Many people nowadays, myself included, are engaged in a process of soul searching – a quest to find our place in the world and to figure out the meaning of life in these modern times. For me the journey began with a trip back to my childhood hometown in Illinois, where the French-Canadian ancestors on my mother’s side of the family settled in the 1800s.
I managed to spend six weeks visiting with my grandmother and also a great-aunt, who were both in their nineties. They had razor-sharp memories and were able to help me fill in the missing information I was seeking concerning my cultural heritage. To my astonishment, my great-aunt revealed to me the existence of some family papers which extended back into the 1700s, which she had kept secret and out of family circulation since the mid-1960s.
The papers were sent to my great-grandfather from a cousin of his in Canada. Great-grandfather, who was slowly going senile, kept them in his suit pocket and carried them everywhere during his retirement years until my great-uncle decided that they were too valuable to be carried around and snatched them away. Great-grandfather sometimes retaliated by kicking my great-uncle’s leg under the dinner table.
My mom used to “grandpa-sit” him on summer days when she was 12. He would gaze out the kitchen window and make cryptic cultural-historical references like: “We really held ’em back in those times.” Later while sitting in his chair he would break out into singing “La Marseillaise.”
Was he worried about how his grandchildren were being raised without enough sense of their ethnic heritage? Was he perhaps bemoaning the coming of a new age of impersonal capitalism that he was witnessing taking place and of which he had taken part?
It’s an easy interpretation to make. Some who knew him when he operated his plumbing business said that there was a bitter side to his personality. My own grandfather thought he was too stingy in offering wages and decided to quit working for his dad. Later, Great-grandfather was forced into early retirement when a fire destroyed everything in his shop and he was not insured. No one in the community volunteered to take up a collection to help restore his business. That must have been a hard lesson learned.
He was probably being short-sighted in not having his business insured, but the larger point remains: What is this new age of capitalism that we have entered into and what does it mean for our identities and our lives?
I’m told by a distant cousin that the farmhouse described in the family papers located outside a small town in Quebec is still there. What would I find if I traveled there to see it? Would I be attracted to or feel put off by the local culture? Maybe a combination of both. A first cousin of mine moved to France and is raising two bilingual children with her French husband. For her, a trip home across the Atlantic is just a hop, skip and a jump, and the two cultures combine well together.
There is pathos in the family papers. One ancestor, a farmer, lost his wife and had to give up legal custody of all seven of their children. A complete inventory of the household was made as part of the legal process. It’s fascinating reading the inventory and trying to imagine how they had lived, more than 200 years ago.
The papers show that my ancestors were strongly moral people. I shudder to think what they would say about our world if time travel were possible. I do feel a sense of direct connection because I know now that Great-grandmother raised my grandfather to be a community leader, and my mother raised me to be like him. It’s a part of my identity that I probably couldn’t escape if I wanted to. But where do we go from here? How do we mesh the wisdom of our heritage with the concrete immediacy of modern innovations and the need for continuing change?
Along those lines, how can free enterprise, a modern innovation, also be fair and just? How can we fit the idea of voluntary trade within the much needed framework of social responsibility? We cannot allow impersonal forces of marketization, monetization and commodification to become the be-all-and-end-all of our daily lives and all of our social and educational institutions. Our forebears didn’t bear us for that, I’m sure, and we owe it to ourselves and our descendants to make sure it doesn’t happen.
BRIAN RILEY can be reached at email@example.com.