The old box of Super 8 film cassettes sitting in Wendy Robinson’s Nanaimo home chronicled a family’s history: Christmases, graduations, trips to Alaska and the Yukon. For years, that family was a mystery to Robinson, until her son’s online sleuthing helped return the memories to their rightful owner.
On Monday night, Marion Baker, 80, planned to sit down with her son, load the tapes into a projector and watch her late parents immortalized on film.
The 13 Kodak and Kodachrome cassettes were tucked in a box with an old projector, which Robinson’s mother had purchased at a second-hand sale in Kelowna a decade earlier. Each box was carefully labelled with the name Mr. and Mrs. Frank Thompson and two addresses in Victoria and one in Enderby.
Robinson’s mother, a history buff and amateur genealogist, was unsuccessful in her efforts to find the family in the film, so five years ago, Robinson brought the box to Victoria, where she was living at the time.
It wasn’t until last month, when life slowed down due to the coronavirus pandemic, that Robinson, now living in Nanaimo, decided to rekindle her search for the people only known to her through the shapes in the film.
“I just felt these needed to go back to the family. I thought ‘This is someone’s life.’ ”
Her son, Chris Wallinger, posted photos of the cassettes and hand-written labels to Facebook, and within hours, a Victoria archivist had traced the family tree and identified a possible relative.
Two days later, on May 13, Wallinger and Robinson were handing the box to Baker, one of Gertrude and Frank Thompson’s five daughters. Baker lives just 15 minutes away in Cedar.
Robinson had tears in her eyes when she saw Baker walk toward the box of her family history. Baker recognized her mother’s handwriting immediately.
“I was thrilled,” said Baker, describing the moment she received the box of tapes. “It was surprising to find out that all this time, we’re only a few miles down the road from each other.”
After seeing Wallinger’s post with photos of the film boxes on the Old Victoria Facebook page, Taryn Jones found the death records for Gertrude Beatrice Thompson, who died in Enderby in 1990 at age 71, and for Edward Francis (Frank) Thompson, who died in Victoria in 1998 at age 84. An obituary showed the names of their five daughters, one of whom was named on the tape labelled “Lorna’s formal, 1971.”
Jones also confirmed through voter records that the couple lived in an apartment on Superior Street in Victoria in 1979, one of the addresses hand-written on some of the film boxes that trace the family’s movements over the years. First it was a home on Springlea Road in Central Saanich from 1967 to 1970, then the James Bay apartment 1973 to 1980 and a home in Enderby.
“Because [the tapes] were so well labelled, they obviously meant something to the family,” Wallinger said.
Using ancestry.com, Jones found Gertrude and Frank Thompson’s names on a family tree and sent a message to a relative in Winnipeg. The relative helped connect Wallinger with Lorna, who was living in Vernon.
“Taryn was kind of the matchmaker here,” Wallinger said.
“It’s so rewarding to be able to use the records in that way to track down people and give them back a bit of their history,” Jones said.
Lorna seemed a apprehensive at getting a call from a stranger about some old tapes, Wallinger said, but once he started describing the memories labelled on the tapes, including her formal, she realized he was describing her childhood memories.
Lorna connected Wallinger with Baker, who remembers being stunned by the phone call.
Discovering more families memories was priceless, said Baker, since many family mementoes were destroyed in a fire when her sister’s log cabin in Enderby burned to the ground.
Baker said her mother was a great photographer who carefully catalogued photo albums, which were labelled by year.
“It makes me want to tear up when I saw the film, because it’s different than just looking at a snapshot,” she said.
After Baker’s mother died in Enderby, she and her siblings packed up her dad’s belongings for his move to Victoria. She believes the box containing the projector and film mistakenly ended up in a pile of items being donated.