I spent my entire career writing corporate documents. I could spin with the best of them. It is very different from writing family history stories. When I joined the Genealogy Ensemble family history writing group, I had to learn a whole new way of writing.
In a corporate document, you are always trying to get something from someone. It could be funding, agreement on how to proceed, approval for a project, agreement with your point of view, or understanding and approval of why you did what. The list goes on and on. Your objective is to sway your audience to your point of view.
When I would write corporate documents, it was important that I provide the reader with the context of the request. I usually started with the background, then the current situation, followed by a description of the issue, and concluding with the desired outcome.
Family history stories should start with a lead that will grab the reader’s attention, much like a news story. Simply put, a good lead will incite the reader to continue.
Writing family history stories is intensely personal. After all, you are writing about your own family. Your voice must come through. When I would write corporate documents, I was always the anonymous writer. No one knew me personally, even if I signed the document. The corporation always spoke in the document, not me. Family history writing is all about you and your journey discovering your ancestors. Your family history stories are an important part of the family archives.
Corporate writing is full of the third person. Organization X believes. Organization Y has decided. Organization Z recommends. When it is your family, feel free to put your emotion into it. Writing about your ancestors is a way to bring them alive and to celebrate their struggles and achievements. You can bring compassion and understanding to stories of their lives.
Most importantly, have fun writing about your ancestors. In a way, it’s a little like writing about yourself.
Sarah Ann and her children were known as the Berkeley Street Eagles. They lived at 339 Berkeley Street in Toronto, just a couple of blocks from Seaton Street where her brother-in-law William Eagle lived. He was said to have kept an eye on the family but Sarah Ann seemed to be a strong woman and didn’t need looking after. She had an imposing figure and at some point a glass eye that stared at you when she talked.¹
Sarah Ann was widowed in 1876 when her husband Alexander Eagle was killed at work. He was just 40. Alexander was a teamster and he was loading a wagon with salt barrels when one fell on him.
His wife was left to raise seven children. The oldest, Amelia was 14 and baby Frederick only one year old. Sarah Ann had already lost two children, Eliza Jane at seven and Alfred, Frederick’s twin at only one-month-old. The family continued to live in Goderich, Ontario for a while but then moved to Toronto.
Sarah Ann Esten McMillan was born in Ireland and came to Canada with her family when she was about 14, in 1849. It was a six-week sea voyage in a sailing ship and then the family had to continue from Kingston to Goderich by stage coach. According to her obituary, she used to boast that she made the first salt in Goderich and saw the first train that came into Toronto.²
The eldest child, Amelia was known as Millie. She was a good daughter. She lived with her mother, worked as a tailor and never married. When her brother Frederick and his wife had their first child she moved in with them and was there until her death in 1943.
Martha Ellen the second daughter was said to be the wild one, although at 18 she was still living with her mother and working as a milliner. She left home after she married Harry Shepard, moved to Chicago and had a family. She seemed to turn out well. Her brother William became a baker and he too moved to Chicago. He married and ended up in Los Angeles.
David Eagle, also never married. He lived with his mother and worked as a cabinet maker and house builder. His sister Sarah Ann, known as Annie kept house for everybody at 339 Berkeley Street. After she died in 1949, the house was sold and Dave went to live with his brother Fred in Hamilton.
Emily was a school teacher. She married Edgar Bent when she was 40 and went to live in New London, Connecticut. They had no children and after her husband died she returned to Berkeley Street.
Frederick Eagle the youngest, lived at Berkeley Street until his marriage to Mildred Campbell in 1904. It appears he was lucky to get her. A write up about their wedding stated; “Mr Eagle is a former Goderich boy who is well known and much esteemed in his native town. The bride whom he has been so fortunate in winning is one of the most popular young ladies, an especial favourite with her friends and one who will be missed in the work of the church of which she has been a member from young girlhood.” They had three sons.
Eagles continued to come and go from Berkeley Street even after Sarah Ann’s death at 84 in 1919. Sarah Ann’s favourite saying according to grandson Fred was, “a mickle is a muckle.” This Scotish saying can be a mickle or a pickle but with a muckle generally, means many small things can make something large. I think Sarah Ann would be surprised but pleased to know her house on Berkley Street is now worth almost a million dollars!
