How we preserve our memories

Family Photographs: Annie

Second in a series exploring the relationship between individuals, memories and memorials. For more information, please visit www.echoleft.com

In my last post, I talked about how I came across an old family photograph that made me wonder what my ancestor Dency Anne’s story would be. All I had to go on was her appearance and vague memories of hearing about family history when I was a child. I decided to do some more research and I started by dragging out all of my photo albums. I didn’t find the photograph I was looking for, the one with everyone’s names on the back, but I did find an important photo that I’d almost forgotten existed.

On the back of the photograph, in my aunt’s hand, is Dency Anne Lodwick Cronsberry. Underneath this my aunt had printed one word: “Annie”.

I had been thinking of the woman in the photograph as “Dency Anne” because that’s what I could remember, but it turns out her friends and family probably knew her by another name, one of her own choosing. I had been thinking about how I could interpret Dency Anne’s story, not about how Annie could have told her own story.

“Cronsberry” was my Nana’s — my father’s mother’s — maiden name, which supports memories of Dency Anne being my Nana’s aunt. My Nana was born in 1915 , which probably places Dency Anne’s own birth around the turn of the century.

I wondered what resources a woman of Dency Anne’s generation would have had to tell her story. Would her parents have started the ball rolling with a baby book? It’s unlikely, but possible. Baby books were used by parents to chronicle their children’s measurements and achievements from the 1880s, in part because improvements in health care meant more babies could be counted on to survive infancy. The use of baby books didn’t become widespread until the 1920s though, and there are other factors that make it unlikely Dency Anne would have had one. Later children, though not less loved, were less novel — and less likely to be chronicled. There must be a hundred baby photographs of me, the eldest, whereas there is exactly one baby photograph of my sister, the youngest of six.

Even if Dency Anne’s parents had started a baby book, many books wound up abandoned, perhaps because of the amount of work involved. My Nana was from a farming family, and if Dency Anne was too, her parents would have been very busy. It’s possible too that growing up on a farm would have affected Dency Anne’s ability to tell her own story.

It’s likely Dency Anne would have been taught to read and write, but whether she would have chronicled her own story is another matter.

Education was free and compulsory for children in the part of Canada where Dency Anne lived and had been since 1871. In practice, however, children who helped on their parents’ farms only had to go to school for half days, and most children were finished with formal education at fourteen. It’s likely Dency Anne would have been taught to read and write, but whether she would have chronicled her own story is another matter. Time and supplies would have been scarce. Emily of New Moon is less well-known than Anne of Green Gables, but who can read L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books without remembering the young writer’s struggle to afford the paper she used to record her innermost thoughts? And if Dency Anne had been moved to write, what would have made her think her ordinary life was worth recording? Today everyone has the example of other people sharing pieces of their lives through social media, but who would Dency Anne’s examples have been? Even the Emily books weren’t published until the 1920s.

People interested in genealogy will appreciate there are many questions about family history we can never know the answers to. We can research historical records but often we can only guess what our ancestors might have done depending on time, location and circumstances. Annie might have been a writer, but it’s more likely she shared her life with friends and family as she lived it, just as we do today.

What this memorial would be missing is what Dency Anne might have wanted us to know about Annie.

Echoleft could recreate the bare bones of Dency Anne’s story. Her memorial would be her branch on the family tree and the few photographs we’re lucky enough to have. None of us who are living have memories of Dency Anne, but between us we might have a few passed-down stories we could share.

What this memorial would be missing is what Dency Anne might have wanted us to know about Annie. Annie’s family and friends would have known her favourite song, her most successful pie recipe, what she sounded like when she laughed. Annie might never have imagined that a hundred years later, we would want to know these things. Or she might have thought about how little she knew her own ancestors, and accepted that word of mouth only reaches into the future so far before people’s stories are lost.

We have more options today, of course. We can share our thoughts and our photographs and our voices with friends and family around the world. We have the technology to save these pieces of ourselves for our children and grandchildren to know us.

Parents and children alike may outgrow baby books, but these books are still treasured because they contain so many pieces of an individual life between their covers. The same book contains facts, memories, photographs, and mementos such as locks of hair and birth announcements carefully cut from newspapers.

Echoleft is like a book we can make of our own life, our whole life. It’s a safe place where we can collect all of the pieces that make up our lives. It can be as public or as private as we want it to be. It’s for ourselves, and it’s for other people. My family will never know how Dency Anne — Annie — would have wanted to be remembered. We’re lucky enough to live in a time where we can make this choice for ourselves and for our loved ones.