hindsight and a better understanding of Canada’s colonial history, it now seems plausible that my grandmother might have been understandably reluctant to institutionalize her daughter “for her own good.” Canada’s track record when in it comes to institutionalizing indigenous people “for their own good” has been abysmal. It also occurs to me only now, in writing out these reflections, that she must have been enduring and, perhaps, resisting colonialism in her own way. I really have no idea one way or the other.

In high school, I tried to write a poem to express my understanding that there was more to my mother’s illness than what was happening in her brain. She was a single mother living on mother’s allowance. Had she been comfortably middle class or wealthy she probably would have had a stronger support network and probably would have found help. I understood that class framed and shaped her illness and her experience of it. It never occurred to me that colonialism also had a role to play. That isn’t too surprising, I guess. A sickness has to be named before it can be diagnosed.  

A few months ago, I found — I am pretty sure — my grandmother’s obituary online. If it is hers, she died only a year ago, which means that she was alive the whole time I have been back in Ottawa. Had I looked for her a little sooner I might have been able to speak with her. Of course, I didn’t look for her sooner because I didn’t yet have any questions to ask her. Now that I’m starting to ask the right kind of questions, I have many, but timing is, as they say, everything.

Unfortunately, even if I had reached out to her in these last few years, she might not have recognized or remembered me. The obituary I found implies she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s. I have, nevertheless, heard that it’s the oldest memories that are often the last to go. So, she might not have recognized me, but there is a chance that she might have remembered the story of a grandson and the portraits he drew of her and, in turn, she might have shared some old stories of her own.

My Place In Your History

img_20150725_113856“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me. The words come to me, as I am sitting in McCormick Park in Hintonburg, a neighbourhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.   

I imagine these words for my great grandmother because twenty-eight years ago, I was twelve years old and a student at Connaught Public School, which is a few hundred metres from this spot. In those days, my friends and I would come here to share our lunches, play poker, and smoke paper bag cigarettes. Sitting here now, the memories of that time rise up like ghosts on an ancient Indian burial ground.

According to Desmond Morton, “one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians,” my great grandmother was “full-blooded Odawa.” He makes this claim in an essay about her husband and my great grandfather, Frank Maheux. I stumbled across Morton’s essay late one night two years ago, when it occurred to me that the internet might help me settle once and for all whether or not one of the family legends about my great grandfather was true.

I was born in this neighborhood, not far from McCormick Park, where I’m sitting now remembering ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother. The Grace Hospital is long gone, but the land is still there. There’s a different building there now, but it seems to me to be reminiscent of the old. I’m not sure if that’s a trick of memory or if it was intended by the builders. Either way, it’s the land of my birth and many many others born in Ottawa.

Morton’s claim about my great grandmother’s pedigree came as a bit of a surprise to me because, growing up, I don’t remember anyone being as certain of her blood quantum as he seems to be. “She was probably full-blooded” is how I remember my family describing her. Much more surprising is Morton’s claim that she was Odawa. My grandmother and my mother always described themselves as Algonquin. My grandmother even ran a service organization with the word “Algonquin” in its name. It’s possible she meant “Algonquin” in the broadest sense of the term, because the Odawa are a part of the Algonquin language group, but I’m pretty sure my grandmother thought she belonged to the Algonquin nation. I wonder what they put on her status card, when they gave her one in the eighties.  

Connaught Public School still exists, but the building I knew is long gone. The land is still there. The new building — of this I am sure — was built to be reminiscent of the old. Thanks to an open house in honour of the school’s hundredth anniversary, I was able to walk its halls a few months ago. The interior of the new building is not like the old, but it couldn’t keep the ghosts of memory from rising up. A few of the ghosts even morphed into people, who then reminded me of stories I had forgotten. My stories, of course, aren’t the only stories remembered in those halls. For others, I was the ghost that became the living breathing storyteller.

