I never knew my grandfather, my dad's dad.
He died when my dad, the thirteenth of fifteen children from Montreal, was only two. I think that because his dad left him at such an early age, my dad had built a lot of resentment towards him. My dad rarely spoke of him, and when he did, he was full of vitriol, brimming with anger.
"He was a chirper," my dad would say, referring to our British ancestry. "The best thing he did was drop dead."
Those were my dad's actual words.
My dad and I had a bit of a falling out, during the last years of his life, but even in my lowest feelings for him, I never hated him, never wished him dead. It would crush me if I ever drove my own kids to feeling that way towards me.
I didn't even know my grandfather's name until I was in my mid-30s, when my wife was carrying our first child. We were at my Uncle Don and Aunt Flora's house, at a gathering to remember the passing of yet another relative. It was the first time that I even saw a photograph of my grandfather. He was with his wife, my grandmother, on their honeymoon, in Niagara Falls. The faded photo showed the two, well-dressed, possibly on the Maid of the Mist or another sightseeing boat, the Rainbow Bridge overhead, in the background.
The year was 1920, or so the inscription on the back said.
"His name was Sydney," my uncle told me as we looked at the photo.
"That's a name that Lori and I are considering for the baby," I said, surprised at the news.
"It's also my middle name," said Uncle Don.
The name became one of the top-two choices for our unborn daughter. The name lost out, after holding my first-born for the first time, staring at her tiny face. "She doesn't look like a Sydney," I told myself.
This week, I found myself sitting in my aunt and uncle's dining-room table for the first time in more than a decade. The years had gone quickly and, even though we live less than a 10-minute drive from each other, we seemed to have lost contact. But my aunt had called me, told me that she had received some old photographs, including some from my mom and dad's wedding, and would I be interested in having them?
Many of my aunts and uncles, I haven't seen in decades; others, I saw at a Brown family reunion before my dad died, before my kids were born or even expected. I enjoyed seeing photos of them from when I was a small boy. I saw cousins that I didn't know I had or didn't remember.
It makes me sad to realize that I know so little of my extended family, not just on the Brown side but on my mother's side as well. I am in touch with a couple of cousins, through Facebook, but it's not enough. I want to feel like I belong, that I'm a part of the family, that I'm not a black sheep like my dad was.
I was given the photo of my grandparents on their honeymoon, and I was allowed to borrow another photo, one I hadn't seen before.
It's of Sydney, my grandfather, during World War I. He's in uniform, standing next to a seated soldier. It was a new aspect that I had learned about my ancestor, one that should not have surprised me. As a young man, living in England at that time, of course he would have fought in The Great War.
I want to learn more. I plan to investigate.