The Importance of the Dash

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My Great Grandmother, Katherine Robley

The Importance of the Dash


Our daughter loves to do family research.  She has discovered a number of fascinating facts about her ancestors.  On her father’s side, her ancestors are mostly Irish, French and English.  On my side of the family, her ancestors are English, Scots, and German with a smattering of French.  She has discovered connections to some writers, inventors and poets as well as shoemakers, carpenters and shipbuilders.  It is amazing to think that our immediate ancestors lived through the plague, many wars and survived sea voyages in a time when they were very treacherous.  All that information was hidden in the dash between the dates on their tombstones.

It hasn’t been easy for her to discover these facts.  The lives of our ancestors are as much of a mystery to most of us as the future lives of our descendants.  It has required diligent searching through posted family trees, sharing info with other searchers, posting questions on the web, looking through the archives, finding old photos and even calling people with the same last name.  However difficult, she loves doing it.  It is a mystery story slowly unfolding.

The dash between dates is the mystery.  That dash is misleading in its simplicity.  A lot occurred in that space – first steps, first words, the first everything experienced as well as the last steps and the last words.  I look at the photo above, of my great grandmother in the prime of her life, all dressed in the garb of the 1860’s and I wonder what she was thinking as the photographer flashed his picture.  I know at the time she was a widow, living in San Francisco where her first husband worked with my great-grandfather as a ship builder.  His last name was McGee. He and Great-grandma had a daughter.  She and he both caught typhoid and died within days of each other.  My great- grandmother was grief-stricken.  My great-grandfather, Thomas Robley, had promised his friend that he would look after Great-grandma. so he did.  He married her and they had eight children.  The two young boys died, but the six girls thrived.  Eventually, Great Grampa and Great Grandma returned to Thomas Robley’s home in Pictou, Nova Scotia.  It was there in Pictou where the McNabb and Fraser branches of the family had arrived from Scotland on the boat, the Hector.  I know Great-Grandma also looked after my great-grandfather’s two older sisters until they died.  Did she feel resentful, or resigned?  Did she encourage the imaginations of her children?  She must have because they were accomplished story-tellers, letter writers, and amateur actresses.  We have many photos taken of them in costumes.  Did she enjoy being the lady of the house?  Did she have a sense of humour?  She would have needed one with six daughters to rear.  They all had excellent funny bones.  What were her hobbies?  What were her dreams?  You can’t read those things in the dash.  How I wish I had asked my grandmother about her mother, but of course, I was too young to know what questions would be important to me now.

So I keep the old photos and pass on as many of the stories as I remember.  And I keep diaries for my grandchildren and great grandchildren, so they will know (if they care to) about the meaning of the dash between our dates one day.

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