“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.
Ismael Bruneau wanted a biblical family, one child for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. His wife Ida didn’t share that ambition, but still, they had 10. When one of her daughters was getting married she asked her mother what she could do to prevent the arrival of so many children and Ida answered, “If I knew, do you think I would have had all of you?”
Ida herself came from a very large family. She was born in 1862 in Les Convers, Switzerland, to Gustave Girod and Sophie Balmer, the sixth of 16 children. Her favourite aunt, Celine Balmer was teaching at a private girl’s school in Baltimore, Maryland and arranged a job for Ida at the same school. In 1882 Ida sailed to the United States for the teaching position.
After a particularly bad year, with many deaths in the family, her parents decided to emigrate to America. Another son tragically died on the voyage and was buried at sea. The Girods were farmers and settled in the French community of Kankakee, Illinois. When Ida went to visit, she met the Minister, Ismael Bruneau. He was taken with her and they were soon married.
Ismael and Ida then lived in Green Bay Wisconsin where their first three children, Edgar, Beatrice and Hermonie were born. A French Protestant minister moved frequently and the next charge was in Holyoke Massachusetts, where Helvetia was born. Next was a move back to Canada. Sydney, Fernand, and Edmee were born in Quebec City and Renee, Herbert and Gerald in Montreal. All the children survived except Fernand. My Grandmother Beatrice said it was his name that killed him but we didn’t understand why as we thought the other siblings had stranger names. They played funeral with him and pulled him around in a wagon covered with flowers.
Although a minister’s salary was meagre the family survived and flourished. The first two sons went to McGill. One became a doctor and the other a lawyer. All the girls finished high school, went to Normal school and became teachers except Renee who attended Business school. The two youngest boys were still at home when their father died. There wasn’t the money to send them to university but they both became successful businessmen.
Ismael’s death was a shock to Ida. He had preached at an earlier service in Portneuf and ran uphill from the station in Quebec City, as the train was 50 minutes late. He arrived at the end of the service and died of a heart attack. Her heart was broken, “ I must realize that my dear husband of nearly 32 years has left me forever.” She moved to her daughter Helvetia’s home in Lachute, a town Ismael had felt would be a good place to retire. She went back to Switzerland because her aunt Celine had returned, but Celine was suffering from dementia and with all other friends and family gone Ida decided her life was in Canada.
One of her husband’s brothers-in-law, Emilien Frechette, whose wife Emilina Marie Bruneau had died, proposed that as they were both alone they get married. He had built himself a large house in Iberville south of Montreal and wanted company. My Aunt Aline remembered hating her mother’s visits to Iberville because she would come back with large baskets of gooseberries, red and black currents, which had to be cleaned for jam and pies. Aline’s other memory of her grandmother Ida was teaching her to play rummy and seven up. Aline said, “ She liked the little games they played and thought the ‘Devil’s plaything’ was a misnomer.” It was fine to play cards, just not on Sunday.
Ida developed cancer and spent her last days in the Montreal General Hospital. She was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in the Frechette plot with Emilien’s first wife Marie. After Ida’s death in 1927, he married Emilie Beauchamp Bruneau, the widow of Napoleon Bruneau, Ismael’s brother. Emilien certainly looked after the women in the Bruneau family. My mother remembered him as a nice old man. She didn’t remember her grandmother who died when she was five but she did remember visiting Monsieur Frechette in Iberville, going to the toilet and thinking, “My grandmother sat here!”
Bruneau, Ida. A Short History of the Bruneau – Girod Families. 1993.
Bruneau, Ida. letter to Mes Frere et Soeur. February 5, 1918. Quebec City, Quebec. A copy in the author’s possession.
Aline Raguin Allchurch. Letter to Mary Sutherland. 2002. Author’s possession.
Dorothy Raguin Sutherland’s Stories. Personal interview. 1998.
Ancestry.com. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2008. Original data: Gabriel Drouin, comp. Drouin Collection. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Institut Généalogique Drouin.
Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Dick Tracy were fictional detectives who most likely would have been great genealogists. These detectives solved crimes searching for clues. In the case of genealogists, they solve their problems by perusing through records pertaining to their ancestors. These records are available through church records, court record, land grants and many other sources to answer their queries with the utmost accuracy and develop family trees. In today’s world a wealth of computer programs are available to help the genealogists in their research
Researchers in genealogy often encounter what are referred to as “brick walls”, where they are unable to find the vital information they need to verify a source in order to continue their research. Such was the following case.
Records showed that Moyse Hypolite Fortin was married to Henriette Bertrand. However, there were two separate records for the birth of an Henriette Bertrand. The first was born in Vaudreuil in 1811 while the second was born in Ile Perrot several kilometres away in 1813. Which of these might be his wife?
