Before tomorrow and posting the first of 52 profiles of my ancestors, I want to reflect a bit on what has brought me here and clarify my own expectations of what this year will and won’t bring.
I’m not a professional historian. I’m not a professional genealogist. My methods in assembling this blog will probably make professionals from both those fields roll their eyes. I was an academic briefly–long enough to know that my lack of secondary sources,and avoidance of historiography/critical theory is more than enough to not take this effort seriously as a contribution to any major discourse in Great War history. And that’s fine. I’m ok with that. If any of my old profs from Waterloo ever read this, I haven’t forgotten what you taught me, I just decided not to do it that way.
I know that there are gaps in my family research too. I have not aggressively sought out birth certificates or other documents through direct contact with archives, I have let my subscription to a genealogy service do that for me. I have reached out to distant family members, but I haven’t hounded them, and I have no intention of doing so.
I also have no intention of digging for secrets, scandal, or intrigue in these stories. I do not want to invade the privacy of the families of these men–men who in many cases their families still think of and remember. When family members have shared personal stories with me, I consider that a great privilege and am humbled to be trusted with that information. Such stories are only shared in these posts with express permission.
In many ways, each profile of each ancestor is like a thought experiment for me. A jumping off point to consider the “what would that have been like” of a given situation. A way to reflect on my own life and how I would face a situation as a parent, a spouse, a daughter, a sister. It provides greater context for my life.
And then there is the commemorative aspects of this blog. I have a complicated relationship with acts of remembrance. I deeply distrust the “support our troops” rhetoric that has been rampant since 9-11, while also having profound respect for the armed forces and what they do. My mom is from a military family. Her father, RSM Albert Rajotte, to whom this entire effort is dedicated, had a long career in the Canadian military. He was is one of my greatest heroes in many ways–and I am fully aware that he was, like all of us, not perfect. Tomorrow, although the posting of my first “David” profile is important, going to visit my grandfather’s grave is my first priority. He is my guidepost as I write each profile–I think about how I would want my grandfather to be written about. I wouldn’t want his story to be embellished or sugar coated–but I would want it to be respectful, honest, and placed in the context of where he was from and what the world was like for him. Hold me to that if at any point you don’t see me living up to it.
There was much written at the time and since about how a veil was lifted in the summer of 1914–that time was measured by “before” and “after.” In literature this is often described as a stripping away of innocence, in patriotic histories it is described as a crucible through which stronger national identities were forged. I am fascinated by this idea of this kind of line in the cosmic sand, the crossing of which changes everything. It bears a lot in common with 9-11. Everything from the way we travel to discourse on race relations changed that day. That bright September morning as people headed to work in the moments before the first plane hit is often described in the same language as the final summer days in 1914 before Germany attacked France and Britain declared war on Germany. A charmed moment before all hell broke loose.
I’m grateful for the support of my husband Terry (who actually is a legitimate historian and public history advocate) who has been bearing with me as I squint at records on my computer screen and click clack away on the keyboard for the past two years. I’m grateful for anyone taking a moment to read a bit of this effort. I hesitate to say that I’m grateful that my or anyone’s ancestors were involved in this conflict. It was brutal and ugly, and over time spawned more brutality and ugliness. I would rather that it hadn’t been a situation that anyone had to face. They did face it, though. So I do want to commemorate it, and I want to learn from it. So that’s why I’m here. We’ll see you tomorrow for the first post.