- A story from my Aunt Beth Sutherland Van Loben Sels.
- Sarah Ann’s obituary Toronto Star.
- The Scotsman December 12, 2013. Mony a mickle maks a muckle. This is popularly thought to mean that a lot of small amounts of something will make a large amount of it. It is often used to try and encourage people to save little amounts of money in the hope, one day, that these will become a fortune. The sentiment may be admirable, but the saying as it stands actually does not make much sense. Mickle and Muckle, far from being opposites in meaning, actually mean the same thing. As nouns, they both mean a large amount or a great deal of something. http://www.scotsman.com/news/scottish-word-of-the-week-mickle-muckle-1-3231104
- I met Fred Eagle, Sarah Ann’s grandson and son of Frederick once in 1997 at the beginning of my genealogy research. He told me family stories insisted he and Minnie Eagle were cousins as she had always been cousin Minnie, but actually, they were first cousins once removed.
Upon seeing the farm after so many years the first words out of my mouth were, “I remember it being much bigger!”
“You were much smaller when you spent childhood summers here”, was my husband’s response.
Yes, I had been smaller but there were certainly changes. The perimeter of the property has been slashed. The trans-Canada highway now cuts through the apple orchard behind the house. That night I watched the lights of the big transport trucks where once there were only fireflies lighting up the darkness. The barn is gone, its aged wood sold off as reclaimed wood for trendy furniture. The big vegetable garden is gone, too. No one has time anymore to preserve vegetables. The trees and bushes along the brook are thickly overgrown. There is no sign of the headstones in what was a small family cemetery.
The lilac tree, however, still stands as it has for decades. Beside it now is a large sign: La Gite des Lilas, Caplan, Quebec. It was at this B&B that I had made reservations for two nights.
My grandfather, George Hudson Willett, bought the farm in 1900 following his return from the Klondike Gold Rush. My grandmother, Isabella Maria Gilker, came here as a bride in 1901. Seven children were born and raised in the house, the youngest being my mother. This was where my grandmother died in 1933 when my mother was only fifteen.
My grandfather raised pigs and chickens along with beef and dairy cattle. His eldest son Keith became a butcher, slaughtering the animals and those of their neighbours. Father and son worked together until my grandfather’s death in 1961.
Various siblings left their city homes each summer to return to the farm with their families. The cousins spent sun-filled days playing in the barn, riding the hay wagon, catching brook trout, picking big juicy strawberries, and splashing in the jelly-fish infested waters of the Bay de Chaleur.
Little has changed inside today’s B&B. The four guest rooms were once the family bedrooms. A second bathroom has been added. The original bathroom (missing the large “footed” tub), the fifth bedroom, and a section of the hallway has been closed off to form a small suite. Vintage furniture and quilts evoke the end of 19th century when the house was first built. The tilting hardwood floors are testament to the two hundred years the house has stood overlooking the bay.
The upstairs was once warmed, through grates in the floor, by a huge wood stove in the kitchen. My cousins and I would huddle by these openings straining our ears to hear the adults’ conversation long after we should have been in bed. Today the house is heated by electricity and all the rooms are comfortably warm. Guests are free to watch television with the owners in the “parlor” and are served breakfast in the dining room.
The kitchen has undergone the most change. Gone is the big wood stove. Gone are the chairs and the long table where my aunt would serve a full noon meal to any number of farm hands. Gone are the two cots where my uncle and grandfather napped before returning to the fields. Gone is summer kitchen off to the side where each day the milk was separated from the cream. The summer kitchen is now the owners’ bedroom.
As I drifted to sleep each night in a bedroom where I had once slept as a child, memories emerged, memories all but forgotten. Layers of summers unfold in my mind to be enjoyed once again in the telling.
My husband was an appreciative listener.
Today my own grandchildren are collecting summer memories at a lake in the Laurentions. I had a farm, they have a cottage, but both embody the enduring history of family.