Over several months searches of various records were done to find a possible answer, one that would clarify which Henriette was his wife. Some of the records were hardly read-able making it that much more difficult. It was a major problem and a setback.
Finally a record was found that could possibly be the answer to our question?. To verify this find and to be certain it was the correct person, a visit was made to Centre d’histoire La Presqu’ile in Vaudreuil where the young archivist showed me the documents indicating that it was Henriette Bertrand, daughter of Joseph François Bertrand and Scholastique Sabourin, born in Ile Perrot on March 7th 1813.
Finally, one more “brick wall” scaled. Persistence paid off! On to the next one!
Remembrance Day services always bring me to tears.
My childhood was spent in the shadow of World War II. My father, Douglas Ian Rankin Angus, and my uncle, James Oswald Stewart Angus returned home from overseas but they left an older sibling in a grave in Germany 1. My grandparents grieved for the rest of their lives.
My earliest memory of Remembrance Day is of my father parading down Quebec City’s Grand Allee to the cenotaph with his head held high, so handsome in his RCAF uniform. No tears then, just a stiff upper lip.
The first tears I remember were shed when I was fifteen. On the way home to Canada from a contract in East Pakistan, my father took his family to Hong Kong. At the Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery, my dad stood by the graves of many of his high school classmates who had served with the Royal Rifles of Canada in the defense of Hong Kong and sobbed. It was the first time I had seen my father cry and I was shocked. 2
In school that September my history teacher was one of the men who survived the horror of a Japanese POW camp. “He was never the same”, claimed my grandmother. Was my father also not the same man who joined the air force in 1940?
Dad never spoke of his war-time experiences. When discharged from service he returned to his old job at Price Brothers in Quebec City, bought a house and started a family. I often wonder how he and my mother were able to resume a marriage after four years separated by war. Dad spent additional periods of time in a military hospital following his discharge. All I knew is that while hospitalized, he made wonderfully big stuffed felt rabbits for my brother and me.
Every year without fail Dad took part in Remembrance Day services. He joined the Canadian Legion and sold poppies; he presented scholarships to the children and grandchildren of veterans at graduation ceremonies ; he attended squadron reunions and, following several medical procedures, convalesced at the Veteran’s Hospital in St. Anne de Bellevue .
I struggled to push my father’s wheelchair over the bumpy lawn at the Field of Honour in Pointe Claire on what would be his last Remembrance Day. Tears streamed down his face throughout the entire service and he sobbed uncontrollably during the Last Post. At his funeral seven months later, at age eighty- three, friends and colleagues who had also served overseas hobbled up to the altar in tears and laid poppies on his urn.
It was only after his death that I learned of dad’s war time service. I found his Pilot’s Flying Log Book, his service file, his discharge papers, a scrapbook of newspaper clippings my mother had complied, various certificates and a bundle of letters.3
Dad began his military service as a Wireless Air Gunner and was discharged to the Reserves as a Flight Lieutenant. He was trained to fly Hampdens, Elbacores, Wellingtons, Tiger Moths, Ansons and the Link C. He served in the Swordfish Squadron #415 and, when deployed oversees, he was assigned first to the RAF Costal Command and then to Bomber Command. He flew out of air force bases at Thorney Island, North Coates and St. Eval in England, Tain and Leuchars in Scotland, and Sumburg in the Shetland Islands.
The average expectation of life for nine crews out of ten was less than six months.
In one of the articles my mother clipped from the Quebec Chronicle Telegraph, Dad was listed as a Dambuster having participated in the 1943 bombing of the Mohne Damn and the Eder Damn which destroyed the heart of Industrial Germany in the Ruhr Valley: the factories, roads, railroads, mines, bridges and power stations.4.
One journalist attempted to interview a returning Dambuster and was told that the men had been ordered not to talk about it. It would seem that Dad never disobeyed order. In the his book Bomber Country, Daniee Swift refers to the “forgetting” by the bombers, “For in the place of a full record of the bombing, there is a curious absence.” 5
More than 500,000 German civilians were either killed or drowned in the raids on the damns. Immediately following the war the politicians of the day argued that to honour Bomber Command for their enormous contribution and sacrifice towards defeating Hitler was too politically charged because of the deaths. It was not until 2012, sixty-seven years “too late” that a memorial to Bomber Command was unveiled in Green Park, London. By then, Dad had been dead for nine years and with him the loss of the stories he never told.
And of the Remembrance Tears? They are shed for the bombers and for the bombed.
1. Service Record of Sergeant David Colin Brodie Angus, Library and Archives Canada
3. Documents on file with author
5. Daniel Swift. Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
The conclusion of one of the stories on Vita Brevis, the New England Historic Genealogical Society blog, demonstrates a typical family historian dilemma.
