Canadian Genealogy · Family history stories

9 Reflections on 2020

The beginning of a new year is inevitably a time for looking back at the year that was. And whatever else you may think about 2020, I think I can safely say it was memorable for all of us. In this post, I’d like to ask and answer some reflective questions, and I invite you to do the same. My goal is to capture some of the memories so that years in the future I too can look back at myself and see what I thought about the events of the day, and since this is a genealogy blog, I will centre my thinking around these themes: family, history, and genealogy.

Q1: What was the single best thing that happened this year?

Gratitude.

Gratitude^2.

Here’s why.

When I embarked on being an entrepreneur in 2014, I’d no, I mean ZERO idea of how hard it would be. The tears of frustration, the fear, the silent Inbox, the worries, the utter ignorance about important subjects from sales and marketing to book keeping. Many times I thought, “Give up and get a job.” And then a couple of years ago, my first genealogy client came to me to ask if I’d consider taking on her family mystery. Suddenly, all the lessons I’d learned with my first business hugely informed the second, and genealogy became something I can do for fun and income.

(I joke that taking care of my mother’s affairs is my third (unpaid) job, but the truth is it often is as hard and takes precious time and energy. Such is life.)

Going to work for myself gave me ultimate flexibility in transitioning to working from home at a moment’s notice. Living in a large Canadian city means excellent internet connectivity. Being savers all our lives meant having a home to which my husband and I could retreat. In essence: we were able, with little effort, to pivot to doing what we do, but doing it from home.

We are home, we are safe, we are working, and we are healthy. Gratitude.

Q2: What was the single most challenging thing that happened?

We lost people we loved dearly, one to the coronavirus.

Adding to that misery, we were prevented from congregating to grieve with others as we would normally do. Technology has its limits. Tech can’t hug you.

Grief is a weird beast. I’ve lost many people: my father, grandfather, uncle, aunt, great aunt, grandmother and many cousins. For some I’ve played a part in the funeral arrangements. I’ve used my skills to craft the obituaries. For others, my contribution has been attending the funeral service. I tell you this because I want to share with you I think that traditional funeral arrangements are designed that way because the process is cathartic. Working together with family to attend to the thousands of details that are associated with a death is both deeply comforting and healing. You feel you are doing things to honour the life of the deceased and you are doing it in tandem with family. To be denied this process is, as Evelyn Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisited, ““A blow, expected, repeated, falling upon a bruise.” I have experienced the peace that even a fractured family can feel when working together for a funeral.

And now I know the grief that happens when denied the process of a funeral. It is hard. It hits like a ton of bricks. It is inexorable.

This happened in 2020.

Q3: What was the most enjoyable part of your work (both professionally and at home)?

Getting packages delivered. Kidding.

Meeting people from all over (Vancouver, Victoria, Niagara, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Hollywood, Calgary, London, UK, Seattle and so many others) and being able to shed a little light on their family puzzle. Once in a while I’d have the key brick-wall busting fact they were missing.

Here, let me tell you a story. One woman connected with me through my monthly genealogy coffee chats. She had a family story about her grandparents which, like many family stories, was a combination of facts and fiction. It turned out I had her missing puzzle piece, which I’d gathered while looking for something unrelated. We broke that brick wall in under half a hour.

This happened over and over again in 2020. It was revelatory and deeply, richly satisfying.

It tells me I’m on the right path.

Q4: What was the most challenging part of your work (both professionally and at home)?

The tech! Suddenly meetings by video became the only way to meet anyone, for any reason, and details that never mattered to me before became problems I had to fix:

  • Is my sound quality the best it could be?
  • Is our internet going to hold up with two of us running videoconferences and multiple screens?
  • What is a ring light and why do I need one?
  • What do you mean, all stream cams are on back order?
  • How do you talk someone else through Zoom settings?
  • What do you mean, you’re seeing the speaker’s side of my presentation?

And conversations like this one. “What time do you want to meet? I’ve got Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook Live.”

“Great, do you have Google Meet or Microsoft Teams?”

Because 4 options are not enough, clearly.

Q5: In what ways did you grow in your relationships with others?

