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COLUMN: Your own family story is a priceless gift

Well-connected genealogy research centre located at Cloverdale branch of Surrey Libraries
Columnist Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is giving her grandkids, brothers Kaden and Kainan Munro, a priceless gift this Christmas—a glimpse into their family past. (Photo submitted: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis)

The other night a rather cryptic text popped up on my phone.

“Gran! What’s my bloodline? Are we Gaelic?”

Since Kainan, my 25 year-old grandson, rarely texts or calls, I was intrigued by both the communiqué and the question.

Years ago I’d been surprised when he—a macho 6’3” mixed martial arts enthusiast—had shown a sincere interest in some heritage family documents I’d shown him during an Alberta family visit.

My texted reply this time was, “Gaels (people from whom you’re descended) spoke Gaelic (language). Why?” To which he responded: “I just need to know my bloodline.”

Curious about the inferred desperation (had some dread disease materialized?), I mulled over the puzzle before texting again the following day. “Would you like to take a DNA test? If so, you have to actually phone me!” I’m aware DNA tests aren’t popular with everyone, so I needed to ensure we first discussed the ramifications.

During the subsequent phone call we agreed his Christmas present this year would be Ancestry DNA tests for him and his younger brother, Kaden (20), if they both were clear on the procedure. “Just spit into the tubes as instructed when they arrive from Ancestry, mail them in the pre-addressed envelopes to a lab in Ireland, then wait six weeks for the online results,” I instructed.

Within a few days the company’s seasonal sale magically popped into my in-box, the kits were ordered, and a week later the kits arrived in the mail. We now await their “bloodline” revelations with bated breath.

Being atrocious at buying suitable Christmas gifts, both the boys and I were satisfied. Well, until we ascertain if the “bloodline” mysteries are suitably dramatic for their tastes.

A few years ago during a lunch with two friends, the subject of genealogy arose. Bonnie had had her DNA done, but she declined to share the results until Carol and I had our test results back. We agreed to meet twelve months hence to reveal all, which is exactly what we did. Being well-versed in my own lineage, I’d assumed I was Scottish to the back teeth with some French Huguenot overtones. I hadn’t considered the impact of the Highland clearances and the Black Isle’s close proximity across the stormy sea to Ireland.

Since then, through Ancestry, a couple of long-lost second cousins have materialized. One, living in Cornwall, I was delighted to hear, had found a Black Press Media article online I’d written telling the story of visiting my great-grandfather’s grave in Gartly, Aberdeenshire. The headstone poignantly stated, “Here lies the dust of John Munro and one of his children.” Risquehouse Farm, the Munro homestead, was across the lane. My story had inspired her to take her 90 year-old mother on a road-trip in search of the same sites.

Locally, we’re blessed to have a comprehensive and well-connected genealogy research centre on the second floor of the Cloverdale branch of Surrey Public Libraries. An appointment with librarian Carmen Merrells or research assistant Jaimie Brown may help solve many long-lost family mysteries in North America or abroad. Cloverdale’s Ancestry membership enables library patrons online site access. There’s also access to other genealogy centres globally, including Halifax’s Pier 21 records which was rather like Canada’s Ellis Island.

If DNA and research are not your forte, it’s not too late to plow through all those old family photos, compile (either with originals or by scanning) a heritage family album and give your own one-of-a-kind book to a family member. Like our Kainan, you might be surprised to discover “bloodlines” are more in demand than you know.

In addition to pictures, be sure to include your own anecdotes, recipes or bits of trivia. My mother and her family shared many stories with me, but I’m finding that some aren’t as accurate as I (or they) had assumed. I also wish I’d asked more questions of all the family. Dead men (or women) really do tell no tales, so gather them now.

My mother recorded her family history on a series of tapes. The problem is listening to her voice reduces me to tears so I still haven’t worked my way through all of them. In addition, the tapes need to be transferred onto whatever new technology will preserve them, so that has to be done, too.

Newspaper clippings are gold. Sometime ago I came across my godmother Ursula Constable Maxwell’s obituary in The Telegraph. I was definitely entertained to discover that, “Young Ursula was first educated by French governesses at home and then, haphazardly, at convent schools, from 11 of which she was expelled.” I hasten to add that, despite this stunning revelation, Ursula’s independent nature eventually lead her to a stellar career in British business and the arts.

So, perhaps this Christmas or Chanukah you might consider sharing the gift Amazon doesn’t sell—your own priceless family story. I’m still awaiting the results of my grandsons’ tests. Kainan hopes to be confirmed as a Viking. We may have to dig a little deeper for that! In the meantime, may your holidays be peaceful and plentiful, and to the Scots in the crowd—Happy Hogmanay!

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the former owner/managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at

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