hiraeth: (n.) a deep longing or homesickness for a place to which you cannot return, a place that maybe never was . . .
My Story: The Waywardness of Names
At the turn of the 20th century, my dad’s grandmother married a man twenty-five years her senior. Robert Park was an Irish farmer in the heartland of Southern Ontario, a widower needing a mother for his young son John Vileroy Park. This much I knew when I began researching my Park family history, but try as I might I couldn’t find my great-grandmother Tina Williams in any record prior to her marriage.
In response to my questioning, my grandmother said, somewhat vaguely, that Tina was the youngest of a large family and when her father died, they shipped her off to live with a family named Playton or Plaxton, a relation, but not as close as an aunt. But Playton, Plaxton, or Williams, I could not find Tina’s family.
For years, I kept returning to this puzzle, gnawing away at Tina’s surname, for how could someone just three generations removed from me appear at the point of her marriage, unrooted in either place or family? Was my Scottish Presbyterian grandmother, who tended to see scandal in almost anything different, right? Was Tina illegitimate!
Through sheer persistence in scanning the records, I eventually found Tina on the 1881 census listed as Willins, not Williams. At first, I thought I’d found a new child in the family for here was no Tina, but a "Matalda." Fortunately for me, Matalda S Willins was enumerated twice in 1881—and on the second census she was living with a Plaxton family: her not-as-close-as-an-aunt-relation was a woman named Catherine Plaxton. In the space of a few days, between April 5th and April 19th in East Vespra, Simcoe North, Matalda S Willins had become Matilda Plaxton.
By 1891, she was again Matilda Williams and listed now as a domestic working on the Plaxton farm. Two years later, Tina took her identity into her own hands, rejecting her past as a poor dependent relation by adopting a new name. She replaced the pedestrian beat of “Matilda” with the lighthearted lilt of “Christina Priscilla.”
Yet, in the way that old Scottish-Presbyterians, and government officials, have in cutting one down to size, the romance of Tina’s new name was sabotaged, by life and by family connection, as the lyrical Christina Priscilla became first a diminutive, Tina (or Tena depending on who was spelling it), Janie on her marriage certificate, and then just plain old “Maw Park” to all who knew and loved her.
Ironically, in the search for a family's lineage, I may have verified Tina’s surname but this line comes to a complete stop with the name of her father, for could there be a more common name for an English, perhaps a Welsh, man whose roots have not been carefully documented than "David Williams"?
Anne Shirley's Story: if you'll only let me tell you what I imagine about myself . . .
Fifteen years after my great-grandmother changed her name, Lucy Maud Montgomery presented the quintessential Canadian literary orphan. Anne Shirley comes to Green Gables, Prince Edward Island, insisting on glamorizing her name to counter imaginatively the harsh reality of her life as an orphan and a domestic.
At the very least, Anne tells us, Ann was spelled Anne-with-an-“e,” but at one point in her narrative she imagines herself as “Cordelia.” Like my great-grandmother Tina, Anne’s escape from her orphan status is made, not through dependency, claiming a patriarchal lineage, but agentially, through the act of self-naming.
In a chapter entitled “Anne’s History,” Anne gives us what she knows of her genealogy, her identity all tied up in the interplay between the facts of her family’s history and the play of imagination:
“Oh, what I know about myself isn’t really worth telling,” she answers Marilla’s command to tell what she knows of herself. “If you’ll only let me tell you what I imagine about myself you’ll think it ever so much more interesting.”
But Marilla does not want any of Anne’s “imaginings. Just you stick to bald facts,” she replies tartly. “Begin at the beginning. Where were you born and how old are you?”
In recounting her history, however, Anne cannot stick to the bald facts.
And like Anne of Green Gables, neither can many of the writers of genealogical-fiction, who are taken by the urge to write their own family into literature, stick to the bald facts.
There is a whole body of Canadian literature fulfilling this urge to record a writer’s genealogy. And just as they do in Anne Shirley's story, in the genre of genealogical-fiction the facts of blood lineage come coloured with the ink of imagination. In these pages, I aim to explore and share the genealogical thoughts and themes threaded into Canadian literature. I also aim to share techniques for writing one's family history using literary prompts to help flesh out the bare documentary bones of name, date, and location.
Matilda S Williams/Christina Priscilla Plaxton Williams was born before the Canadian government began recording vital statistics. Her name appears on her marriage certificate as "Janie Plaxton Williams." The official transcription of this document records it as "Rena Blacksom Williams."