I think if you spend enough time as a truly dedicated genealogist, eventually you become The Connector or Family Historian (or if you’re seriously lucky like I am, one of the family historians). This meant being able to connect people with people, knowing what I can do and what I can’t, and knowing enough folk to be able to say, “I could help you with that but my friend could do far more. Please allow me to introduce you.”

All the connections: the dozens of webinars and break out rooms, the instant messages and the Facebook groups, the emails and the calls, all of these are coalescing for me to feel I have this magical network of people who love the same things I do.

Q6: What was your single biggest time waster this year?

I haven’t been doing a very good job of logging my work.

I used to think that simply copying and pasting links and screen caps where I’d been and what I’d found was a good way to track my progress, but this year I was introduced to a method of research logging that added the essential pieces: why was this relevant, and what to do next? If I don’t think about the why, I spend far too much time mindlessly paging through records.

Yup. Guilty.

Q7: What was the best way you used your time this year?

Reading fiction.

I definitely get into a rut thinking I need to spend every spare moment learning (read: mindlessly paging) new record sets. I see now I’ve been doing this more, year over year, gradually devoting all my reading to genealogy.

As much as I love this, it’s gotta stop.

This year, I tried something new. First, a call to our favourite book store (McNally Robinson) for recommendations. I said, “I am doing research on a family in British Columbia, Canada in the mid-19th century. To help me imagine what life was like for them, please suggest stories of Canada in that time period. Also, my family has roots in China. Do you have anything that would describe the immigrant experience for Chinese in the mid-19th century?” This year, I read Tai-Pan and Noble House by James Clavell; Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; and up next on my reading list is The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill.

Now, when I think of people immigrating from Hong Kong to North America in 1850/1860, I see Dirk Struan’s sailing ships being displaced by steamships. When I think of prison, my imagination goes to Grace Marks’s cell at Kingston Penitentiary.

I am looking forward to the insights and imaginings from my next read. Cue the Kleenex.

Q8: What was the biggest thing you learned this year.

Archivists are people. Haha, again kidding.

Actually it’s this: archivists are the best resource in any archive. Not digital archives, not even the fonds themselves, but archivists. They know what’s there, they know what is not there, they know what should be there, they know what they’d like to acquire, they know which fonds have well written finding aids, and they know the finding aids that are so unhelpful that even an archivist has trouble using them. If I had to sum it up: archivists are the living, breathing finding aids in an archive.

I am too focused on doing everything myself. Maybe I like the thrill of the find. Whatever the underlying reason, I don’t reach out to archivists enough. At the risk of missing someone (and I apologize right now for any omissions) I’d like to give a shout out of appreciation to:

  • Jim Wolf, retired, New Westminster Archives, New Westminster, BC, Canada
  • Catherine Clement, former curator, Chinese Canadian Military Museum, Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • Glenn Wright (retired), Joanna Crandell (retired), Nicholas Lockhead, Natalia Diaz, Emilie Létourneau, Michel Brideau, Caitlin Webster, Library and Archives Canada
  • Lorinda Fraser, Lance Cooper, and Diane Wardle, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC, Canada
  • Jaime Fedorak, Kamloops Museum and Archives, Kamloops, BC, Canada
  • Trish Hackett Nicola, volunteer, Chinese Exclusion Act files, National Archives at Seattle, Seattle, WA, USA
  • Valerie Szwaya and Crystal Shurley, National Archives at Seattle, Seattle, WA, USA
  • Christine Pennington, Museum of Vancouver, Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • Krisztina Laszlo, Rare Books & Special Collections, UBC Library, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • Dan Farrell, City of Richmond Archives, Richmond, BC, Canada
  • Corrine Jubb, Librarian, BC Genealogical Society Library, Surrey, BC, Canada
  • Liz Hunter, New Westminster Public Library, New Westminster, BC, Canada
  • J. Jeffrey O’Brien, City of Saskatoon Archives, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Some archivists I met this year, while others are so familiar I feel they’re old friends (although I’ve met only one in person).

I owe an especial debt to Jim Wolf, who not only shared his time and expertise on many occasions in the last months before retiring, but also spent his valuable time off sending me research finds. Thank you, thank you.

Q9: Create a phrase or statement that describes this past year for you.

Expect the unexpected.

