Brand building through storytelling

I married a genealogist…and became a genealogy freeloader

Our grandson Colsen, at 12, is much amused to learn how my husband spends untold hours of time. Genealogy! Now there’s a word to get a 12-year-old chortling and rolling his eyes. Think about it: why would anyone choose to study…genies?Hasn’t Grandpa heard that Harry Potter is a wizard?

Kidding aside, I too have been perplexed by this midlife passion of my husband’s. When we met in the days of dime bags and spaced-out guitar solos, he shared my disdain for anyone over 30—much less dour ancestors who hadn’t been 30 since public hangings were in vogue. I never dreamed he would collect antique, leather-bound volumes that resemble the complete works of Shakespeare and are every bit as stout, but in fact hold troves of arcana concerning obscure towns in the British Isles. I did not foresee that the Church of the Latter-day Saints, which owes its existence to a wacky tale in which founder Joseph Smith acquires—and mysteriously loses—golden tablets presented by an angel named Moroni, would one day insinuate itself into our household.

Because Mormons believe that prayers must be said for everyone who every lived, anywhere on earth, their church keeps vast genealogical records much prized by students of such things.  And so more than one of our vacations has involved a detour to the local Mormon church where my husband, in the throes of some genealogy course or other, hoped to fish from the ocean of history some small but essential detail that might document the life of a long-forgotten forebear. He once told me, with a look of wonder, “I’m thinking about people no one has thought about for a hundred years.”

I’ve come to realize every family could use a resident historian. What your ancestors lost and feared, what enraptured and inspired them…these tidal currents have shaped your life, so you might as well know the story. Constructing the story, piece by piece, is what genealogists do. My husband used to hope that because my work is telling stories, I would join him in this never-ending project. Not a chance! I’m too lazy to plough through census records or crack my brain on 19th century penmanship. But if somebody else’s spadework illuminates my history, I’ll exclaim in delight. The only person so inclined is my husband, who has coined a term for folks like me—genealogy freeloader.

Thanks to my husband, I know more than I ever thought possible about my paternal grandparents, whom my father mentioned rarely and glancingly. The rebel son of British Plymouth Brethren missionaries who had braved unspeakable hardship to convert the heathen in India, Max Maynard turned his back not only on his parents’ harsh faith but also on their history. From dusty photos taken in Edwardian times, I knew the tight-lipped faces of that God-fearing pair, who believed that music was the devil’s work and art—my father’s calling—a morally questionable enterprise. When my father was caught painting on a Sunday, he lost his paintbox for a year per order of Grandfather Maynard. I dismissed my Maynard grandparents as Bible-thumping spoilsports who had the good grace to leave this world long before my birth.

It was my husband who took the time to ask how Harry and Lily Maynard had lived and where their soul-saving fervour had taken them. A few years ago, while researching his own roots in England, he took a fruitful detour into mine. Lo and behold, the Plymouth Brethren had a journal, in which Grandfather Maynard filed regular reports from the field. In meticulour detail, he recorded the daily rhythms of mission in south India, where natives came seeking treatment for oozing sores and his colleagues lay ill for weeks at a stretch with tropical diseases. I had to admire the Maynards’ grit, if not their colonial attitudes or their views on the rearing of children.

And the story had an earlier chapter, rich in drama but lost to subsequent generations until my husband found it. As a young missionary, Harry sailed for Norway and nearly drowned in a storm at sea. He survived, so he wrote, by clutching his Bible—the same Bible in which he would record the birth of each Maynard child, and the death of the first one in infancy. Now I know why brown stains bloom in the Maynard family Bible.

I’ve had moments when, like Colsen, I wanted no part of this time-consuming family history business. On our visit to the quaint Dordogne village of Sarlat, my husband sat in an Internet cafe, hunting-and-pecking his genealogy homework on a French keyboard, while I paced the streets for so long, there was not a half-timbered house I didn’t contemplate a dozen times. Oh, well. Some people write blogs, some collect Victorian china, some research family history. I have the good fortune to be married to a man whose passion has enriched my life and may one day do the same for our grandson’s.

Click here to learn what today’s Plymouth Brethren are still forbidden to do, and here to learn more about my father, professor and painter Max Maynard, whose work you can view online through the Provincial Archives of B.C. 


 Posted by Rona

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