Before 1900, photography was the domain of the expert. Cameras were complicated, film was bulky. That year, the Eastman Kodak company introduced the Brownie camera, a simple box with a lens, loaded with a roll of film, and photography became available and affordable to the general public. My grandmother’s family were early adopters of this new technology, and my grandmother, Gwendolen Bagg (1887-1963), became an enthusiastic photographer.
One of her first subjects was her own house in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile. She photographed not only the exterior, but also the drawing room (living room), with its ornate mantelpiece and heavy drapes.
The majority of photos were taken during summer vacations with the family. Many Montrealers left the city in the summer, not only to escape the heat, but also to avoid the outbreaks of disease that plagued the city in those years. In the early 1900s, the Bagg family went to Cacouna, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, and they also spent time at a lake near Ste. Agathe, in the Laurentians, north of Montreal.
Gwen photographed her father stretched out on the lawn at Cacouna, her mother in a wide-brimmed hat, and her older sister on horseback and in a canoe. Her little brother, Harold, was a favourite subject. In one picture, taken when he would have about five years old, he posed with his two girl cousins. According to the custom of the day, he had long hair and was dressed exactly like the girls in what appears to be a dress. The following year, his blonde hair remained long, but Harold wore a sailor suit.
In her late teens, Gwen photographed her friends, wearing elaborate bathing costumes on the beach near Kennebunk, Maine. On the porch at the hotel where they stayed, all the young women wore light dresses that reached the ground and covered their arms to their wrists. They must have been very hot.
In 1913, Gwen photographed her mother, by now a widow and dressed in black, leaning up against a big log at Kennebunk Beach, chatting with a friend. By this time, her sister Evelyn was married, and Gwen liked to photograph her little niece, Clare.
The camera must have been a good one, and whoever Gwen shared it with (probably her mother), was also a good photographer. All these photos were in focus, well exposed and tightly composed. Most importantly, Gwen put her photos into albums and identified most of the people, places and years they were taken. She got married in 1916, and after that, although she continued take family photos, the prints ended up in a box, loose and unidentified.
Gwen kept these albums and my mother inherited them and then passed them on to me. Several years ago, I asked the McCord Museum in Montreal whether they would like them. The McCord already had a collection of letters and business ledgers that had belonged to the Bagg family, so these photos shed light on another aspect of their past. The albums are now part of the Bagg Family Fonds, and a few of them have been digitized and can be viewed on the McCord’s website at http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&tableid=18&tablename=fond&elementid=31__true (go to the very bottom of this page).
This article is also posted on http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca
I cannot say for certain that my grandmother had a Brownie, but she certainly had some type of simple box camera. The square photos in her album are approximately 3 ½” x 3 ½”, corresponding to the Kodak film sizes 101 and 106. This chart on the Brownie website describes the different sizes of film that Brownie cameras used over the years: http://www.brownie-camera.com/film.shtml. If she did have a Kodak, it was probably similar to the camera described on this website: http://www.historiccamera.com/cgibin/librarium/pm.cgi?action=display&login=no2bullet
We were sitting on a bench at a short par three at our local golf course, waiting for the green to be free. Louise and I struck up a conversation that turned out to be serendipitous. We had known each other for more than seven years. The name of Soeur St. Emile had never been mentioned. She began talking about her great aunt, Tante Soeur St. Emile, a Grey Nun of the Cross in Ottawa., also known as the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa. Hearing this, my curiosity was piqued. My mother often talked about her aunt, Soeur St. Emile, a grey nun who was the Superior of the boarding school in Alymer where she had been a student. Could it possibly be the same person? What were the chances of that?
Louise and I chatted and came to the conclusion that her grandmother and my grandfather were brother and sister! Soeur St. Emile was their sister. Indeed it was the same person and we were related.
Marie Louise Jodoin (Soeur St. Emile) was born November 16th, 1862 in Montebello, Quebec, a community on the Ottawa River not far from Hull. As a youngster she attended the local convent school where the Grey nuns taught. Her family moved to Hull and she remained in Montebello as a boarder until the new school in Hull was completed in 1870.
Louise was eight and a half years old when her mother died and a year later her father remarried. No doubt this must have had a strong impact on the little girl. Music became her passion at this very young age. She took piano and singing lessons and had a talent for both. At the age of sixteen she entered religious life through the doors of the Mother House of the Grey Sisters of Ottawa on Bruyère Street and for the next 75 years she lead a life of prayer and dedication along with an active life devoted to teaching piano and singing lessons. She was also called upon to serve as a Superior during 37 of those years in various schools and hospitals under the jurisdiction of the community.
August 15th, 1940 after 62 years of active service to the community she walked through the same door as day the she had entered the convent. She had come full circle. She was coming home. On April 14th 1942 the community rejoiced as they celebrated her Diamond Jubilee.
Through out her latter years, Soeur St. Emile devoted much of her time to prayer, however, she continued to maintain contact through correspondence with many of the people whose lives she had touched. “La petite Estelle”, my Mom, was one of those people and even after all those years she would always ask her about the children.
She was truly an intelligent and remarkable women who excelled at everything she did. She died in her 91st year and in her 75th year of religious life.
I would be remiss if I did not tell you the following: When I saw my parents shortly after my conversation with Cousin Louise on the golf course that summer afternoon of 1984, I asked them a few questions. My mother was a little perplexed and my father piped up and told me the story about meeting Soeur St. Emile in September of 1930 while he and my Mom were on their honeymoon. They had stopped in Hull to see her on their way to Quebec City. Dad pointed out that she was a rather buxom lady who took him in her open arms and welcomed him in to the family. Needless to say, it was a very meaningful gesture he never forgot. He made a gesture of open arms and said, “ Elle ma embracé.”He then proceeded to tell me the names of all the relatives he had met during that visit and this was almost 50+ year later!
Soeur St. Emile left a lasting impression with him and most likely with many of the people she had met over the years.
With gratitude to my cousin, Louise Pinault for giving me a copy of a short biography that was written a year after the death of our Great Aunt. It was penned by a member of the Grey Nuns of Ottawa on the 8th of August 1953.
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” called out my grade two teacher as the last word on our daily spelling test. It was the surest way to get our full attention on that April Fool’s Day!
When I begin to work on a story about one of my ancestors, it is not always clear on how to best start the story. One very helpful tip, from the Genealogy Ensemble writers group, has been to find a way to capture the reader’s interest in the first few sentences.
Dick Francis, a famous British jockey and thriller writer (and one of my favourite authors), began almost all of his books in this fashion.
Here are some examples of excellent openers from stories posted on our website Genealogy Ensemble:
- A Small Life by Barb Angus – https://genealogyensemble.com/2015/10/21/a-small-life/
“I hold the documents as gently as I would the child for whom I have searched for so long. A birth certificate. A death certificate. Four days apart.”
- Call me Ismael by Mary Sutherland- https://genealogyensemble.com/2015/11/04/call-me-ismael/
“He arrived when the service was almost over. He walked to the pulpit and announced the last hymn “Seigneur Tu donne Ta Grace.” As the organ played he collapsed to the floor. So ended the life of Ismael Bruneau, my great grandfather.”
- The Cipher by Sandra McHugh – https://genealogyensemble.com/2017/02/08/the-cipher/
“When I say that my grandfather, Thomas McHugh, worked as a cipher, Bletchley Park, MI5, and Russian spies immediately come to mind. He was neither a Russian spy nor did he work as a cipher during the war. His employer was the Bank of Montreal and it was his first job when he came to Canada in 1912.”
- No Fairy Tale Ending by JaniceHamilton https://genealogyensemble.com/2015/02/11/no-fairy-tale-ending/
“It must have been a happy wedding. For a girl from relatively humble American roots to marry the owner of one of Quebec’s vast seigneuries, this must have seemed like a wonderful match. And the groom had recently lost his parents, so family members were no doubt pleased to see him marry. Unfortunately, there was no fairy-tale ending to this story.”
- Like Father, Like Son by Lucy H. Anglin – https://genealogyensemble.com/2016/06/01/like-father-like-son/
“My husband was mesmerized by the photo of a young man hanging in a sling close to the giant propeller of the airplane he was repairing. He had never seen it before. It was a photo of his father, Allan, in his early twenties.”
Nonsensical words are great fun for children, but I think the opening sentences of these stories are excellent examples of how to capture my interest as an adult reader.