“We still don’t, of course, know who wrote down the story, when, or how likely they were to know the true facts of the case, but someday the original family version may surface.”
Alicia Crane Williams’ conclusion to her post about a man whose ancestor’s wife allegedly received a dowry equal to her weight in gold (http://vita-brevis.org/2017/01/poor-man-in-london/, Jan 9, 2017) was exactly as it should be. An important part of our job as family historians is to clearly make the distinction between history and story, fact and myth. Williams came across the story while researching a sketch of Henry Lamprey of Hampton, New Hampshire, but as far as she could tell, it was just that: a family story. She read it in an 1893 history of the town and traced an earlier reference, but she was still trying to figure out how much – if any – of the tale was based on fact.
As family historians, we all run across family stories, some amusing, others tragic. We are usually thrilled to find these stories since they help fill in some of the blanks between our ancestors’ birth and death dates. But that does not make them true.
Accounts written at the end of the 19th century are often suspect. Many towns in North America published books featuring profiles of prominent members of their communities. These accounts were usually provided by the families and they tended to emphasize the positive rather than relying on solid research.
My ancestor Stanley Clark Bagg is a good example. After he died in 1873, several Montreal “historians” wrote about his family’s roots. My research has proved that they made an error and this misinformation has been perpetuated until today in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (See “The Biography of Stanley Clark Bagg: Don’t Believe Everything You Read”, Genealogy Ensemble, Dec. 2, 2015, https://genealogyensemble.com/2015/12/02/the-biography-of-stanley-clark-bagg/
Also common is the story about families being descended from royalty, aristocracy or the very wealthy. My MacGregor ancestor was supposedly descended from the clan chiefs and my Hamilton ancestor, a tailor, was – you guessed it – allegedly related to the Dukes of Hamilton. None of my research has showed either claim to be true.
Our job as family historians is not to just to repeat family stories as facts but to try to verify them and to correct the record when necessary, or at least indicate that there is doubt about a story. Many family stories do contain kernels of truth, and it is often helpful to put our ancestors’ lives into historical context. But if we can’t sort out what is fact and what is fiction, we have to be clear that we are recounting an unverified story.
His timing could not have been worse. Just a few years before the great stock market crash of 1929, my grandfather, Wendling Anglin, started up his own brokerage branch office in Kingston, Ontario.
Wendling gave up the Kingston office to take over the Toronto office. But business was too poor to carry on and that office had to be closed as well. So he transferred to the Montreal, Quebec, office in 1933 and became manager of Johnston and Ward. This brokerage firm later changed its name to G.E. Leslie and Company, and ultimately became Nesbitt Thompson.
In July 1940, while Wendling was struggling to make a living as a stock broker, Canada joined the allied forces of World War II. He writes in a letter to my father, Tom, his youngest son: “Business is fierce, nothing at all … and I cannot get to first base with the government. I will go after private industry. I certainly want to do something in war effort.” The answer: Victory Bonds.
Approximately half of the Canadian war cost was covered by War Savings Certificates and war bonds known as “Victory Bonds”. These bonds, which were loans to the government to allow for increased war spending, were sold to individuals and corporations throughout Canada. War Savings Certificates began selling in May 1940 and were sold door-to-door by volunteers as well as at banks, post offices, trust companies and other authorised dealers.
In December 1942, he wrote to his oldest sister, Mamie: “Market has been better, and business picking up somewhat. This I am thankful for as it was an awful let down coming back after Victory Loan. Worked hard on Loan and raised 1/4 million from my dozen companies, but as I was loaned to the government by our firm, just received my salary as usual.” Six months later, in another letter to his son, Tom: “Have been very busy on Loan, received order for $880,000 from my 14 companies – $80,000 over objective – so feel satisfied I did a good job.”
The eldest of his two sons, Bill, joined the RCAF in May 1942, so raising this government money might have enabled him to feel a little less helpless in supporting him and bringing him home safely.
Sadly, Bill was declared “missing in action” in May 1943, age 27 years. Wendling’s hopeless frustration is obvious in his August 1944 letter to my father: “Wish this damn war would end so that we might get some news of Bill should he be with the underground—.”
The much needed closure from an official notice of his death never came. However, Wendling and his wife, Josephine, never gave up hope on their “missing” son.
Meanwhile, their younger son Tom and his wife, Ann (my parents), offered them a joyful diversion with their growing family of three grandchildren.
Wendling died of lung cancer in 1955 at age 63 – still waiting for his oldest son to come home.
 Letter written to his son, Tom Anglin, July 16, 1940 – author’s collection
 Wikipedia – Victory
 Letter written to his son, Tom Anglin, May 17, 1943 – author’s collection
 Letter written to his son, Tom Anglin, dated August 7, 1944 – author’s collection