Skip to the main content

Deciphering Family Facts from Family Lore

Our family histories are the stories that we decide to repeat and share, editing out the parts that were unclear or unseemly, and over generations those stories become our truths. But what if there was someone who could help decipher family facts from family lore?

That is exactly what Cara MacDonald, Manager of Reference Services, did for my family in October 2015. By then I had been working at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 for two months and was still learning about the Museum and the many talented people who work here. My parents and brother had come to visit from out of province and my Dad had a few questions about his family’s history, something which he thought he knew well but he wanted some gaps filled in.

Cara started with the information closest to us which we knew to be true (who my Dad’s parents were and when they were born), and then moved backwards in time with surprising speed and efficiency. In doing so, she was able to shift between the stories that were facts, with the support of documentation, and those stories that lived in more uncertain waters of family lore and beloved stories. She was able to clear up the story of my Dad’s great-uncle Patrick O’Brian (do you know how many people had that name at the turn of the 20th century? It was a quite a feat!). But what most surprised my brother, and my Dad and I as we went back and unearthed stories was when we learned about my Dad’s great-grandfather who was from Italy and we all had been told he was from Naples. My Dad had once visited Naples years ago, but his connection to the place was tenuous, as he had nothing but a story that his one of his ancestors was from there and had been a master plasterer. Cara’s sleuthing through primary source documents and pointed questions to my Dad helped her find the arrival and departure records and his family name - he did indeed depart from Naples, and his family name was Sforza. On his departure record, his hometown was listed as Revenna, not Naples.

It’s amazing how a small revelation can shift your thinking about your past and yourself. My Dad was taken aback that this story he had shared many times over, that he had family from Naples, wasn’t quite true. Naples was the point of departure, but it wasn’t the home that his Great-Grandfather had decided to leave. It was likely the easiest story to tell and the easiest place to remember - for North Americans, Naples is much more easily recognised and remembered than Revenna.

It just so happened that my parents had a trip to Italy planned the following year as my Dad had a conference in Rome, so they planned a 2 day detour to Revenna.

Looking out over roof tops of the city of Revenna, houses have shingles made of clay, and there is an ancient tower on the horizon.

I know that for my Dad there is a wonder in getting to know more about yourself and being able to tell a more precise story.

Learning and reconnecting with our past is a privilege that is not afforded to everyone. Stories and connections to where our families came from can be lost when family members were forced to leave their homes or were displaced by force, and when the truth beneath certain stories is too hard to share. Family lore sometimes exists to soften hard truths and difficult stories. All our family stories have different start dates, and all are valuable. While I can’t tell you all of the reasons why my great-great-Grandfather left Revenna and why he chose to come to Canada, but I do know where he was from and that feels really special.