When Love Can’t Write Her Name & The Water That Lies Beside The Hill

We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors wisdom. – Maya Angelou

No one has ever said much about our family history. I’m not sure if it was just that way in the 70s, or if it was just the way of my family. There were a few anecdotes here and there but never enough pictures to piece together a puzzle. I only became interested in my lineage recently. Here I am, in the terrain part way between childhood and death, called “middle-aged”. And let’s be honest, that’s only if I live to be about 100. As time passes, an internal pressure builds, and I long to know more about where I come from, and to understand how and what I want to leave as my legacy.

I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties; the tone of telling my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia. – Isabel Allende

Learning about the fascinating characters that inhabit my family tree has been intriguing, enlightening, exciting, worthwhile, sometimes confusing and often emotionally complicated. First, I felt compelled to start by acknowledging the privilege I have even being able to consider the task. Then I quickly learned how many of my relatives are well-documented, especially the French-Canadians (thanks to Tangauy). The Irish and British ancestors from the monied classes are fairly easy to trace as well. Plus this day and age of the Internet and my access to it, makes records and information much more obtainable.

And of course there is my literacy. Literacy that I depend on, and essentially take for granted every day. Take for granted until I come across another name, another fact on the census sheet. There she is, Mary Love, my father’s great-great grandmother, on the 1871 census. She is listed as living in Brockville, of Irish origin, and married to a farmer. Then I noticed that little diagonal line, in a different box from all the others, and scroll up to the column heading where I read, “Over age 20 and unable to write.” Boom. Hard to imagine. But I also know, as a farmer, and woman in the 1800s she would have had knowledge and abilities that our consumer culture has encouraged us to let go fallow: all kinds of animal husbandry skills; an understanding of the best methods for planting, preparing and harvesting; maybe even a proficiency with the medicinal uses of plants. I imagine Mary Love, with rough hands, a lilt in her voice and a booming laugh, knowing how to make all the things a household could use, from bread to butter to beer.

Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Still, there are many more relatives in my tree, especially women, who’s names have been at the least forgotten, at the worst, intentionally erased. Who’s stories, occupations and lineage I may never know. Their mother tongue no longer decipherable to my ear. Whose songs waft on scented breezes, whose muted drum beats echo only through my dreams. First Nations women whose skills made it possible for their French husbands to survive brutal winters and unfamiliar terrain. Whose hands crafted warm clothing, pounded pemmican and applied poultices. Whose names, stories, tribal lineage, places of birth, physical attributes, and skills were disregarded, unrecorded or lost in time. Whose ceremonies were outlawed, whose wisdom was ignored. Whose descendants began to deny or disguise the broadness of their heritage for safety, for survival, or by necessity, until DNA testing brought the secret bobbing to the surface.

When you steal a people’s language, you leave their soul bewildered. – John O’Donohue

And so it was confusion, mixed with pride, and guilt that grew inside me the day I learned my grandfather had renamed Bitimagamasing. It all started when my mom sent me an article about travel to Sudbury, and I asked her why. She told me it was because my grandfather had named a lake there. I had a vague memory of hearing the story years ago, but in my childhood imaginings the lake was about the size of a suburban living room. Curiosity piqued. I turned to the net and looked up “Lake Ramsey.” That’s when I found that Bitimagamasing, provides the city of Sudbury with 40% of its potable water. According to Wikipedia, it was once listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest lake located within the boundaries of a city. Not exactly the tiny lake I had envisioned. A huge lake, and not a coincidence, my grandfather, James Ramsey Sloan, was not a teller of tall tales my mother assured me.

According to Sarah King Gold, as quoted in a Sudbury.com news article, “Bitimagamasing roughly translates to ‘The Water That Lies Beside The Hill’ in Anishinaabewin, the language of the Ojibwe people.” I learned there had been a reclamation ceremony in 2013 and a new sign with the original name, Bitimagamasing, erected in an adjacent park. As well as a series of discussions and arts workshops, facilitated by Myths and Mirrors, related to the lake and open to the public.

On the one hand, there was my pride in my family history, after all, my “big-shot” grandfather, had named something! On the other hand, there was my mortification, renaming something is a very colonial act. And that renaming provides a very concrete example of my family’s participation, in the colonization of this continent and its peoples. Colonialism: “The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” (as defined by Google.)

To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root. – Chinese Proverb

It’s complicated and very Canadian, this family tree I inhabit. Populated by a kaleidoscope of characters: including barely documented First Nations ancestors, and my more traceable British, Irish and European forbearers: filles à marier, filles du roi, day labourers, farmers, builders, soldiers, winemakers, postmaster generals, railway men, professional hockey players, and female entrepreneurs.

It is not only the First Nations fore-bearers who have been pushed into the background of my herstory, it’s most of my great-great grandmothers, mother-in-laws, female cousins, and aunties, but something tells me that uncovering their stories is the beginning of a very rewarding journey.

When we illuminate the road back to our ancestors, they have a way of reaching out, of manifesting themselves…sometimes even physically. – Raquel Cepeda

granny and aunt lucy for blog
My grandmother, Elmira Sloan and my great-aunt, Lucy Joy, in their confirmation dresses