To wake up one day and realize both your elderly parents have passed on leaving you an orphan can be a shocker. Almost as jarring is the day you realize you and your siblings now comprise the oldest generation in your family.
This revelation came to me last week when my brother – four years younger – phoned to ask how to pronounce our grandmother’s first name.
Grandma and Grandpa immigrated to Canada from Goteborg, Sweden in 1907 when our mother was a child. As in many families, even Dad referred to Grandma as Grandma unless he was speaking to Mom, then it was, “your mother”.
Grandma’s first name was Elin. As one of the older kids, I remember that after Grandma died when I was seven, if we were looking through a photo album or such, Mom pronounced it A-lynn.
I doubt my younger siblings heard her name ever or at least very seldom.
My brother first checked with cousin Ellen for her pronunciation of Grandma’s name. Ellen was named after Grandma; she would have Elin pronounced exactly as her own.
Her father, Uncle Jack, also was born and raised in Sweden. Yet when it came to naming his first daughter, he wanted her to have a truly Canadian name, therefore Ellen, not Elin pronounced A-lynn. (Back in the early 1900s, new immigrants to Canada were eager to adopt Canadian ways and customs, unlike today when so many immigrants will go as far as to the Supreme Court in an effort to bend Canadian customs to match those of their original country.)
I have only my memory to guide me. And I’ll stack that against my cousin’s version for the simple reason Ellen grew up in Vancouver, never had the opportunity to meet Grandma. She missed the experience of spending time with a warm woman I remember as always wearing a fresh white apron with her hair held back by a knotted dish towel, and flour up to the wrists as she braided cookie dough on a smooth wood surface.
So where do you go for a tie-breaker opinion in a case such as this when aunts, uncles, and even older friends are gone?
My generation has the final word. Our grandparents weren’t writers who might have squirrelled away a memoir showing pronunciation accents.
Memoirs, even hand written letters are a treasure of obscure details. I encourage families to save them.
I also learned how emails speed up research.
My sister spends time visiting her town’s elderly. Recently she met Agnes who taught me grade seven in our two-room school and emailed a photo of her to me, to a cousin and to our three brothers.
Do we remember Agnes? I do indeed, for one upsetting math lesson. The concept of that class was totally obscure to me. No matter how Agnes tried to explain it, I couldn’t grasp it. She tried different approaches, raising her voice with each version, her fair skin turning redder and redder while my brain blanked more with each rising decibel.
Oddly, the following year as I listened to her teach the new grade sevens, the concept came to me clear as she could have wished.
The cousin guessed Agnes to be well into her 90s.
Our oldest brother (no athlete) recalls Agnes pitching baseballs to him, then covering her mid-section; that’s where his bat always aimed the balls.
We considered the framed painting of a horse team hanging on the wall behind Agnes. The work of classmate Bill Brownridge? Or Allen Sapp? Neither. It’s a jigsaw puzzle.
Our exchanges took less than two hours.
Claudette Sandecki tracks her family’s past from her home in Thornhill, B.C.