Leaves on the family tree

Summer is reunion season. On the August long weekend my mother’s family, the Klaassens, gathered in Saskatchewan to visit and to recount family history.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that our family is very fortunate in having a wealth of documents detailing its history. We have diaries and memoirs, as well as family registers that go back at least a couple of centuries. Many of these have been translated into English for the benefit of those— probably the majority, by now— who don’t read German (or don’t read enough German, at any rate). Some documents are even available online now.

The benefit of having documents like these is that through them it’s possible to see one’s ancestors as personalities rather than merely names. And larger events take on a new significance and vividness when we see how they affected particular people.

My great-grandfather’s diary, for instance. He faithfully records the weather, who preached at each church service and on what scripture text, what garden produce he took to town and the price he got for it. Not particularly riveting, at first glance. But his entry of August 6, 1934 stating that he got less than one cent per pound for his cabbages, was for me a strong illustration of the depth of the 1930s’ Depression.

My grandfather’s memoirs describe how heavy medical expenses, on top of the effects of the Depression, could completely drain a family’s finances. He admits that things might have been easier if they had applied for relief sooner, but he had scruples about it. “As it was,” he writes, “it took us all through the forties to get back on our feet financially.”

And reading the family registers brings home the fact that mortality rates were once much higher than now. It’s especially striking because, two hundred years ago, parents would re-use names: there might be two Catherines or three Johanns in the same family, but only the last survived to adulthood.

I am grateful for the previous Klaassens who first thought to record these things, and for those who saw the worth in them, who preserved the records and  and handed them on.

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