I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors. It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to… complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.
–Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
I’m a hopelessly addicted genealogist and storyteller. I have records right back to my 15th great-grandfather, Ebenezer Bancroft (d. 1475) in Derbyshire, England on my grandfather’s side, and to my 12th great-grandfather, James Shivas (b. abt. 1600) in Aberdeenshire, Scotland on my grandmother’s side, and have researched many additional branches to the family.
These are the oldest pictures we have, on my grandfather, Melbourne Tait Bancroft’s side: Charles Bancroft (1788-1834) and his wife, Mary Ann Jones (1799-1873), painted, most likely, around the year they were married, in 1817. They emigrated from Boston to Montreal in 1815.
Not surprisingly (in our historically patriarchal system) my male ancestors have been easier to find than the women, who dissolved into their new family with the wave of a bible and the mumbling of a few Presbyterian marital vows, but I’ve managed to get past many a genealogical brick wall to trace my matriline way back on my grandmother’s side. With birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records, wills, letters, journals and photographs, I’ve unearthed incredible stories of courage, heartache, transition, triumph, betrayal, loss, and major turning points where the decisions these women made changed the course of not only their own lives, but the lives of their descendants.
Anne Leslie (1784-1854) m. Robert Cruickshank (1784-1859)
Grace Cruickshank (1808-1897) m. James Stephen (1792-1856)
Isabella Watt Stephen (1846-1934) m. Andrew Shivas (1846-1898)
Grace Leslie Stephen Cruikshank Shivas (1874-1944) m. John Ernest Millen (1872-1964)
Laura Isobel Millen (1894-1976) m. Melbourne Tait Bancroft (1895-1974)
Jean Leslie Bancroft (1926-2017 ) m. Ronald Arnold Hodgkinson (1927-2003)
Janice Hodgkinson (1961 – ) m. Ward Robinson m. Dan Redford
Jenna Daniel Robinson (1988- )
I love that my great-grandmother, Grace Leslie Stephen Cruikshank Shivas Millen is the caretaker of all the names. She is the one that reset the course of our family’s destiny when she came from the Scottish Highlands to Quebec in 1890 at age sixteen.
I believe I’m obsessed with my family’s stories for the same reason I wrote my memoir: to make sense of the chaos; to find connections and patterns between my life and my ancestors’ lives in order to make better sense of my own story.
I’ve found an incredible book to help guide me deep into the past, beyond my childhood, beyond my parents’ childhoods, into my ancestors’ lives: It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn.
Wolynn writes: “Tragedies varying in type and intensity – such as abandonment, suicide, and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling – can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next.”
Life was hard for our ancestors. All of these tragedies happened to them, over and over. Sometimes I can feel their distress in my genes, the way deep wells of loss are triggered with each death of a friend or family member, my PTSD symptoms, my mothering style, my sometimes quick temper and irritability. I can feel them influencing my choices at major crossroads in my life to the extent that sometimes I feel my life was preordained.
I share traits with these women that have held me back in life: low levels of self-trust, a high tolerance for unhappiness and low tolerance for stress, anxiety… I see these traits expressed in my mother and grandmother’s letters and journals, I saw it in their relationships with my father and grandfather, in their relationships with their children.
But Wolynn also says, “the traumas we inherit or experience firsthand can not only create a legacy of distress, but also forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.”
I know I haven’t just inherited character flaws and foibles from my ancestors; I know I’ve inherited some pretty amazing strengths: determination, resilience, curiosity, and obsessive tenacity, (which could be construed as a defect) and more specifically, passions that come straight from my grandmother: for genealogy, psychology, stories, writing, education, and adventure.
Wolynn says: “we’re likely to keep repeating our unconscious patterns until we bring them into the light of awareness.”
My purpose – in my research, in my writing, in my life – is to break the negative patterns that have been bequeathed to me by my ancestors, to consciously improve upon this generation so that my children will have better tools to improve upon their generation. I wrote my memoir partly as a “What Not to Do” primer for my children. Sometimes I feel like my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother left behind so much writing, some of it deeply personal, for that same reason.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun