I flew home last month with a brick, two slate rocks and a photo.
My mother began searching my father's family ancestry in the 1980s. She searched through old microfilm in the public archives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She found relatives in Michigan with a 150-year-old family album, and she managed to find the homesite of the first Timmins in Canada in our family line.
In those years, Mom was the same age I am now -- mid-50s. It seems to be the magic age when many of us become curious and even passionate about finding our roots, where we came from, who we came from.
And so this summer, I tried to pick up where she left off. I traipsed through graveyards, taking photos of gravestones so I would have accurate birth and death dates. I transcribed my mother's notes, and those of a great aunt and a distant cousin. I searched digital archives online for birth certificates and wedding announcements and obituaries. I pieced together a family tree that goes back to 1850, when Daniel Timmins, my great-great-grandfather, arrived in Nova Scotia, and married my great-great- grandmother, Johanna McNab.
And I went to Halifax, where I met a boat captain who goes by the name of Redbeard -- honest -- who knew where to find the foundation and remnants of Daniel and Joanna's home. They had homesteaded on McNab's Island, a large island at the entrance to Halifax Harbor. (Joanna's father, a McNab, had given them land when they married.)
So Redbeard ferried my brother and me there in a small aluminum skiff, pulling up on the rocky shore of Timmins Cove. We hiked through woods now covering the former Timmins farm, made our way through tall ferns, and found the foundation. We stood in the long-ago root cellar, on top of the collapsed fireplace/hearth: moss-covered bricks and stones that had probably been laid by my great-great grandfather, from a hearth where my great-great grandmother had cooked how many meals over a span of 50-odd years? It's now just a pile of overgrown rubble and yet it's so much more.
I left with a brick and two pieces of slate.
I know from an 1871 census that Joanna and Daniel had nine children. And from family lore, passed down to my father, it seems Daniel left sometime in the 1870s to visit family in England, was lost at sea, and never returned. So my great-great- grandmother finished raising these nine children on her own, on a farm, on an island in the North Atlantic. Her children one by one left the island, until she was alone in the end in that house where I stood last month.
I have a photo, from that album from the cousins in Michigan, of Daniel and Joanna, taken in the 1850s or '60s.
But that's the sum total of all that I know about Daniel and Joanna.
I want to know so much more.
These family trees we spend so much time figuring out - with the birth and death and marriage dates - they give us an outline of our roots. But what I want to know are these ancestors' stories.
By the time most of us become interested in our family histories, the generations that could have told us some of these stories are gone. We didn't think to ask when they were still here. What a shame.
It leaves me wishing that everyone at some point would write some kind of summary of their life - even just a couple pages, to leave future generations their story - their hopes and dreams, their successes and failures, their loves and joys and sorrows. Because that's what I really want to know about my ancestors.
It's left me thinking that I should write something of my own life, to leave for those future generations when they go looking -- though it's hard to know where to leave such a thing so they can find it when they are ready.
In the meantime, I stare into the faces of Daniel and Joanna, looking for family resemblances in their descendants, knowing I carry some of their genes in my own cells, but mainly wishing I could discern the thoughts, hopes and sorrows behind their eyes.
Susan Timmins, this week's columnist, moved from Nova Scotia to Anna Maria Island 35 years ago with her husband, Sean Murphy. They opened Beach Bistro and have operated it since 1985, while raising two children, now grown, on the island. Outside of her work and family passions, Susan's volunteer time involves advocating for awareness and research funding for congenital heart defects, and helping at Camp Boggy Creek, a camp in central Florida for children with serious diseases and their families. She suggests asking your parents and grandparents to share their stories -- you might be surprised to find they were just waiting to be asked. Email Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COMING NEXT SUNDAY: Barbara Zdravecky, 30-year resident of Anna Maria Island, registered nurse, mom and CEO of Planned Parenthood, shares the final, most important gift from her mother with us.