As I talk with family members and other genealogists, I get
the impression that most people have a relatively limited memory of past
events, whether they have to do with ancestors or the environment around us.
We all remember most of what happened in our lifetimes,
although they become more indistinct the further back we go. Research indicates
people have no real memories from before they were about seven years old.
Because the brain was still developing, there was no facility to store and then
retrieve memories from earlier years. Photographs of us may prompt some
memories of some events but they will be limited to how those activities
stimulated us (For example: Were we excited, scared or happy at the time?)
I keep telling myself that I remember being on a scooter
with Mom and Dad when I was just three or four, but it is possible I tricked my
memory by seeing this photograph of us.
Memories of schools and classrooms may be etched in our
minds as they were from times when we were stimulated to learn new things and
make new friends. We may also have retained our old report cards that remind us
of specific activities and achievements. And there are the ubiquitous class
photos to jog our memories of who was in our classes from year to year, like
this one of my big sister Lynn, with her grade four class taken in 1950.
Of course, we have no memories of our parents’ lives since
we were not around then. What we may know about them, or their parents would
have been passed down to us again perhaps with the use of photos to illustrate
who they were, what they looked like and what activities or occupations they
were involved with. We might be lucky if stories were told to us about people
from earlier generations. It is rare that anyone actually met their
Here is a photo from 1920 of three generations with my father (on the
right), his father (in the centre) and his grandfather (on the left). Dad did
remember much of the work on the farm where he grew up.
With regard to historical events, we are mostly at the mercy
of what might have been taught in school. And those lessons will be dependent
on where we lived and the importance that was placed on whether local, national
or international events were emphasized. I remember learning about the famous
people who explored Canada from the 17th century onward: Samuel de
Champlain, John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, David Thompson, Anthony Henday,
Alexander McKenzie, and many others. I was intrigued by their exploits that
their names stuck with me.
Growing up I learned a bit about the Depression and the 2nd
World War by hearing how they impacted my parents and grandparents. It was not
until I began doing genealogical research and assembling information about my
ancestors that I was able to relate the lives of my ancestors to these kinds of
In my discussions and talks, I have discovered that there is
much less knowledge about natural history than about political or social history.
The impact of Mother Nature is a complete enigma to many
people. We may remember a particular snowstorm or heat wave that we lived
through or have heard about similar weather conditions that our parents
experienced. People have no personal reference points further back than a
couple of generations. What they may understand about natural history may have been
obtained from studies of such subject matter in post-secondary school programs
– like I did.
Most people are surprised, if not shocked, for example, to
learn that it is not as warm as it has been in previous centuries, or that
storms are no more severe than they have been in the past, or even that about
1,000 years ago mountain glaciers were further back in the canyons that they
I frequently come across references and quotes in old
publications that people were experiencing storms, floods or drought conditions,
as examples, that were “unparalleled in history” according to residents of the
time. Such quotes go back centuries indicating that each generation had its own
frame of reference to measure the scope of events.
It’s all still a learning process, of course, but I maintain
it is important to understand that natural phenomena had significant impacts on
lives and livelihoods in the past. What we might remember from our own
experiences of the seasons, for example, may have very limited application to
what went on many decades ago.