on recordkeeping & a sense of place

My father's father, Randolph Walrond, was born in 1899.  He was a self-taught schoolteacher, pianist, and an incredibly formal man.   I remember when I was a kid being very nervous when I was around him:  he wasn't someone who played, or joked, or laughed, and he had no time for small talk.  Our conversations were brief, usually related to his enquiring after my schoolwork, and my mumbling something in response about my studies going well.  It would've never even dawned on me to ask about his life -- I suspect he would've  found it incredibly impudent and intrusive for me to do so -- and when he died in 1998 at the age of 99 years old, I realized that I knew very little about him.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting my father, and he suddenly said, "I have something to show you."  He bolted upstairs and returned to his kitchen with a white three-ring binder, filled from cover to cover.  "Take a look at this."

Turns out my dad's younger brother, who has acted as the family historian for many years, had found my grandfather's memoirs and other personal papers:  diary entries, saved letters, and even a few receipts and ledgers.  He had painstakingly typed all of the handwritten notes, and as I slowly turned the pages, I read (in his trademark formality) about my grandfather's personal life, a life I'd never even had a glimpse of before, in colonial Trinidad in the early 20th century.  There were entries of evenings hanging out with his friends (some of them with hysterically funny nicknames), all written as simply a record that the event occurred, rather than a retelling of amusing conversations.  There was the story of how he bought his mother, my great-grandmother, a house, thanks to the benevolence of a British colonial who assisted him in obtaining a loan at the bank.  There were stories that hinted at possible girlfriends my Grandad had before meeting my grandmother.  And finally, my favourite:  a copy of the handwritten letter from my grandmother's father to him, giving Grandad his blessing to ask my grandmother to marry, and stipulating that the wedding date be set "forthwith." 

All of these papers, letters and notes presented a side of my grandfather I could've never imagined.  The documents feel like a secret treasure, and I couldn't believe my father's (and my) luck in being able to read them.  And suddenly, keeping a record of my life never seemed more important.

To be clear, this isn't because I think my life is so incredibly important as to have value to the world at large.   But reading my grandfather's papers felt like such a gift:  not simply the historical glimpse into what life was like in Trinidad in the 1920s, 30s and later, but because of the sense of place it gave me to my own life:  it was as if I could suddenly understand how my father grew up, why he made the choices he made as he was coming up, and in turn, why I was raised in the way I was, and why certain values are important in my life.  

I've written before that I felt the need to start printing out photographs in order to have some sort of record (since technological advances change so rapidly -- floppy disk, anyone?)  but honestly, I've not been very good at it thus far.  However, a few days ago, I stumbled onto Printstagram -- a service that makes photo books from your Instagram feed, including your photo captions.  At this point, I have no idea what the quality of Printstagram is like; still, I've ordered a book of my favourite January photos, so I'll let you know how it goes.  I'm planning on creating one book a month for the whole of 2014 -- longer, if I manage to keep it together.

Because I love the idea of my grandchildren stumbling across my printed-Instagram-photo-journals in the early twenty-second century, and discovering what my life was like in the early twenty-first century.  It's sort of cool to think I might have a hand in giving my future family a sense of place.


Song:  This must be the place (naïve melody), as performed by Shawn Colvin