“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
— British playwright and journalist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
“You live as long as you are remembered.”
— Russian proverb
Petite and demure, she wears a mantle of lace around her shoulders over a full-length velvet dress. Her brow is high and wide, suggesting intelligence, and there is a hint of a Mona Lisa smile in her upturned lips. She is Rosa Gertrude Harris — the grandmother who died long before I was born — and I am her namesake, Victorian-era middle name included. In the few sepia photographs I have of her, she is usually posed formally beside her sombre-looking husband, grandfather Felix, who is dressed in a conservative bespoke black suit. The jaunty handlebar moustache he sports seems his only vanity.
They had one child, my father Theodore, who died when I was just 10 years old. Theodore had no cousins, either. The family moved from Manchester, England, at the turn of the 20th century. Grandpa lived with us until he passed on when I was three. There is no extended family to share their secrets.
The truth is, I know so little about Rosa. Apart from her photos, all that remains of her is a tarnished silver tray embossed with her name commemorating the good works she’d done as a volunteer in her short life. Perhaps that’s why she haunts me in a gentle, provocative way, this woman I never met. She wants to know more about me, too.
I keep her pictures close on walls, shelves and mantles. I swear she eyes me every so often as if to determine whether or not her genes have had a soft landing. When I catch her eye back, there is a familiar shock of recognition. That long, sharp nose, those lips — they belong to both of us. What else might we have shared, if I’d ever had the chance to find out?
Such notions never crossed my mind in my 20s, 30s or even 40s. Dead relatives — especially unfamiliar ones — weren’t reaching out of gilded picture frames trying to get my attention. I was too busy making my own mark in this world — too busy giving her great-grandchildren and launching a career.
But she was patient. She knew the moment would come when a vague longing — a soft, urgent melancholy — would draw me back to her. It seems we have to pass the halfway mark in our lives before thoughts of mortality kick in. I can now count the decades I have left on one hand — and I can imagine reaching out to my own kids from some photo taken long before.
Just like me — big surprise — many boomers are entering a poignant phase, aiming to reconnect with their forebears. Consider: Ancestry.com, the online, for-profit genealogy site, now has two million members and branches in nine countries. (Here, it’s known as ancestry.ca.) There are no figures available indicating how many of its users were born between 1945 and 1964, but I’m guessing we account for a good portion. The service can eat hours — and we have the time. It’s also costly — and we’re the ones with enough money to delve into our pasts. More important, we have this nagging urge to familiarize ourselves with relatives, distant and near, who just might be waiting to greet us in some fashion when we go.
Naturally, we romanticize when it comes to our ancestors. Of course, we want them all to be noble — in their actions if not in their blood. But that doesn’t mean we should saw off the limbs on the family tree that hold the black sheep and the reprobates. They contribute colour and hearty genetic material to the mix.
In my own quest to learn more about Rosa, I hope I can unearth some flesh-and-blood tidbits that reveal her character, warts and all. If she was short-tempered or sharp-tongued, I can handle it. That’s what would truly bring her alive.
I must face the fact, though, that I may not discover enough about her to make her real. But I can always fall back on those photos. She’s trying to tell me something. If I learn to listen, I’ll eventually learn what that is.
© Copyright 2013