A treasure, buried

My Great Uncle Wally ("WSB") died today at the remarkable age of 93. While I cherished my visit with him last August, those moments are now a far more priceless commodity. As my oldest living relative, he had insight into a generation that is quickly disappearing from this earth. Although he admitted during our recent conversations that many of his memories had long since faded, the nuggets of information he was able to reveal gave rare insight into my grandmother’s family – things that no other person would know.

Coincidentally, WSB’s wife JC died within days of her husband, although her mind had sadly gone long before her body.

A brain is like a computer hard drive – once it crashes, there is no getting that precious data back. The only way to back it up is archive what you know, write down important stories, label photographs, care for family heirlooms, keep in touch with relatives. Having relied on birth certificates and census records as a minimalist means of piecing together family history, it is the personal testimonies that add color and fill in the blanks. Without them, genealogy risks being just a bunch of boring facts and dull figures.

We live in an age where it is possible to document just about anything. Old photographs and letters can be scanned; digital archives can be burned to a disc and shared with family members en masse; video interviews (as I conducted with WSB) can be stored on tape, with an edited version compressed to DVD.

But just like loved ones, digital data is fragile and impermanent. Paper and photographs aren’t exactly stable materials, however their physicality allows them to endure through time, while technology evolves and becomes incompatible with future generations. What good is a DVD archive when the format becomes obsolete?

WSB’s lifetime of knowledge now exists only amongst those who knew him, who heard his tales and remembered them. And when those people are gone, only the fragments of information left behind will perpetuate his unique moment in history. As a minor heir to his memory bank, I intend to do my best to preserve and perpetuate the small wealth of memory he had given to me.

Southland trails

southland - 161

Better late than never. Memories fade and time erodes all things. This past weekend I cruised around Los Angeles, looking for places that once played a part in my family's history, cramming into a long weekend what I could have done when I lived in LA some years before.

Homes aren't necessarily relevant when doing ancestral research - neighborhoods change and buildings get demolished. However when you get a sense of where your ancestors lived, it gives life to the cold facts that are scrawled on the census rolls. With a little imagination, you can put yourself in your predecessors' world, to picture what their lives might have been like, to see things that might not be evident on a piece of paper. What did this place look like back then? Who were their neighbors?

Los Angeles plays a significant part in to immediate branches of my family tree. First of all, as I have always known, my maternal grandmother ("BLF-B") grew up in and is buried in LA. Some years back, my mother and I visited her grave, as well as the house that BLF's step-father built in Burbank ("1160"). We stopped by, met the home's current owner (who bought it from my great-grandparents) and also the young couple who was buying the house. It was a great nostalgia trip for my mom. Unfortunately, the roll of film was bad and we had no record of our tour.

Years later, I returned, having lived nearby and done nothing about it. As before, I knocked on the door of 1160 and began chatting with the Mrs of the house, showing her a photo of my mom and her parents in front of the house circa 1958. Within minutes, I was getting a full exterior tour of the house, learning what was added on by past owners, and re-taking the photos we lost thirteen years before. I was happy to see that the avocado trees my (step) great-grandfather planted back in the 40s were bearing more fruit than ever before. I left with a bag full of fruit.

On the other end of town, in Santa Monica, I found the oceanside street where my paternal grandmother ("BCB-V") spent her teenage years. Practically (orphaned other than her younger siblings and a step mother), she came from the wilds of Montana to this sun-soaked setting, where several buildings of the era (1930s) still stood along the tree-lined boulevard, but not the one where she lived. It was enough to get a sense of the place during an unpleasant time in her life.

With this I still swear that it's better to visit a place than just to read about it.