Digging up the past: Passing the family history torch

Dear Wendy

You know that old saying that what goes around comes around? Well, it’s finally happened.

I’ve spent many years as the unofficial Irving family archivist, having caught the torch from Nana (who wasn’t even an Irving, but married one, and was a natural born archivist if ever there was one). I’m not sure why—is it because I’m the eldest, the geekiest, the one most interested in history in general?

Whatever, the point is that over the years, I have accumulated boxes and files full of notes, pictures, and family lore. (And yes, some day we really do have to get to Whistler and go through the boxes we stored there after Mum died…) A few years back, a distant cousin invited me to join Geni, a genealogy-sharing site. Their tagline is, “Everyone’s Related! Geni is solving the puzzle of genealogy by inviting the world to build the definitive online family tree.”

Well come on—how could I resist? So that’s where I began recording much of what I’d gathered.

My idea was to have a link that I could pass along to your kids and mine, in case they ever wanted to answer that age-old question, “Where do I come from?” (No, not in the birds’n’bees sense—you know what I mean.)

I admit it: I find gathering and recording family history to be a fascinating pursuit. I realize that not everyone is as keen as I am—I think my family sees it as a personality quirk of mine, this insistence on delving into past generations in search of tiny nuggets of information about people who are, well, dead.

So I try to avoid inflicting it on all and sundry. I no longer announce, apropos of pretty much nothing, that today I found a connection with Hamley’s famous London toy shop, or that I’ve been stumped lately, trying to find the identity of the anonymous woman from the Stó:lō First Nation who became our great-great-grandmother.



Our great-grandmother, Diana, daughter of B.C.’s Collector of Customs. But he never identified her mother.


And I’ve stopped trying to drag others around to graveyards, in search of obscure tombstones that might yield some tiny yet exciting tidbit of genealogical data. (Okay, I haven’t completely stopped—I still drag Mitch from time to time, but he seems pretty used to my odd obsessions, and plays along.)



Gravestone of Bertha Gugy


I’m acutely aware that people who constantly drone on about their own family history are the worst kind of bore—fascinating only to themselves—so aside from sharing the occasional juicy tidbit with Adrian and Rachel, I tend to go with the “say less” approach. (They may dispute this, but really, I only tell them a fraction of what I know. I swear!)

Lately, though, to my surprise, Rachel has been showing sparks of interest—first, when we visited Bonshaw Tower in Scotland, where the Irving name originated, and more recently when she, too, joined Geni and started discovering for herself how engrossing it could be.



Come on, our family had a tower in the Borders of Scotland. That’s interesting, right?


Granted, she’s still at the “we’re descended from famous people!” stage, which is where many young genealogists start. (I’ve tried to explain that given the growth in world population since, say, the Middle Ages, pretty much everyone is descended from famous people somewhere along the line, but I don’t want to rain too heavily on her parade.)

She’s definitely got the bug, though—a couple of weeks ago, she announced to her rather surprised history professor that they are probably related, and proceeded to show him the family linkages on Geni. And just this morning she told me she was pretty sure she’s related to one of her classmates, whose family name features prominently in our history. She’s written to the poor bemused girl, asking for details so she can track down the connection.

And apparently she was up until some godforsaken hour last night, lost in a distant corner of Scotland in the early 1000s with some dude named Beorn Biórnsson Bearsson…a 26th great-grandfather, just in case you’re interested. (Stop yawning—I heard that.)

I’m delighted, of course—who doesn’t want to feel like their kids are interested the same things they are? Though it’s a bit disconcerting to keep getting notifications from Geni whenever Rachel runs a particularly gnarly search using my account: “We’ve found your relationship to Genghis Khan! Genghis Khan (Temüjin) Borjigin, Khagan of the Mongol Empire is your fourth great aunt’s sister’s husband’s 21st great grandfather.”

Um, hurrah.

It’s fine, though. I know from experience that eventually you get past the “which famous person am I related to?” phase, and enter the “who are these people really, and how did the world look to them?” stage of genealogy.

Because that’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. Genealogy is really just history, told through the experiences of the multitudes of people who actually witnessed it. Real people, who lived, loved, fought, survived, and eventually passed their DNA along through the generations, until it came to us and our children.

It’s the web of life, and it’s a lot bigger and ultimately more important than having an ancestor whose name made it into the history books. (Even if his name really was Beorn Biórnsson Bearsson, which is totally the coolest Viking name ever.)










  1. But what about Halfdan Sveidasson, “the Aged”…. (My 34th great grandfather, for those of you who are interested. Of which I am sure there are many.) I believe this guy holds the Coolest Name Ever title, thank you very much!

  2. i see a bit of me and Gilly in Diana……thats weird to see and cool

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