More than anything, 2020 was a year of off-the-wall surprises. Even if you tried to utterly insulate yourself from politics – a feat in itself – last year was marked by events so outside normal there was a meme for it. Did you play #2020Bingo? My last entry for bingo was a water shortage on Christmas Eve.

Thanks, 2020.

Then again, without the year from hell, we might not have this brilliant ad from Match.com. When marketing works, it’s art.

I started off the pandemic writing a newsletter for a few friends, and then… gave up. 2020’s package of events wore out my ability to be surprised, much less shocked. I worried about anti-Asian feelings (but fortunately never experienced any myself). The Big Cheeto’s twittering did a lot more to burn out my shock reactors. I used to love the news, and I had to shut it off. Then I turned it back on for the results of the US elections. So, so much happened in the world in 2020 but let me say this: There is a woman of colour who was elected VP at the White House.

Congratulations Ms. Kamala Harris!

That feels good. That happened in 2020.

Unexpected 2020 uplifts for me included getting to know my fellow members of the Ancestry Advisory Board for Canada, and taking every opportunity to try the risky tech platforms to speak. Yesterday my cousin said, “Hey, we saw you on TV.” (It was the OMNI interview.) This time last year I’d written up a calendar of goals, then ripped it up in April. Who knew by the end of the year I’d be honoured with opportunities to speak even more often than I’d hoped?

Expect the unexpected.

What will 2021 bring? I can’t wait to find out.

Afterword & thanks

First, I owe The Art of Simple for their list of 20+ questions for a new year. Thank you!

I’ve had a tough time finding creative space to reflect on the most memorable year of my life. Today is 1 Jan 2021, the sun is shining, there’s a guest dog in the house, and I am able to say 2020 is over. A key part of my hopefulness is the existence of the fastest vaccine development programs in history. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine have been approved and are being distributed to healthcare workers in my province as I write.

Hugh Laurie said it best:

I’m sure lots of people have said this already – I just haven’t seen it anywhere – but thank you to all the scientists, researchers, administrators, technicians, logisticians for bringing this extraordinary vaccine into existence.

Hugh Laurie (3 Dec 2020). Twitter @hughlaurie.

Did you know it normally takes up to 15 YEARS to develop a vaccine? This should be on your bingo card: develop a working coronavirus vaccine and distribute it before New Year’s Eve. This is what we can do, we humans, when we work together. 2020 gave us this.

Thank you to everyone that contributed directly, thank you to everyone who stayed home and out of harm’s way, and thank you to everyone who had to put on everything from a mask to full PPE (personal protective equipment) just to do their daily, essential, job. I’ll say it one more time: thank you.

6 thoughts on “9 Reflections on 2020

  1. Hi! Nice way to put to bed the nightmare of the past year. I like the tip about logging “why was this relevant, and what to do next.” I’m just starting to find a logging method that works for me. And I also LOVED that Match.com commercial when I happened upon it on TV! The bright spots of humor helped make the year bearable.

    1. I think the year was fraught with too much fear and not enough humour. And I think it took vision and guts to tackle a tricky issue like 2020 and romance – that ad hit the exact right note for me.

      I hope you do try the new research log elements. Those 2 little questions have changed my entire research process. I still surf around collections for fun, but when I’m researching, I feel I have a much better handle on where I’ve been and where I’d like to go.

  2. Beautifully said, Linda…thanks for the words. A book to add to your reading list if it isn’t already there: The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund deWaal…not fiction but a treat for a genealogist…enjoy

    1. Oh, what a wonderful recommendation. Thank you! I’m definitely going to look for that title for this year’s reading.

  3. Fantastic list…I especially loved your list of archivists at the end…I always encourage people to reach out to archives and libraries for help. Even if they don’t have the answer, they can usually guide people to where they can find the answer. Archivists don’t bite! Plus, asking questions helps them build their stats, which, in turn, can translate into increased funding (it doesn’t always, depending on financial circumstances in their community).

    1. I did not know there was a positive benefit for the archivists to respond to questions. I think I’m like most people: ask only when necessary and after you’ve thoroughly exhausted every other possibility! For this post, I reviewed most of my interactions with the various archives and realized how much aggregate knowledge I’d gained. Archivists are a true unsung treasure.

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