Friday, July 26, 2013

Living Through History

I heard a writer say on the radio the other day that history stops when we are born. Everything before is history, everything after is just our lives. He meant, obviously, that this is how we feel, not that it’s true.

Part of what I’m enjoying about researching our ancestors is the way it opens a window on the larger history of their times. It helps bring that history closer, makes it more real. This is true even when the window isn't readily apparent from the slender information available.

Take those pictures of my mother and her friends cavorting on the beach at Grand Bend in the summer of 1936. (See the first post in this blog.) Consider: while Betty and Ollie and their pals were being young and silly – in precisely the ways we might have at the same age – Spain, 4,000 miles away, was about to be convulsed in a vicious civil war.

We know in the hindsight of history that this nasty little conflict (1936 - 1939) was a precursor to the larger one to come. And we were reminded recently by newly released documentary recordings from the CBC that many Canadians fought in that war in the International Brigades and died. And the ones who came back were often blackballed and branded as “commies” because they took a stand against fascism. The same stand, the government took only a few years later.

(For clips from those recordings and a timeline of the Spanish Civil War, go to this page at the CBC website. Also highly recommended on the subject: Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls.) 

Consider this too: very soon after the pictures were taken, some or all of these beachboys would be fighting far from home, and some might not make it back. They were future canon fodder. Did they have forebodings of what was to come?

Another picture in my mother’s album brings the conflict in Spain even closer. According to the inscription on the album page, it was taken in Victoria Park in London in May 1937. The occasion was a weekend visit home by Ollie who had recently moved up north with Jack. Betty and Ollie and another friend are sitting on the edge of what looks like a fountain.

It may not be clear from the small version of the picture here, but Betty is holding a folded newspaper. And the headline on the newspaper is partly legible. In bold caps, it reads, “Besieged…” The rest is obscured. I’ve been trying to find the newspaper she was reading that day – and wondering what she might have felt, if anything, about the news from Spain.

For the headline must have been referring to Spain, either the ongoing siege of Madrid by Franco’s forces, or possibly the siege of Bilbao.

The task has turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be. I had assumed it was either the London Free Press or the London Advertiser, both newspapers with which Betty and her family had connections. (She was working as a stenographer at the Free Press by then; her father had worked for the Advertiser years before.) But the Advertiser had stopped publishing the year before, and it’s not a front page from any May issue of the Free Press – I checked the microfilm at the library.

My next guess was The Globe & Mail, although I’m not sure that in those days it had quite the profile as a national organ that it does today. In any case, it’s not the Globe either. The university library has a subscription to an online archive of the newspaper and I went through the front pages of every May issue. I’m going to try The Toronto Star and the The Toronto Telegram next.

We in the blog scribbling business typically like to write posts with a beginning, a middle and an end. But as regular readers may have noticed – and the two of you know who you are – many of my posts, including this one, are without a proper ending. That’s the frustration of genealogical and, I’m guessing, historical research in general: too often you can’t find the answers. 

Or not right away. So stay tuned; I will return to this. (Okay, I may return to it.)

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