My family of origin was one of tight-lidded secrets, and I never knew why.
I only knew that most information was off-limits, including family history stuff.
It remains a mystery to this day why in my childhood our aunt and uncle suddenly stopped their weekly visits to our house and became miraculously blind to me or my siblings in town or at Christmas gatherings. They literally looked right through us like we were ghosts. We did not exist. I also never knew the big secret behind why my parents had a disdain for all things Paraguay, where in the yard our dog was buried, or why my mom’s dad was only obscurely referred to as “not a nice man”.
It was all none of my beeswax, which only made me more curious.
Over the years, I occasionally inquired of family members, and found everyone to be nearly as tight-lipped as my own parents. I did, however, manage to unearth a few scant clues, which I pieced together to form a couple of puzzle pieces.
Two pieces of a puzzle though, as you can imagine, are not that informative for understanding the big picture. If I hold them close and squint really hard, I think I can make out some details about our family’s secret-for-some-reason past.
On my dad’s side, it seems like his parents or grandparents were among those conservative church-going Mennonites (who wasn’t, in those days?) who saw the country as going to hell in a handbasket and so fled to a more Christian locale: Paraguay.
Aha. The Paraguay connection. They lived in Canada when I knew them, so obviously they came back at some point. Whether it was because the weather was too hot or the religiosity too ill fitting I cannot say. I only know that I was told not to dress like people from there (which apparently a flowered skirt and fake Doc Martin shoes worn with tube socks seemed to accomplish), and was never told what target would be painted on me if I did. Just don’t do it. I never wore a skirt with flowers again, and always only wore the Martins and tube socks with jeans.
One day, I recall asking my mom about our ethnicity. All I knew was that we were fair-skinned, lived in a Mennonite town, and my relatives all spoke German and English. (After learning in school about aboriginal history, I secretly hoped my mom would confess we were Metis.)
Mom shuffled and fidgeted as she often did when I asked questions. My inquisitive nature always threatened to poke holes in the veil of secrecy that covered us all.
“We’re German-Russian” she said.
“German-Russian?” I didn’t understand. That’s two countries. I had never been to either and neither had she or Grandma as far as I knew. How far back was she talking about?
“Yeah, your great grandparents -” or was it my great-great grandparents? “Came to Canada from there.”
I was confused, and not just because I had thought I was ‘just Canadian’ and now apparently also German and Russian and didn’t know what that meant. I was also confused because, as far as I could tell, my parents didn’t like “the Germans”.
My parents often complained about the new neighbors from Germany who were moving to the area in droves and were able to buy more land and build bigger houses than we could ever have dreamed of having. They were, in our rural Canada, very rich. Not like us. Their wealth was seen as somehow taking something from us, and therefore they were someone to resent.
How could we be of German descent and speak the language even, yet resent those who came from Germany to live where our own ancestors had chosen to live?
But I could not ask.
I still cannot ask.
Mom died years ago, long before Russia declared war on Ukraine, so I cannot ask how Russian we are, if we have relatives there, or what any of this means in a time like this. I cannot ask Dad either — he will take all secrets to his grave — and I don’t know of anyone else I can consult about the family ancestry.
So I’m left bobbing in uncertainty, rootless, and orphaned from my ancestry and any benefits that can be had from connecting with or understanding the past.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because this disconnection with the past is an experience many share. Maybe one you even share. To lose the ability to connect with your past, to understand yourself, your family, and your history, is a huge loss.
There is something deeply powerful about being connected to human history, and especially to your own ancestry, that enriches the human experience.
It’s why we read and write memoirs and history books.
It’s why we browse photos on our phones and retell the same funny stories about our kids or grandparents. Connection is found in the stories. Connection is found in the hearing of our past, and in understanding how that informs our present and future.
If you’ve ever thought, “Hmm. I should write down some of our family memories”, I say with volume and passion, that is a powerful thing to do! Write it down. Share it! Your children will thank you.
Maybe you’ve thought of writing a memoir, whether to publish or not, just to make sense of the past. I did. (I’ll tell you more about that in an update email (you must be wondering by now if I’ve published it and forgot to tell you). It was a transformative experience and necessary for my own healing and growth.
If any of that resonates with you, I want to invite you to something that will help you move forward with writing those memories down.
In January, I’m hosting three writing programs that have been like magic for helping people get momentum with their writing projects.
A) Write Your Book in 90 Days
This intensive group coaching program is for the busy, the driven, the get-it-done-NOW people. Weekly meetings. Plan for 2+ hours/week commitment. $200/mo. Info here.
B) Momentum Group coaching
This 6-month program will help you move forward in a supported environment with 2 expert guides. (Update: this is no longer available)
C) Weekly Writing Workshops
Twice a week we video-meet for 90 minutes and write. That’s it. We get so. Much. DONE! It’s $47/month, on sale (December)for $30/mo. (Update: this is no longer available)
Maybe this is the time to start writing down those stories, and assembling some history to pass on to your loved ones. You’ll be surprised at how connected it helps you feel to yourself and others to remember, record, and share those stories.