As it happens, Morton was very late to the party, when he published his article on my great grandfather in 1992. In ‘84 or ‘85, when I was in grade five or six at Connaught, I wrote a short piece about my great grandfather for Remembrance Day. Morton and I wrote about him for the same reason. My great grandfather’s letters from the front, written to my great grandmother, somehow managed to make it back to Canada uncensored, and then, thanks to my great aunt, ended up in Archives Canada. In the piece I wrote, I remember that I focussed on the horror and brutality of life in the trenches, which my great grandfather describes graphically in his letters. Morton’s piece paints a broader picture, illustrating how my great grandfather was a typically atypical example of a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

I’m sitting in McCormick Park today, reminiscing with ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother, because I came here for a change of scenery. Normally, I read in Parkdale Park, a few blocks away. It’s a nice spot in this gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood, but it’s new to me. There are no ghosts there, so I forgot that I might run into them here. I’m trying to finish the last few pages of Rupert Ross’ Indigenous Healing, but I am distracted by the memories of this place, the memories invoked by the book, and the words I imagine for my great grandmother.

As an adolescent, the idea of my great grandfather resonated with me. I wouldn’t say I idealized him, but I think I wanted to see a part of myself in him. It probably began with the short piece I wrote about him, but it occurs to me only now that the appeal of him must have been the simple fact of his availability for this kind of identity making. He was a story my mother and my mother’s family often told and they told it with pride. He had the gall to enlist in three wars and would spend long months alone deep in the bush watching for forest fires. It was said that he came from a good French family, which connected us by marriage to Sir Sandford Fleming, but his family had disowned him for marrying an indigenous woman. He rode a moose once. His story, in my family’s telling of it, is thoroughly Canadian.

In McCormick Park, I take a picture of the table and stools that conjured my ghosts and the words I imagined for my great grandmother. The table and stools are anchored deep into the cement and are likely to be here long after I am gone. I am sure my ghosts aren’t the only ones that haunt this spot. Others, in time, will also come to call this place home. I post the photo to Facebook and tag friends, who might remember the lunches we spent together here at this spot a very long time ago. The likes and comments trickle in. Someone I haven’t seen in twenty-eight years, and who I will likely never see again in person, responds. He tells me that when he returned to Ottawa a few years ago, the spot where I am sitting now is one of the places he made a point of visiting. He writes, “Thought I was the only one who remembered.” No, I remember. This place remembers. We all remember, even if we sometimes forget to tell the stories.

Unfortunately, neither Morton’s essay nor my great grandfather’s service record, which can also be found online, corroborates the family legend I had set out to verify. According to the legend, it was often said that my great grandfather had been awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”, a rank only the King himself could take away, because he had saved an officer’s life in combat. No such rank, it seems, is likely to exist. If it does, it wasn’t awarded to my great grandfather, but he did, nevertheless, earn the Military Medal for bravery. I also learn, however, that he contracted gonorrhea while on leave, didn’t send as much money home to his family as he could have, and twice admits in his letters to murdering prisoners. The problem with family legends — like history — is that the facts often get in the way of a neat, clean, and simple story.

In Morton’s article, there is a picture, unfamiliar to me, of my great grandfather and his dark skinned wife and children. He is in uniform and she and the children are in European clothing. There is something unexpected and unsettling in my great grandmother’s broad and warm smile. Her eyes are in shadow, but they seem to look directly and happily into the camera and the future — both hers and mine. The demeanour captured in this photo doesn’t match my memory of the grim and unsmiling demeanour captured in the photos taken at the other end of her history. I wonder, looking back into that happy face so much like my own, across the void of a history unknown, untold, and unwritten, if I am the great grandson she wanted or the product of a betrayal she could not foresee?

“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me had her history, my history, and the history of this country been very very different.

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NB: I wrote this story about a year ago. I didn’t share it until now because I submitted it to a contest, which it did not win.  I’ve learned a lot more about my great grandparents since I first wrote it. You can learn more here.